Russell D. Busa
Shelly Harrison Russell D. Busa

Prefabricated custom homes still seem futuristic to a lot of people. But to Russell D. Busa, they’re business as usual. “I grew up in the building business with my dad,” says Busa, who is based in Burlington, Mass. “We were doing modular and panelized houses 25 years ago. People think this is a new thing, but it’s not.”

Busa started his own custom building company, Sterling Homes Development Corp., in 1994, after eight years at his father’s design/build firm. At first, Sterling did mostly stick-built and panelized projects, but over the past six to eight years Busa has seen a distinct shift toward modular homes. These aren’t remotely similar to manufactured housing; Busa’s high-end custom residences run anywhere from $150 to $300 per square foot. They’re built in a factory and craned onto the site, atop a standard foundation. And they currently make up about 80 percent of the homes Busa builds, with most of the other 20 percent going to stick building. “We’re doing very little panelized right now,” he says.

In Busa’s experience, modular’s advantages are hard to beat. “Not only does it have a quick turnaround time for the client, it’s also quick for the neighborhood,” he says. That’s important in the older, relatively dense suburbs of Boston, where he tends to work. He recently built a custom home in Wellesley, Mass., in four months. Had it been stick-built, he estimates it would have taken one to two years to construct. Building speed also helps reduce concerns about weather impacting the site work. And it cuts down on inconvenience to the clients, who may have to rent or stay with family members while their home is being constructed.

Lower cost is another factor, but Busa cautions that while modular can be cheaper than site-built construction, it’s not as inexpensive as many believe. “One of the most common misconceptions out there is that modular should be 20 to 25 percent less. In custom homes, that is very misleading.” A more accurate figure, he adds, would be an average of 7 percent to 10 percent in material savings. The increased building speed also can provide a cost advantage to customers who are spending money to rent temporary housing. Busa says using panelized construction will realize savings of about 3 percent to 5 percent over the cost of building on site.

Sterling has worked with the same modular and panelized factory, Preferred Building Systems in Claremont, N.H., since 2007. “When I get a number from the factory, it’s locked in,” Busa says. “With stick-built, there are a lot more unknowns.” Claremont is a two and a half hour drive from Boston, and he often takes clients for a factory visit so they can see exactly where their home will be made and who will be making it. The factory acts as a subcontractor, and has no direct interaction with the client. It takes care of transporting the house modules to the site, and then Busa and his team join them to one another. Sterling also handles demolition (most of Busa’s projects are on teardown sites), site excavation, exterior stairs, connecting wiring and plumbing, finish flooring, interior painting, and landscaping.

Along with an increase in modular custom homes, Busa also has seen growth in the remodeling sector. The company has two stick-built renovations on the books for the coming year, as well as some smaller additions. Sometimes modular or panelized construction can make sense with remodeling, especially on a larger project. But, as Busa explains, “if it’s just a small room, it’s counterproductive from a price standpoint to build it in the factory.”

Like most of the custom builders who are still in business, Busa has had to change some of his processes. “Before, I could meet with a client maybe twice and they’d be ready to build. Now I spend months with a client before they’re ready. It’s a much more competitive market out there than I can ever remember.”

He’s also noticed that customers are more interested in conserving energy than in the past, a development that dovetails nicely with his modular work. Preferred Building Systems emphasizes energy efficiency, building homes with an average HERS rating of 57. Busa thinks that if he could find a client who wanted to invest in solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling, he could even get a home down to net-zero energy.

Business has been slower than it was during the boom, but Busa still managed to build five custom houses in 2010 and 2011. He also found time to start a division devoted solely to redoing residential roofs. “It’s been an asset for the company financially, and we sometimes get other jobs from roofing projects,” he says. “It’s nice to have the smaller projects to backfill in between other jobs.”

Additionally, Busa has started blogging as a way to stay in touch with past, present, and potential clients. Home maintenance advice and tips on topics such as green building and remodeling create a helpful blog environment rather than a sales-oriented tone. “In this recession, the successful builders are able to convey a level of trust,” he says. “As long as you provide them with that trust, that’s the key.” For him, having the ability to use different types of techniques to build a custom home is part of that trust. “We can offer people a variety of different ways to meet their goals.”