Modular Homes: Behind the Hype

Modular homes are a Rorschach blot test for professionals in residential construction. Whatever your signature issue—green buildinglow-income housing, rebuilding areas affected by environmental disaster or urban blight—modular homes have been packaged as the answer by someone, somewhere.


They also carry a certain caché. If you’ve picked up a copy of Dwell magazine in the last ten years, you know there is a cool factor attached to the style.


With the housing market picking up, and especially as the labor market stumbles, the current economic climate seems to favor a resurgence of modular homes. As a result, many builders are looking to branch out and incorporate modular approaches in their process. Many more are beginning to incorporate modular components into their designs.


 Is it worth it?

There are definitely advantages. The market is sounding the alarm on a skilled-labor shortage in the industry—you may be feeling the pinch yourself. In circumstances where the number of jobs is outpacing the number of people available to do them, a process where a structure arrives onsite already 70-90% complete is worth further investigation.

Modular building is not a cure-all, however. As with any type of home, much depends on the plan itself. Modular construction—often associated with Modernist simplicity—can be used in more complicated plans. However, it’s best to keep it simple and play to the natural strengths of the format. Otherwise, the costs of the more complicated prefab structure may induce sticker shock.

Though modular homes can often be less costly than other types of housing, the price gap is not as great as it’s often made out to be. Builders should be wary of any manufacturer who makes grand claims of affordability—the same materials have to be assembled, after all, even if you are saving on onsite labor.

Also, there are some manufacturers that are more effective than others. Most firms that specialize in modular construction make high-quality products, and are focused on the advantages and disadvantages of their craft. A select few, however, may be responsible for the lingering distrust of modular homes in the residential marketplace. Before staking your own reputation on a project, it always pays to do a little research on your new partners first.


Prefabricated components?

In many situations, it’s better to stick to building a home with certain prefabricated components, rather than going full-on modular. Why? One prerequisite for a modular home is a square foundation. Factory-built homes are built to factory specifications. Out in the “real world,” factory conditions can be difficult to match. Problems arise when a perfectly modular home meets an imperfect foundation.

Another reason to consider components: it’s not easy to make modifications to a fully modular home after the order has been placed. Prefabricated components also allow for greater flexibility in the construction process.

Finally, while prefabricated homes are in vogue with design pros, the trend has been slow to capture the imaginations of homebuyers. If you’re drawn to the concept but not sold on the execution—or don’t think your buyers will be—precision-framed components allow you the benefits of prefab without many of the limitations. Plus, it’s all designed under prescriptive residential building code.


Prefab is Here to Stay

One thing is clear. Whether in the guise of modular homes or panelization or prefabricated components, more twenty-first century homes than ever will be predesigned and built in a controlled environment. But as many in the industry will tell you… perhaps that’s not a bad thing.