The exterior is almost ready in 12 hours; move-in is only
eight weeks away – modular housing is attracting lots
of middle-class attention. By Ross Atkin | Staff writer
of The Christian Science Monitor
It's "set day" on Paris Way, a suburban cul-de-sac
in Woburn, Mass., and you can feel the excitement in the air.
Nicholas Zervoglos and a clutch of family members have gathered
to watch the assembly of Mr. Zervoglos's house.
That's right, it will be assembled, not built. This two-story
colonial was built to the owner's specifications at a factory
in southern New Hampshire, then transported to the site near
Boston on trailer trucks. Set day is when the boxes, or modules,
that make up the house are secured to the foundation and to
each other. Bolts, spaced about every two or three feet, are
tightened along the center beams and the perimeter beams attached
to the sill plate.
It is an event that attracts the attention of neighbors and
passersby and is considered maybe the most effective sales
tool in the modular-house business.
A crane hoists modules that measure as much as 14 feet wideby
60 feetlongand weigh 20,000 to 25,000 pounds.
This day, they are lowered with the help of a small crew
from the manufacturer, Epoch Homes, and positioned with great
precision. The "boxes," or modules, come with windows,
doors, light fixtures, cabinets, preprimed interior walls,
and siding on the front and back (the rest is put on after
the modules are joined). In most cases, hardwood or carpeted
floors are also already installed. (Tile and other finishing
touches come later.)
Mr. Zervoglos and his sisters, who also are having houses
built on the cul-de-sac, have their cameras out to chronicle
this important chapter in family history, as his parents,
who provided the land, and two preschool-age nieces look on.
While modular homebuilding is not exactly new – it
got its start in the late 1940s, according to Building Systems
Magazine – this form of prefab construction appears
to be gradually catching on as buyers realize that modern
modular doesn't mean second-rate or boring, and that factory
construction has its efficiencies and advantages.
Zervoglos's older sister, Daphne Barbas, learned about it
from extensive research on the Internet. Her findings, supported
by visits to three factories, convinced her siblings to opt
for modular homes.
"It makes sense," says Scott Jones of James V.
Caggiano & Son Inc., a general contractor in Saugus, Mass.
"After all, they don't build cars out in the field; they
build them in a factory."
Some observers think it's only a matter of time before many
American homes are built in factories, as most are in Scandinavia,
rather than on-site.
As the on-location builder for the Zervoglos home, Mr. Jones's
company is responsible for site preparation and for the finishing
work, which may take six to eight weeks to complete after
the house is set.
The company does both traditional "stick-built"
and modular construction, and has built about 300 or 400 modular
homes since the early 1980s. Jones remembers the time when
modulars were viewed negatively, and some subdivisions had
covenants banning them.
"When we first started," he says, "modular
was somewhat of an inferior product, and priced accordingly.
Today, it's not that way – and in some ways, they build
Building in a controlled environment means that workstations
and the labor force can be tailored to the task at hand, with
sophisticated machines used to guarantee level and square
An additional advantage is that because the modules are trucked
to the site, the construction must be solid enough to withstand
Modular homes should not be confused with mobile homes (which
the industry now calls "manufactured homes"): There
are definite differences. Yet the public's tendency to lump
them together accounts for some of the marketing difficulties
that modular homes have faced.
Both are factory-built, but mobile or manufactured homes
must conform to a different – and, generally, lower
– federal building standard than modulars, which must
be built to local – often more exacting – codes.
Also, manufactured homes are built on a chassis, so they can
be moved; modulars are as permanent as any site-built house.
Neither housing type is as predictable-looking as it once
was, thanks to building advances and computer technology,
which allow for more options and flexibility in the design
process. Roofs can be made more steeply pitched, for example,
and rooms made more spacious with higher ceilings. Better
finishing, from floors to moldings to cabinets and doors,
is also often part of the package.
But for some buyers, cost matters more than customization.
In Iowa, moderate-income families can buy simple modular ranches
from the nonprofit Rural Housing Institute for as little as
And in Needham, Mass., Harvard University's Graduate School
of Design has submitted a plan to build a flat-roofed, two-story
modular home to help address the Boston suburb's need for
more affordable housing.
In contrast, one mansion in Connecticut consists of 22 modules.
But modulars don't have to be fancy to be stylish, a fact
that John and Lennie Martin learned while living in Maryland,
not far from a modular factory.
"A lot of people in the area buy modular homes, and
often, when we told people we liked their home, they'd say,
'Believe or not, it's modular,' " she says. "That's
how we learned."
After they fell in love with quiet Pungoteague, Va., near
Chesapeake Bay, as a permanent retirement residence, they
concluded that a modular home would be right for them, too.
The waterfront cottages they looked at needed substantial
fixing up. And a conventionally built new home, they were
told, might entail a wait of of two or more years in order
to schedule busy local contractors.
Dwindling numbers of skilled craftsmen and subcontractors
are a concern in the building trades, a fact encouraging a
generally slow-to-change industry to adopt a more assembly-line
approach. This keeps tradespeople employed year-round, protects
materials from job-site damage and theft, and lessens the
complexities and aggravation associated with scheduling contractors.
In fact, Mr. Martin once had such a nightmarish experience
arranging for subcontractors to finish a conventional house
that he didn't want to go that route again.
This time the Martins had to wait only two months from the
day they ordered their house to the time they moved in.
While a compressed time frame is generally viewed as a plus,
they point out that the faster pace might not suit everyone.
Lenders, for instance, become accustomed to conventional
construction taking three or four months and may be surprised
at how quickly the paperwork needs to be ready for a modular
When going modular, it's important to look beyond the base
price, the Martins say. In their case, the base price was
$109,000, but they ended up spending about $142,000. Part
of that was due to certain extras they wanted – more
insulation, an additional sliding glass door, and a two-car
garage. But the additional amount also included surveys, septic
system, land, and closing costs.
The couple is especially pleased that they were able to flip-flop
the house's orientation so that the best views are out back
onto a Chesapeake Bay tributary.
Finding a good local builder, in the opinion of Scott Jones,
the Massachusetts contractor, is every bit as important as
the selection of the modular company. When the modules show
up, there's still plenty of work to do, including making sewer,
water, and electrical connections. If a builder states otherwise,
he says, a customer should be cautious.