Modular going mainstream?

Benefits make prefab home construction more attractive

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 14, 2010

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Benefits make prefab home construction more attractive

Mary Umberger
Inman News

Modular construction long has suffered from being the Rodney Dangerfield of homebuilding -- in many quarters, it gets no respect. That's a bad rap that bothers Sheri Koones a lot.

"There's this myth that modular homes are inferior," she said. "In fact, most modular home are built better -- a lot better -- than most site-built homes."

Giving modular and other types of prefabricated construction methods, their due has become something of a crusade for Koones, who has written several books on the subject. The latest is "Prefabulous + Sustainable" (Abrams), a glossy coffee-table tome filled with photography of stunning houses, many of them modular and all of them prefabricated in some form.

She suspects modular homes will find a wider audience when the housing industry emerges from its current doldrums because they're quick to build (cost savings) and more environmentally friendly than traditional construction.

Five things you ought to know about modular construction:

1. Think "building blocks." Modular homes are built in factories, with individual rooms -- that is, modules -- assembled indoors in a factory-like setting, transported on flatbed trucks and joined together on a foundation, like building blocks, she said.

Some modular homes are built nearly complete in the factory -- with such features as kitchens already installed. In other modular constructions, the factory just builds the shell of the rooms (with insulation, wiring, etc.) and the interiors are finished on site.

Modular homes have been around for decades, Koones said, though until recently they weren't widely embraced -- for good reason.

"They were very boxy and odd-looking, and that was the norm for a long time and it was what gave people the idea that modular was cheap and ugly," she said.

Some people who are vaguely aware of modular homes associate them with mobile (or manufactured) homes, which are built to the standards of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Modular homes are built to meet local building codes.

But construction techniques and design have taken a significant turn for the better, she said. They can be built in any style and size. These days, a modular home on a street filled with site-built (traditionally constructed) homes would be hard to spot, she said.

2. The pluses of factory construction: Industry estimates on costs savings for modular construction vary widely. The Modular Building Systems Association, a trade group, estimates that in an area with average construction-labor costs, a homeowner can expect to save about 5 percent over a comparable site-built house for the part of the house built by the manufacturer and general contractor.

However, the group points out that on-site costs will be the same, regardless of the manner of construction, as the general contractor will charge the same amount to clear the land, drill a well, install a septic system, install a driveway, build a foundation, landscape the property, etc.

Nonetheless, Koones said assembling the modules in a controlled, indoor environment can cut building costs and save time because the technique generates efficiencies.

"If a factory is building a lot of houses, a plumber can come in and do House 1 and House 2 and House 3 without traveling," Koones said.

The modules often can be completed in a week, she said. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that once the modules are set on their foundation at the home site, a local builder could finish many projects in roughly a month, depending on the size and scope of the house.

3. The "green" angle: The modular factories today tend to employ energy-efficient technology, and a considerable amount of the waste that's generated in traditional construction is avoided, Koones said.

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