Over the years, I’ve built a few architect designed modular homes. In each case, the finished product was among the best-designed homes we’ve built.
One of Our Architect Designed Modular Homes
The suggestion to build a contemporary cape cod as a modular home came from the architect, Robert Coolidge, AIA, of Branford, Connecticut. Rob had first thought about renovating my customer’s existing home, but quickly realized that building new would make more sense. When my customers calculated what the local custom stick-builders would charge and how long they would take, they decided to take a closer look at modular construction.
Rob, my customers, and I spent a lot of time going back and forth with design ideas, discussions about how modular homes are constructed, and general cost information. We had several meetings in which Rob showed me some preliminary drawings, and I told him what we could and could not do and what it would likely cost. He then used the information to refine his design.
Since Rob had little prior experience with modular homes, I had to help educate him about the size of the modules and the structural requirements. Rob and my customer benefited from a trip to the modular manufacturer. The visit enabled them to see how the homes were built and to speak directly with the engineering department. The brainstorming with the engineering staff was particularly helpful. The education was not a one way street, since Rob educated me about the custom possibilities for modular homes. I still think I learned the most.
When we began working together, we had hoped to build the two stories out of four modules. But in the end we decided to build the second story, including the entire roof, on site. This required a lot of on-site work, but the finished product was exactly what we all envisioned it to be. Here are some photos: front; rear. Anyone who is unfamiliar with the possibilities of architect designed modular homes would swear the home was built by a custom stick-builder. But attractive design and quality construction were the only things it had in common with good custom stick construction, since it was built faster and for less money.
You’ve probably heard that special modular construction techniques are used to make homes strong enough to be transported down the highway, lifted by a crane, and set on a foundation. What you may not have heard is that the same techniques that are responsible for the unique durability of modular homes also give modular homes a lot more protection against any violent force – “manmade” or natural.
The Structural Durability of Modular Homes
Some of the best stories about the structural durability of modular homes are ones the industry is most ambivalent about telling. These are the tales about homes that fell to the ground during the delivery or set. Industry professionals fear that customers will think these accidents happen frequently or that customers might be expected to accept a damaged module, neither of which is true. Not to tell these stories does a disservice to the industry. I can’t think of anything that offers a more vivid testament than the image of a module sliding off of a carrier as it exits an interstate at 30 miles per hour and rolls down a hill, turning over six times, surviving with only a few drywall cracks and a broken window.
Fortunately, my company has had only one such experience in 26 years. The house was a two-story colonial with an attached in-law apartment. The two small modules for the apartment were shipped on the same carrier as two of the modules for the home. When my set crew lifted one of the two-story modules from the carrier, the carrier tipped over and the small module fell off the carrier and rolled over on its side. As shocked as I was by the accident, I was even more shocked by the condition of the module and my customer’s response. The module survived with only a few cosmetic cracks in the drywall, a broken pane of glass in a window, and an exterior door out of alignment. I apologized to my customer and said that I would build them a new module as soon as possible. They said that was not necessary, since the module was still in very good shape. I explained that I did not feel right having them take a damaged module, but they insisted. After the general-contracting work was completed on the home, none of us could tell that anything unusual had happened. Even after several years, we’ve never had a problem with the module.
The Durability of Modular Homes Can Help them Survive Natural Disasters
The unique durability of modular homes accounts for the many stories of these homes surviving without serious structural damage after being subjected to hurricanes and tornadoes, something no stick-built house could withstand. It explains why a modular motel was found to be the only thing standing after Hurricane Hugo hit a North Carolina town, and why the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the following report on Hurricane Andrew in Florida: “Overall, relatively minimal structural damage was noted in modular housing developments. The module-to-module combination of units appears to have provided an inherently rigid system that performed much better than conventional residential framing. This was evident in both the transverse and longitudinal directions of the modular buildings” (Publication number FIA-22, February 1993, page 29).
Our Recent Experience with the Unique Durability of Modular Homes
This past year two of our homes – both built several years ago – were hit directly by a rare tornado in Western Massachusetts. The tornado was reported to have winds of 160 mph. Here are two videos about how our homes fared compared to conventionally built homes. Don’t forget to watch the second one, since it includes interviews with the homeowners.
Building a home for the first time has one thing in common with having your first child. You’re never really prepared. It doesn’t matter how many times family, friends, and know-it-all strangers share their experience and advice. Just as you have to live through parenting to understand the difficulties of meeting your baby’s needs, you have to experience the challenges of building a home to understand its demands and stresses.
I made this point in the Introduction to my book, The Modular Home. My goal for the book was to draw on my 26 years of experience in the industry (as President of The Home Store) to educate anyone building a modular home for the first time. As it’s turned out, this has included modular industry folk new to the business in addition to those building their own modular home. To make this more interesting and personal, I included several short stories about my customers. I called these, “Speaking from Experience”.
This blog will begin with these stories, but will add many, many more – at least one or two a week. Most of the stories will be about the challenges, mistakes, and surprises experienced by my customers, their general contractors, our modular factories, and (yes) my company in general and me personally. Almost every tale was endured by more customers than the ones I mention. In fact, some of the stories are composites of several customers’ experiences. Needless to say, I disguise my customers’ identities.
I will also mix in many straightforward advice posts. They will tell you what to do and why you should do it. Some will focus on what you shouldn’t do.
I’d like to mention a point acknowledged by conventional builders who’ve read my book. The number of challenges, mistakes, and surprises experienced by builders of stick, panelized, and log homes is even greater than those facing builders of modular homes. The reason is that there is much more work to be done on site with these types of homes. That’s of course why more and more people, including conventional builders, are considering modular homes over other forms of construction.
As I said in my book, if you’re wondering why I’m being so candid, it’s because I want your experience to be as free of surprises as possible. If my blog does its job and prepares you for what lies ahead, you will be very glad when you’ve built your own modular home.
So please join me each week for my Tales from a Modular Home Builder.