Some Assembly Required

Say “modular” to most people and their first reaction will most likely be one of two things: “Aren’t they the same as a mobile home?” or “They’re just rickety cookie-cutter box houses.” But skeptics take one look at Kevin and Ann Attar’s 6,500-square-foot home on Lake Winnipesaukee’s exclusive Governor’s Island, where Gatsby-esque homes with manicured lawns command envious views, and they fall silent. “We’re thrilled with it,” says Kevin, who owned Surge Industries in Londonderry until recently selling the company (he’s still with them, but “semi-retired” now). “No one can believe it’s modular, even in my own family. I defy anyone to come in and know that it’s modular just by looking at it.” If that’s not enough to convince you, try this: Bob Vila, top brass of home improvement, just featured a modular home in the Berkshires on his show, “Home Again.”

Dispelling Prefabricated Notions

Modular, or prefabricated, homes make up just about 20 percent of the houses built in the U.S. — mostly in the Northeast, where the climate isn’t favorable to year-round building. By contrast, 90 percent of Sweden’s homes are modular. Modular construction is still in its relative infancy, having started in the early ’70s. Though some companies got their start by building mobile homes (technically called “manufactured housing”), dispelling the myth of the modular home as the double-wide trailer is one of the biggest marketing challenges for the industry.

“I’ve been in this business since 1972,” says Paul Fournier, a builder in Meredith who worked with the Attars on their house. “It started as a way to produce low-income housing, but things have changed tremendously since then,” he says. Now most of the modular houses he works on are like the Attars’ — large-scale modular mansions with quality fixtures and features. He says he still gets tongue-in-cheek comments about modular homes, but attitudes are changing. People magazine even called recently to interview Fournier for a story on modular construction. Little by little, a growing number of consumers — like the Attars — is finding out that this type of home offers quality, cost savings, and convenience. Heck, even George H. W. Bush had one built on his property in Maine while he was president.

Building Inside a Building

From a platform overlooking the Epoch Homes factory in Pembroke, sections (or modules) of home number 3622 are making their way down the assembly line. Right now it’s just in the framework and decking stage. Workers with nail guns buzz around, music blares and hacksaws whir. Everyone is in constant motion.

Farther down the line, modules for other houses are covered in white paper. Men on metal stilts are puttying the interior walls with joint compound. And still farther, other workers are spraying paint on the walls. It’s all happening in assembly-line fashion. Picture Mardi Gras floats without all the glitz. In about two-and-a-half weeks, house 3622 will have made its way down this line and its pieces will be loaded on a truck to the lot where it will be assembled and bolted together on the foundation. Within a few weeks, the owners will move in.

Factory-built homes like this are constructed indoors in a climate-controlled atmosphere, where they’re not exposed to the elements for the six months to a year that a stick-built home takes. After all, say modular proponents, you wouldn’t build a car outside in a field, so why would you build your single biggest investment under those conditions? “Your home is worth 10 times what your car is, it’s an appreciating asset, and you’re never going to throw it away,” says Jack Donnelly of Customized Structures Inc., a modular manufacturing company in Claremont. “So many things that we do to modular homes make it stronger, tighter and more energy efficient. It really makes absolute sense to build it this way.”

And in New Hampshire, where the weather is undesirable for building for a good chunk out of the year, factory-built homes can be constructed year-round. There’s no down time for workers, no seasonal layoffs. “Inside the factory it’s always 72 degrees. You don’t have workers who are freezing up on a roof who might not be inclined to do all of the fastening they should be doing because they just want to get it done,” says Donnelly. “We’re stick building, but we’re doing it under ideal conditions.”

He adds that very few components — whether in a stick-built house or one that is built in a factory — are built from scratch. “It’s not like 100 years ago where craftsmen built all of the windows and doors by hand.” In fact, if you look at the figures, he says, probably 80 percent of houses built in the U.S. have some sort of premanufactured parts that go into them: walls, trusses, cabinets, doors, or windows.

Dave Wrocklage at Epoch puts it this way: “With old homes, the labor was cheap and the materials were expensive. Now the opposite is true.”

Less Cost to the Consumer

Depending on the market area, going the modular route could save the homeowner 5-10 percent to build a home, says Wrocklage. “The site work is the site work and will be the same amount [whether stick-built or modular construction],” he says. However, where labor costs are more expensive, the savings will be more significant when building modular. Plus, the process won’t be delayed by weather or outside factors like a subcontractor who doesn’t show up or materials gone missing from the job site.

Modular home manufacturers also have relationships with window, flooring, and other companies who supply parts for houses, and because of their high volume, they buy in bulk. So the cost to the consumer is less. We’re not talking Cheapo Depot here, either. We’re talking Pella windows, Kohler faucets, Corian countertops, Merillat cabinets and more.

Another financial advantage for modular building is the length of the construction loan, says Donnelly. “If you’re site building, depending on the size and who is doing it, you could spend anywhere from four months to a year stick building, and all that time you’d be paying on the construction loan at a higher rate of interest,” he says. “With modular, you have a construction loan for a very short time — a month or six weeks.”

Quality Checkpoints

According to a study done by the University of Florida, prefabricated homes are more energy efficient. Ironically, a lot of this comes from the extra steps required to transport the modules on the road so that they don’t crack during the moving process. “We’re doubling up on lumber in a lot of places, that makes the house a lot stronger, better, with less cracks and imperfections,” says Wrocklage.

In addition, factory-built houses have built-in quality control checkpoints. At every stage of the process, the house has to be checked out by independent third-party inspectors representing state and local authorities, and if any imperfections are found, says Wrocklage, they have to be corrected before the house can be moved to the next station. Wrocklage says, “We pre-empt the local building inspectors. That means that the local building inspector only has to worry about the work that is done on-site.” And, he adds, you don’t run into the situation where a builder of a stick-built home is running from house to house with different crews.

Of all the persuasive arguments to build a modular home, however, none perhaps is more dramatic than the day that house is delivered to the lot. From a free marketing perspective, nothing beats “set day.” Both Donnelly and Wrocklage admit they can’t tell how many times they’ve heard the story of neighbors’ surprise at coming home from work to find an entire house crop up where next door only the foundation stood that morning when they left. “It really draws a crowd when we drive up with a crane to put up the modular home,” says Donnelly. “Some people have a cookout and watch it happen, and the new homeowner will certainly have crowd of family gathered around.”

Wrocklage tells the story of how they put up a modular home next door to one that was being stick built. “The workers next door who were still framing that house just sat up on the roof and watched us,” he says. “It must have been amazing for them to see the house go up in one day.”

For the Attars, set day for their “8-box” home came at Christmas this past year. “They did the lower level on Christmas Eve and the upper level the day after Christmas,” Kevin says. Talk about one heck of a Christmas present. “I was up there filming the whole thing,” he adds.

Related Links

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