Perhaps you’ve seen a caravan of flatbed trucks, one after another—complete with its own police escort—transporting large boxes encased in a protective seal travelling on the highway or local road. Most likely, these boxes aren’t floats for a local parade or a shipment of government drones. Rather, they’re home modules on their way to a home site for a new commercial or residential structure.
These lots look like many other construction settings, but they begin to take on a unique personality once the site crane begins gently placing each box strategically on its concrete foundation. Once in place, the set crew fastens each module (generally four to eight boxes per home) to each other to create a self-supporting structure. And then, just like magic, a full structure is sitting on the lot, as if it had always been there.
Modular construction is nothing new, but some real estate developers are now bringing it to New York City for affordable housing. Some are also considering it for hotels. The Stack, a seven-story apartment building located in the Inwood neighborhood of northern Manhattan, was one of the first modular residential buildings in New York City. The project was developed by Jeffrey Brown and Kimberly Frank and designed by GLUCK+ with the goal of meeting the housing demand for moderate-income families. Another inaugural modular project is the Kips Bay Micro Apartments (My Micro NY) sponsored by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and designed by Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge of nArchitects in Brooklyn. The project will create affordable housing for singles in New York and is slated to launch in Spring 2015. The modular boxes were prefabricated and assembled locally by Monadnock Development as well as the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This “micro” building will have 55 rental apartments ranging in size from 260 to 360 square feet with Juliet balconies. The zoning laws enacted in 1987 required New York City Apartments to be at least 400 square feet, however, in 2013 an exception was made to allow for the new micro units. The current de Blasio administration is proposing additional zoning changes related to increasing height restrictions and allowing for more architecturally diverse buildings in certain areas that may also create more interest for developers to employ modular construction.
Although modular construction has been used to build commercial buildings for more than 100 years, I was surprised to recently learn that many home buyers aren’t familiar with modular construction, while others confuse it with different building types: prefab, panel built, mobile homes, manufactured homes, etc. Some neighbors of a recent modular home I had an open house for were amazed to discover that it had an open and modern floor plan. Once inside, they admitted that they had envisioned a structure with numerous small rooms and no open space.
The other common misconception about modular homes is price, as several prospective buyers who attended the public open house thought modular construction is less expensive to build than a traditional on-site “stick-built” structure. Let me dispel the myths surrounding modular construction. These structures are typically custom designed and are not an inferior built home.
In terms of lending, appraisal and insurance, modular homes are treated no differently from stick-built homes. As with traditional stick-built structures, modular construction is “real property” affixed to a foundation and devised by an architect in any externally pleasing design form: residential (colonial, ranch, modern), apartments of more than 20 stories, amusement parks, hospitals, schools, restaurants, etc. As the name suggests, modular construction involves building a number of separate modules off-site, which are then connected cohesively onsite to exacting measurements. In the end, it’s virtually indistinguishable from a site-built counterpart. Modular construction uses conventional building materials, but the structures must be made stronger to sustain the rigors of a long trip. Modular construction is built in the confines of a controlled indoor environment and built in an assembly line manufactured processes. Quality control is critical, as modular construction typically needs to conform to higher building standards than those found in most traditionally built homes.
Because modular homes are built indoors, work never stops due to weather. Consequently, these structures are not exposed to rain, wind, snow and other elements. Comparatively, site-built homes are exposed to nature and can be damaged by things like mold and water. Additionally, site-built builders wrestle with subcontractors that don’t come to work, pilferages and material shortages—factors that modular construction virtually eliminates.
Even though the basic structures are built indoors in a speedier timeframe, harsh weather can delay the placement of the modules on the homes foundation. As a result, the placement of a home may be delayed while the builder waits for ideal weather conditions. The postponement of moving the structure to the property location can also drive up costs. Additionally, a major component that adds to the cost of building a modular home is the quality of the products, and the high price for quality skilled labor used throughout the building process. Once delivered, each module is securely attached together like a perfect puzzle onto its foundation. Upon purchasing a modular home, homebuyers can buy as much or as little of the interior in advance and installed at the factory. For those that desire to customize the interior fully, kitchens, baths, wood flooring, moldings, staircases, mechanicals, exterior details, etc., can all be completed on-site, giving the home a truly one-of-a-kind feel.
Overall, there are 10 reasons why modular construction is a high-quality building product.
1. Built off-site in a controlled environment.
2. Built according to the same or better codes and standards as conventionally built buildings.
3. Structurally sounder and stronger than conventional construction because it’s engineered to withstand the rigors of transportation and craning the structure onto the foundation. Each modular box is built with roughly 20%-30% more material to endure transportation.
4. Better Construction Quality Management: Materials at the plant are safely and securely stored in the warehouse, preventing damage or deterioration from moisture and the elements. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) evaluated building performance in Hurricane conditions, and reported during the 131-155 mph winds of a category 4 storm that modular homes “perform much better than conventional residential framing.” FEMA tributes that the “overall, relatively minimal structural damage in modular developments was due to the building style used. The module-to-module combination of the units appears to have provided an inherently rigid system that performed much better than conventional residential framing.”
5. Built in accordance with QA/QC programs from independent third-party inspection and testing protocols that promote superior quality of construction every step of the way. These inspectors certify that your new home meets Uniform Building Codes requirements set by federal, state and local governances, and in many cases, they will exceed these standards.
6. Better air quality because modular construction uses dry materials, which eliminates the potential for high levels of moisture trapped in the new construction.
7. Many are green and energy efficient. There is an effort with many modular companies to use Energy Star products for windows, doors, etc., and use building systems that focus on energy conservation. For example, foam seal around electric outlets is used to help eliminate drafts, a feature seldom found in stick built homes. Also, there is a movement to utilize brand name products such as Moen, Anderson, Gerber, etc., and many builders strive to use “Made in the USA” products.
8. High-end modular companies do not simply employ seasonal labor. They invest typically in a long-term U.S.- based work force. The value of the labor’s extensive experience and expertise is witnessed in every home.
9. Modular construction has a tighter building envelope (building envelope is all of the elements of the outer shell that maintain a dry, heated, or cooled indoor environment and facilitates its climate control) due to precision of the construction process and the skilled labor that pay attention to areas that can cause energy loss. The end result is less air infiltration and lower heating and cooling costs.
10. Modular homes are planet friendly because they are typically built with green initiatives in mind, such as waste management and recycling programs.
As you can see, modular construction has come a long way since the 1910 Sears Roebuck kit homes and the cookie cutter modular developments of the 1950s. Modern modular construction has arrived and can certainly be called “The Best Built Home in America.”
For Further details on Modular Construction visit the Modular Building Institute