Modulars build a reputation

Brian and Kate Bower wanted their house built fast and with top-notch materials.

Who wouldn't?

Most 3,400-square-foot houses like theirs would take at least a year to build, Brian Bower said. Theirs took four months.

They went modular.

Their house came in five modules built in the factory. The modules - some as big as 60 feet by 14 feet - were transported to the site and installed by crane.

"Modulars are very well built. They go up much faster with quality construction at a more reasonable price," Bower said.

We're not talking double- or triple-wides here. Or, even close.

The Bower's house is in Ford's Colony, a gated three-golf-course community in Williamsburg with strict architectural controls.

Houses in the community sell for $400,000 to $1 million-plus. A modular speculative home there recently sold for $620,000.

Modular or prefabricated homes have gained a whole new level of respect. The sector makes up a small portion of the residential construction business. And it, too, has been hit by the slowing market for new homes.

But it's one of the fastest growing segments of the residential construction industry, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Once the Bower family's house was installed, it took 60 days to complete, said John Garrett, the builder. He owns Virginia Building Solutions in Tappahannock.

Site work included custom exterior trim and cornices, a porch, hardwood floors, tile, carpeting, crown molding and a finished 1,200-square-foot bonus area with a full bath.

"The disadvantages to modular are mostly preconceptions," Garrett said.

"People misunderstand the product. They think the houses are boxy or they can't get the finishes they want."

Ten years ago, the choices were limited. Not any more, Garrett said.

Modulars come with cathedral ceilings, high-pitched roofs, granite countertops and any number of floor plans. "And you can customize," Garrett said.

A client brought Garrett a set of floor plans, which he took to the engineers at Ritz-Craft Homes. They turned the design into a modular plan.

Computer-generated plans are used to meet national, state and local building standards.

The Bowers spent seven months tinkering with their plans before they signed a contract in June 2006 and moved into the home in October. Their Ritz-Craft home was built in a factory in Hamlet, N.C.

Just because a house is factory-built doesn't mean it's not the best quality, Garrett said.

"A Ford Escort is built in the factory, but so is a Lexus and a Mercedes."

While Garrett focuses on high-end modular, factory-built comes in all shapes and sizes.

Bruce Miller, a local builder for Mod-U-Kraf homes in Rocky Mount, said he can have a 550-square-foot house installed and ready for occupancy in eight weeks.

That includes a well, septic system, foundation, grading and seeding - plus the house - for $79,500.

The house comes with HardiePlank exterior, metal roof with rafter-tail eves for the custom look, 9-foot ceilings and central air and heat.

"The only thing the buyer is responsible for is providing a cleared lot," said Miller, proprietor of and Retreat Ventures in Richmond.

He targets customers looking for second homes. "People want waterfront, but they can't afford the whole enchilada."

Vernon McClure, president of the Home Building Association of Richmond and a custom home builder, said modular homes have the same engineering, if not better, than site-built homes.

"There's a little bit of design restriction that you don't have with a stick-built home," McClure said. "But if you can build these homes to go 60 miles per hour down the highway, that's pretty good."

Modular homes make sense particularly in rural areas, where it's difficult to deliver materials, he said.

Modular is known for great structural strength, said Don Carlson, spokesman for Automated Builder magazine, a trade publication.

"It is by far the strongest home," not only because it is built to withstand the rigors of shipping but also because of reinforced glue-nailed sheathing, Carlson said.

Some industry experts prefer "systems-built" to modular because people confuse modular with mobile.

Mobile connotes trailer parks. Or, "an old tin box on the wrong side of the tracks," Carlson said.

Even mobile homes, which are built to federally mandated standards, have come a long way, he said. Modular homes are built to state and local building codes.

"We despise the word 'modular,' " said Thomas Searson, Richmond regional sales manager for Mod-U-Kraf.

"Our homes appreciate in value. They are built to the same standards, if not higher, than a conventional stick-built home."

Some residential communities forbid modular home building in their rules. "That's because the covenants were written 10 years ago," Searson said.

Eric Kean did his homework before he contracted for a modular home in Ford's Colony. He went to a plant where modules were built.

"At the end of the day, I tried shooting holes in it right and left," Kean said. "But modular homes are better built, and you get a better bang for your buck."

His house appraised for $150,000 more than the cost, he said.

Since they are built with more lumber than a site-built home, they are structurally sound, and each module can stand alone, he said.

"I hope I never have to put it the test, but I'm pretty sure it can survive a hurricane."

His 3,400-square-foot house is made up of seven modules. Kean watched it being installed. "I was there the whole day."

Modular fast facts

* Modules: The building blocks of modular homes - modules - are constructed in climate-controlled factories.

* Factory finish: All walls, flooring, ceilings, wiring, plumbing, stairs and carpeting are completed in the factory before shipment.

* Cost: Comparable to site-built houses.

* Assembly: A two-story, 2,500-square-foot home can be constructed in a factory in less than a week.

* On site: Modules are transported and placed on a permanent foundation by a crane. Houses can be fully set on-site and weather-tight in one day.

--SOURCE: National Association of Home Builders, Modular Building Systems Council

Factory-built types

* Modular: Or "systems-built" homes are constructed to state, regional and local codes. Modules are transported to the building site and installed. Houses can be four stories.

* Manufactured: Or mobile homes are built under a federal building code administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

--SOURCE: National Association of Home Builders


The display showcases homes using materials, processes and scales that challenge preconceptions about "prefab" as cheap, cookie-cutter structures.

* What: "Some Assembly Required: Contemporary Prefabricated Houses"

* Where: Virginia Center for Architecture, 2501 Monument Ave.

* When: On display through Sept. 30

* Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends, 1 p.m.-5 p.m.

* Contact Carol Hazard at (804) 775-8023 or