Monday, January 20, 2014

Lack of Knowledge About Modular Home Construction Hinders Local Approvals

Two weeks ago when I attended the PFS Seminar in State College, PA, I heard about a very successful modular home builder from NJ that builds both site and modular homes. I saw an opportunity to find out if one type of home was easier to get approved by local code inspectors and planning and contacted him. I wrote and asked him about the differences.

I figured the local plan review for a modular home would be easier simply because third party plan reviews by companies like PFS eliminate the need for extensive code approvals at the local level. It turns out I was right about the modules being easier to approve but totally wrong about getting the entire house approved.

The NJ builder wrote back and said that modular home plans are harder to get approved because the factory does not draw details or have third party reviews of components they don't produce such as decks, garages, porches,utility platforms and foundations.

Site Built Plan Set

Modular Home Plan Set!
Local plan review and code inspectors don't know how to properly review these plans, demand things they shouldn't and slow down the approval process to a crawl in some towns. It's like your auto mechanic demanding you get a physical before you pick up the car at the service garage.

I don't make those decisions
I know that people like Norm Hall from Simpson Strong-Tie hold regular meetings with groups of local planning and code people along with builders but the scope of their talk stays primarily on the topic of their products and the codes they address. I have found no meetings with the code and planning people by any local or national modular home association that covers the problems outlined in the email I received from the NJ builder. I am not revealing his name as I don't think he needs to be the one that exposes the lack of proper training given the plan and code people when it comes to modular home construction.

Here is just part of the response the NJ builder sent:
Good evening Coach,

It is funny you emailed me on this subject for we just had a meeting about this for permits going in next week. The first one is for a modular home and the second one for a site built.  Both are very thick and has a ton of documentation needed but where the difference comes along is how both are treated.  We find it frustrating that municipalities do not know exactly how to treat modular from what to review and not, what to charge for fees and not, etc.
 One major item that has recently come up is the foundations-now we both know that the design from the factory is based off of the double 2x10 rim but down here we are on a 5.5” x 9.875” ban board with a lot of Simpson Strapping.  All townships want us to submit and have our local engineer design the piling foundation to match the modular company’s when in fact that is incorrect.  First of all the modular company is NOT building or installing the foundation so they should NOT be designing this-it is causing major problems with permit delays as we speak.
 There are many other items that do not match exactly to get these modular permits and on the ground, decks and porches are not drawn or designed by the factory, or roof top ac platforms but the townships want them done on the modular plans when in fact they should not be included.
 It is a very slippery slope in so many ways, these to just name a few, to obtain just the building permit for a modular home.  There still is a lot of inexperience, knowledge, and lack of information in the municipalities on modular construction and how to handle it (almost some are afraid to the point of long delays in the permit and inspection process) that it is hindering our home construction process. 
I think it's time for one of the national modular home associations to step up along with the third party inspection services and educate the planning and inspection people about how to read a modular plan, what is included and not included and the whole concept of third party inspections. I know the third party people and even the modular home factories would jump on board but I'm really not sure about the modular home association folks.


Tom Hardiman said...

Thanks for the article Gary. The biggest obstacle for this industry's growth is lack of awarewness and understanding of the modular process from code officials, elected officials, and potential owners.

The modular home industy is fragmented (at best). It's a very regional business and unless an organization can show value at that level, its hard to get companies to commit to joining. Many companies want to "wait and see" or wait til there's a problem in their backyard. By then, its often too late to address a specific issue.

I knew a woman once who called an insurance company after her son broke his arm and said can I get a policy to cover this? Of course not! the injustry has already happened. Manufacturers and builders need to look at an association as an insurance policy (if nothing else). Battle lines are being drawn in every state and in every municipality, and often times, we are not even engaged in the battle. I'm not saying our association (Modular Building Systems Association) will win every battle, but we will at least be in the fight.

There are thousands of code officials across the country that can make life difficult for builders. We have to have a forum for sharing best practices, for collectively fighting on issues that impact the industry, and to educate the public about the advantages of modular construction.

I am asking manufacturers and builders (as well as suppliers to this industry) to make a committment in 2014 to help support thses efforts. Take a leap of faith and give us one year to address some of these challenges. It is the best insurance policy, marketing funds, and advocacy dollars you will invest in 2014.

Dan Hobbs said...


Good article; thank you.

We have encountered the same issue with other municipalities and I offer the following suggestions:

First, the modular home should be drawn and engineered to comply with the local wind loading requirements. Then that design, with the designated loads on the foundation, should be used for a foundation design. This keeps the two documents -- one by the modular company and one by the builder -- in agreement.

Secondly, decks, porches, etc. must also be designed to meet wind requirements. We calculate the loads placed on the home by these builder additions and incorporate those loads into the design. This is required in many post-Katrina areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Lastly, the mention of roof A/C platforms was interesting. In most of the post-Katrina applications, the A/C in located on a separate platform adjacent to the home. The attachment (if any) is not rated for wind loading and is considered breakaway. However, if A/C is to be mounted on a roof platform as the NJ builder states, the platform cannot likely be breakaway without jeopardizing the envelope of the home. Thus the design should be incorporated into the load calculations of the modular home. (I would strongly argue for the adjacent platform if setback requirements will allow it. Access is easier, it does not penetrate the roof, it can be breakaway, etc.)

I welcome questions and comments.


Dan Hobbs
Cardinal Homes

Norm of Simpson said...

We are ready to help.