MENTION THE TERM “MODULAR housing” to the average person and one of two things will happen: If you're lucky, you'll get a quizzical look of ignorance; a more common reaction, however, may be one of condescension. In the eyes of the public, the reputation that precedes modular housing is not a good one.

“One of the biggest misconceptions the modular home building industry faces is from consumers,” says Chad Harvey, deputy director of the Modular Building Systems Association, in Harrisburg, Pa. “They believe that it's a trailer home. The image isn't as bad as before, but it's still a problem.”

In recent years, however, modular housing has become more hip as the topic has grown legs in the mainstream press. It has received extensive coverage in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. Hailed as the design and cost alternative to the overwrought pastiche that passes for mainstream housing, modular (often called prefab by the design cognoscenti) has experienced a rebirth, and architects and manufacturers say it's about time.

MODULAR NATION What exactly is a modular house? For one thing, it is not a trailer. Constructed on a nonremovable steel chassis, a trailer is considered a manufactured home. Though a modular home comes from a factory, it is built into modules using stick-framing techniques, says the Building Systems Network (BSN), a Gainesville, Ga., outfit that assists modular builders with lead generation, merchandising, and marketing. The home is then carried in sections to the site, where a builder assembles it on a traditional foundation.

“As far as what we offer, there is no distinguishing difference from a site-built product,” says Grant Smereczynsky, CEO of BSN and modular builder BSN Homes, also in Gainesville. “Every code and every system is the same as [with] a stick-built home.”

A site-built house and a modular home are at once similar but different. Both use the same codes and methods, but modular is built to a higher standard—at least in theory. “It is strong and rigid,” says Palo Alto, Calif., architect Stephen Atkinson. “It is built from the inside out, is amazingly airtight, and has a high R-value.”

Because modular homes are built under controlled conditions, components are never exposed to the elements, so lumber products remain completely dry, says Pieter Venema, president of Royal Homes, an Ontario, Canada, custom builder that uses modular components in 99 percent of its homes.

“The outside wall of a site-built house is 2x4, but in a modular house it is 2x6,” Harvey adds. “Our drywall is glued and screwed, the houses are structurally sound, and you don't get as many hairline cracks in the corners.” The floors in a modular home are consistent, the frames are truly square, and the paints and finishes are applied in a controlled environment and are therefore perfect, the industry claims. Moreover, because a modular house is shipped and craned into place, it must be able to withstand transportation and the installation process. “There are about 10 percent more materials in a modular home,” Harvey says.

Perhaps the biggest advantage modular has over traditional site building is the speed with which a house can be completed. “The cost savings, the mass production, and the repetitive nature of the process are the big benefits,” says Atkinson, who in 2003 designed a modular demonstration home in the atrium of the Mall of America for Budget Living magazine. The house was completed in seven days.

DESIGN DIRECTION The module-based system coupled with the manufacturing efficiency often result in a house that is cheaper for the builder and the home buyer. “The key for the builder is job control, efficiency, and the ability to complete the [home buying] transaction quicker,” Smereczynsky says, adding that “the time line for a job might be about 30 days.” It can also cost less: Abuilder might pay about $40 to $50 per square foot, and the consumer's price might start at around $80 per square foot and rise with customization.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Harrisburg, PA.