Melding factory-built efficiency with custom design

Sweeping views of the Sunday River Ski Area and the Mahoosuc mountain range are a strong selling point for a new, 66-lot subdivision here, The Peaks atop Mount Will.

Bill and Anne Gram knew they wanted to build a ski vacation home on the mountain; they just weren't sure what kind of house they wanted. In the end, they decided to spend roughly $450,000 for a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath modular home that will be enhanced with architectural details and on-site construction.

Even though the foundation wasn't scheduled to be poured until this month, the Grams plan to move in by Dec. 1. To make the investment and to have faith in the speedy timetable, they had to overcome preconceptions about factory-built housing.

''Our impression of modular was a double-wide on the highway,'' Bill Gram said. ''It was really about opening our eyes to modular.''

The Grams' home is being erected by Schiavi Home Builders of Oxford. The 50-year-old manufactured housing pioneer recently formed a partnership with Salmon Falls Architecture in Biddeford. Their goal is blend the efficiency of modular construction with the custom elements of architectural design, to bridge the gap between factory and stick built. They are targeting baby boomers who want substantial second homes in resort areas, but don't want to wait the many months it can take to build a house from scratch.

Behind the push is a new business strategy.

Modular homes typically cost 10 to 15 percent less than comparable stick-built homes. Modular and other factory-built homes made up 40 percent of the housing market in 2005, according to the Maine Manufactured Housing Board. Most were priced below $250,000, according to the industry.

Manufacturing is already lean, so factories can't grow much by cutting prices. But one way to expand is up. On Lake Winnipesaukee in Moultonborough, N.H., Schiavi just completed a large home valued at $800,000.

''Modular homes haven't been very prevalent in the $750,000 to $1 million range,'' said Scott Stone, Schiavi's president. ''But we're very capable of building in that range.''

Schiavi is completing a home valued at $400,000 in Rangeley and is in the early stages of designing a couple of other factory/architectural projects in Maine. Stone hopes to interest more second-home buyers with a recently opened model home center in Bethel, on the road to Sunday River.

A STIGMA TO OVERCOME

But this growth plan also faces challenges. Factory-built housing continues to carry a stigma, especially among the higher-end buyers the industry wants to attract. Architects, too, need to appreciate the potential of working on a housing form often seen as boxy and basic.

''There's a huge stigma with prefab homes,'' said Sheri Koones, a Connecticut writer who follows the industry. ''People think you're talking about a trailer.''

Koones, who has published two books on the factory built/architectural design trend - ''Modular Mansions'' and ''Prefabulous'' - said mediocre design has been a longstanding obstacle to wider acceptance. On one hand, architects have been hestiant to get involved with the modular market. On the other, the industry hasn't done enough to highlight its evolution to consumers or professionals.

''The industry has done a terrible job of promoting itself,'' Koones said.

But some architectural firms see modular as a growing niche.

Paul Gosselin, a partner at Salmon Falls Architecture, sees a chance to capture a stream of smaller clients while bringing good design to a broader market.

''The quality, construction and materials are there with modular,'' he said. ''But the design isn't there. That's the missing link.''

Salmon Falls will work with Schiavi's clients on an hourly basis. The firm will focus on exterior details, such as window placement, trim, roof lines and bridging - connecting the main house to a garage, for example.

Schiavi wants to give prospective buyers a taste for this at its Bethel sales center.

Schiavi doesn't have its own modular home factory; the models it buys are made in New Brunswick. The company has modified the designs, and added features that give a sense of how small changes make a big difference in appearance.

One example is a model called ''The Camp,'' a three-bedroom, two-bath Cape-style home with a loft. A gabled portico, supported by logs, frames the entrance. Live-edge siding, rough-cut pine that gives the home a rustic, textured exterior, wraps the first floor and meets cedar shingles above. Inside, V-match pine highlights a cathedral ceiling.

These and other changes can take the basic house, which sells for $123,900, up to $212,576, not including land and utilities. Two other models, a three-bedroom executive ranch and a cottage-style home, suggest how on-site roof lines, siding and gabled additions can change the look and feel of factory-built housing.

These and other models can be viewed via a virtual tour at www.schiavihomebuilders.com

Adding stick-built mudrooms, garages and upgraded trim is becoming standard practice at Landmark Homes, a new division of M.W. Sewall & Co. in Bath. The company buys its homes from builders in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Half the new homes in the company's Beaver Brook subdivision in West Bath - which are priced in the $300,000-$400,000 range - have some on-site construction. The company is designing a 3,500-square-foot Colonial-style home in Boothbay Harbor that expands on a modular framework with a complex, site-built roofline and attached garage with living space above.

''These are the kinds of things that can't be done in factories,'' said Jim Gould, general manager at Landmark Homes.

Landmark is advertising in newspapers and magazines, such as Down East. It's targeting buyers with above-average income, often out-of-staters who bought land in Maine and are thinking about early retirement.

Modular homes can cost less than comparable stick-built homes, because materials are bought in bulk and assembled in factories where weather delays and labor aren't a problem. A selling point of the modular/stick-built hybrid, Gould said, is that owners typically can move in within a few months, less than half the time it can take to build an entire house on site.

DOING THEIR HOMEWORK

Turnaround time was a big consideration for the Grams, who live in Ipswich, Mass.

Bill Gram figures the house they want would have taken a year to build on site. Working with their own architect in Massachusetts and with Schiavi, they expect to be in their 2,700-square-foot modular vacation home by the time Sunday River's lifts start running this winter.

Their design essentially mates a stick-built, in-ground first story with four modular sections above. A mudroom, screen porch and roofline also will be built on site.

Deciding to go modular was an educational process for the Grams. After the couple bought land in the subdivision, a friend suggested they look at some modulars in the Bethel area. They eventually compared a modular with stick-built options and panelized homes, which are assembled with pre-built wall units. They discovered a range of offerings under the modular umbrella, and chose Schiavi in part because they saw a model home that was similar to what they wanted.

This is exactly what Schiavi's Stone is counting on. Roughly one-third of the company's sales now are in second homes, he said. If the upscale modular/stick-built approach gains acceptance among retirees and baby boomers in Maine, that market share could grow.

''It's virgin territory for manufactured housing,'' Stone said.

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

tturkel@pressherald.comModular homes can cost less than comparable stick-built homes, because materials are bought in bulk and assembled in factories where weather delays and labor aren't a problem.


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