Once considered an unloved offspring of the building industry, modular housing is now showing its strengths with the help of design professionals.
It's hard to imagine Doug Cutler's home traveling down the road on the back of a truck. Make that six trucks, one for each of the home's six "boxes," as Doug, an architect in Wilton, Connecticut, refers to them.
Built in a nearby factory, the mostly finished boxes were transported to the 2-acre site, where they were assembled on a foundation to create a 2,816-square-foot house loaded with contemporary style and intriguing angles. Nothing about the house brings to mind its far less distinguished relatives: manufactured houses, or -- as they're commonly but less accurately known -- mobile homes.
Doug's free-flowing, dramatic house shatters the misconception of modular home design. Fins, as Doug calls them, on the front exterior heighten the house's contemporary design. Built after the modules were in place, these slender, decorative partitions also help support and screen decks that seem to float off the house. Adding the siding and fins after the modules were in place offered more freedom to create architectural character, Doug says.
Wetlands and a 5-foot-high embankment traversing the lot complicated construction of the home. "Everyone passed on the lot because of the cliff and the wetlands," Doug's wife, Lauren, recalls.
Doug saw the cliff differently: "I tried to use it as a feature element in the design by not viewing it as a handicap, but as something to be celebrated." Ivy, pachysandra, and other groundcovers now spill down the embankment. "This house fits like a glove into this property," Lauren says
Built to accommodate his family, which includes two children, the home has a modified split-level floor plan. French doors and plentiful windows, especially in the living room, create that luxury. Windows lining the dramatic two-story living room provide tremendous views of the wooded lot, with its wetlands and a pond, and of the planting area at the home's entrance.
A wood-burning fireplace encircled by gray granite warms the living room. French doors flanking the fireplace open to a roomy front-facing deck, which is also accessible from the nearby dining room. Doors at the back of the living room lead to a deck tucked between the rear of the house and the face of the embankment. Maple trim and flooring offer a soft contrast to the white walls, which were spray-painted at the factory.
The kitchen also benefits from the landscaped cliff visible through the window above the sink. Windows wrapping the breakfast nook overlook a "sometimes pond," as Lauren calls the wetlands portion of their property. The U-shape kitchen work area has granite countertops and a quarry-tile floor.
A central stairwell, built on-site after the modules were in place, connects the main living area and the other areas of the house. With the same blue pipe railings as the decks, the stairwell opens to the spacious foyer. A wall of windows on the front of the two-story stairwell overlooks an open-air court where a birch tree and groundcovers grow, creating an outdoor focal point. At night, the diagonals of the stair railings against the square windows in the lighted stairwell create a street view overflowing with intriguing angles.
Up the maple stairs a half level from the public area is the family room. Beyond the French doors at the back of the room is a deck and the backyard, which begins at the top edge of the cliff. This wing, above the two-car garage and foyer, contains a full back with two sinks and the children's bedrooms and a guest bedroom, each with compact decks.
Up another flight of stairs, the master suite rests atop the public areas. Along the hallway to the master bedroom is an interior balcony offering a bird's-eye view of the living room below.
Openings in one wall of the master bedroom also overlook the living room. The master suite encompasses the area of two modules side by side, giving it a width of more than 25 feet. "That way it's not restricted to that 13-foot net dimension you typically see with modular," Doug says. A smartly-designed dressing area includes a vanity with sink. It's flanked by a full master bath, featuring a whirlpool tub and marble floors, and a walk-in closet with a chute to the next-door laundry room.
Most modular homes are ready to move into eight to 10 weeks after they're ordered, says Ron Evans, vice president of builder sales for Nationwide Homes, the third largest modular home company in the United States. That's a drastic difference from the average 5.9 months it took to construct a home on-site in 1995, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The house can be built in a factory while the foundation and other side work are completed. Doug Cutler also thinks modular construction is the most complete way to assemble a building. "You can design around and manipulate that system to create solutions as varied and as equal in quality and style as conventional site-built homes," says Cutler.
Modular home quality may even surpass that of site-built homes. To strengthen the modules for transporting them to the site and lifting them onto the foundation with a crane, the plywood inner exterior walls are glued, as well as nailed, in place. Drywall is applied with a foam adhesive and then screwed into place, with wall panels assembled on jigs, which creates perfectly square walls and flat ceilings, Cutler says. Construction inside a factory also means the components of the home aren't exposed to extreme temperatures or weather conditions as they would be at a job site. Consistency in construction is enhanced because the home is built by a single source -- the factory -- rather than many subcontractors.
Another advantage, Cutler says, is that modular homes are nearly complete when they arrive at the site. Carpet, vinyl, and other flooring is installed at the factory along with the trim, and walls are painted or tiled. Plumbing and electrical work are completed at the factory, too, with utility connections made at the site by the local contractor, who directs the project and assembles the finished modules. That cuts cost.
The total modular home project, according to Cutler, typically costs about twice what's paid to the factory for the modules. This covers the foundation, septic or sewers, well or water lines, the driveway, a little landscaping, connecting the plumbing and wiring between modules, and hooking up the home to utilities. Included in the total cost are shipping charges of around $4,000, and $1,000 for a crane to place the modules. The Cutlers' home cost around $75 per square foot, not including the property. Had it been built using standard construction, the cost would have risen to nearly $120 per square foot, Cutler says.
Most modular companies allow customers design flexibility, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Manufacturers are most willing to do custom homes when plans come from architects practiced in modular construction, Doug adds.
For greater design flexibility, have your local contractor install some materials after the modules are in place. "Whether it's adding on the cupola in the case of a Georgian colonial or adding on a portico with columns and a pediment or any other trim, those items can help reinforce certain styles of architecture," Cutler says. "From Victorian to the avant-garde contemporary, you can create all these [styles] through the modular building unit."
Here are the steps in custom modular construction and the average time each takes.