Not far into the judging for this year’s Builder’s Choice awards a juror pointed to a project folder he’d just reviewed. “You should check out that one,” he said, his eyebrows rising to communicate his intrigue.
The project looked inauspicious at first—a series of simple rectangular structures with lovely corrugated-steel roofs on a hillside. A closer inspection revealed that the project is a family compound, and that the three buildings were built in a factory then dropped responsibly on a beautiful Texas Hill Country site. Some artful appendages were built on site to bridge the modules. What an ingenious solution to the need for affordable yet customized housing.
A big part of the judge’s attraction, though, was the modular component. What is it about factory-built housing, though it continues to constitute a small percentage of the new homes built in America each year, that continues to fascinate both the lay public (witness Dwell magazine) and professionals? There’s something magical about the notion of popping perfect home boxes out of a factory and onto a homesite. It’s like the future has arrived.
We know the industry is fascinated with the potential of modular construction. In the old days, the phone used to ring off the hook every time we published a good-looking one. “Where can I buy it?”, builders would ask. More often than not they would be upset to find out the source was in far-away New Hampshire and that shipping costs would consume any potential profit on a deal. We learned to publish the source.
We weren’t surprised to learn that modular housing stories are among our most popular online. The users of www.builderonline.com can’t seem to get enough. We’ve satisfied their curiosity in recent months with stories about a good-looking, Energy Star–ready modular home from Excel in Camp Hill, Pa., that costs less than $100,000; an outfit called Blu Homes that has tweaked architect Michelle Kaufman’s modular Glidehouse designs and rolled them out nationally; and German modular home company, Huf Haus, that’s now doing business in the U.S. We even built out a special “modular” tab on the site.
Architects seem particularly enamored of factory-built housing, drawn by the prospect of control over finished construction. But the lure is strong for builders, too. As architect Russell Versaci, who recently designed a Pennywise series of homes for modular construction, told us several months ago: “Think of the modular factory as one mega-subcontractor that delivers 80 percent of the job complete, handles all the labor hassles, and carries the bulk of the liability.”
That value proposition hits some very hot buttons. But it raises an inevitable question: With all the interest in going modular, how come the industry seems to be suffering along with everyone else? Modular construction accounted for less than 1 percent of new homes built in 2010, down from 2.4 percent in 2004, according to the NAHB Research Center’s “Annual Building Practices Survey.”
One answer is that the experience of working with modular homes doesn’t always equal the dream. Even modular manufacturers warn that foundations need to be as level as a billiard table when the boxes arrive. And despite all the seeming bargains on the market, modular construction is often more expensive than traditional stick framing.
Part of that is because stick framers, lest we forget, need to put bread on the table. Builders may get a higher-quality home with more structural integrity when they buy from a factory. But if they put a comparable structure out to bid to hungry framers, roofers, electricians, and plumbers, those subs will do whatever they can to get the work.
We ask that you forget about the hard questions for a while. Admire our project of the year, a modular home compound, as a cost-effective response to the desire for a custom home in a rural setting.
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