Back in April I learned that the new house being planned across the street from me was going to be modular.
By Bill Lawyer
Back in April I learned that the new house being planned across the street from me was going to be modular. Overnight, I had an interest in knowing what the term meant. Images of “double-wide trailers” danced in my head.
I learned that there are basically three types of homes: manufactured, modular, and site-built (also referred to as “stick built”).
Site-built homes are the traditional ones, for which the materials are brought to the construction site and the house is built one floor at a time.
Manufactured homes are primarily one-story structures with minimal or no stylistic or structural options.
Modular homes are normally two- or three-story structures that come in many different modules, which are then installed over a foundation using a crane.
How in the world, I asked myself, would anyone be able to install a modular home on my narrow, hilly, and private one-block street where the houses are very close together? Beyond the issues of installation at this specific site, I wondered why anyone would want to live in a house that was constructed on an assembly line in rural areas of Pennsylvania or New York.
Going on the Internet, I saw YouTube videos posted by modular home companies that showed the ease and efficiency of the modular construction process. Of course, all these homes were being installed on large, level lots, with plenty of room on site to bring in the cranes and other needed equipment.
Modular homes have been extensively used to replace houses destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The new houses have been designed to conform to new coastal floodplain standards.
When I spoke with Rye City staff and members of the Board of Architectural Review, I learned that in the past few years many modular homes have been built in a variety of locations around town – including Forest, Midland, and Beck avenues, and Hillside Place.
While the City doesn’t keep records of how many new projects are modular, everyone I spoke to assured me that they are quite common.
In 2012, according to US Department of Commerce records included on the Modular Home Industry website, 2.4 percent of new homes were modular. In the Northeast, it was 6.8 percent (2,800 out of 41,000). In this region, modular homes are much less expensive than site-built homes.
Andy Peterson of Westchester Modular Homes (WMH) says that in recent years his company has built about 15 houses in Rye. They are currently in the process of building modular on a tear down at the corner of Highland Road and Wappanocca Avenue.
Peterson notes that computer-controlled jigs cut lumber more precisely and with less waste than is possible on a site-built home.
The modular house across the street from my house was installed in one day, which was clearly much faster and quieter than it could have been if built on site, even with an army of construction workers.
But in terms of the finished project, things are quite different.
First, from the time the old house was torn down on December 26, 2012 it took six months before the site was ready for the modules. They arrived on June 26.
Second, once the modules were installed, it took several weeks to complete the actual joining and finishing of the units.
Then came all of the final work – siding, deck, electrical, plumbing, and so on. As of October 1, the house appears far from finished.
Rye architect Rex Gedney says that he has designed four modular homes in the last two years. He adds, however, that overall less than one percent of his projects are modular.
His process is to prepare the initial designs, which the builder then takes to the modular home company, where they determine how his design can be translated into the assembly-line process. Gedney observed that the more the process has to be customized, the more work has to be done “on site.”
Gedney thinks that, “Most homes being built in Rye will be site-built, as home buyers want their homes to be unique.”
Beyond the questions of efficiency, aesthetics, and cost of construction, another basic question regarding modular homes is: “How green are they?”
Actually, as green home consultant Judy Martin explained, there are two green questions – how energy-efficient are they, and how healthful?
Martin recently worked with a client and WMH to explore modular home possibilities. She noted that because the modules are built on an assembly line process and then transported by flatbed trucks, they have to be sturdy and rigid. This requires using more lumber and more expensive bonding agents than would be needed if the house were site-built.
She noted that her tour of the WMH factory in Wingdale, N.Y., showed her that modular construction could accommodate the most energy-efficient and healthful types of insulation. While the materials might cost more in the short run, in the long run they will save energy and result in a home with cleaner air.
In the final analysis, the decision of modular versus site-built comes down to a site-by-site decision. With the demand for houses at a very high level, the economics of modular homes will no doubt be more attractive in the years ahead.