Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are "Modular" Homes Obsolete?

There is an article on that stopped me in my tracks and had me questioning if maybe they are right when they say that modular's time has come and gone.

They have a series of articles sponsored by BMWi.  This particular one is about 5 companies impacting green housing.  Funny how they are all West Coast Lego styled boxes and instead of being called modular, they are prefab.

What really struck me as odd was this statement. "The mobile home revolutionized functional, affordable housing. For its time, modular housing was incredibly waste-efficient, too, compared to the on-site building processes of today, which can exhaust more than 30% of building materials."  Just what does "For its time" mean?  CLICK HERE to read the article.

The article goes on to say that the new prefab homes will virtually eliminate waste and be the most energy efficient homes anyone has ever seen.  Even MK would be impressed with that. It also said that some of them can even be built for $200,000!
I talked with one of my industry friends about this and he suggested the reason these types of homes may actually be the future is that young people today don't want to take the time to learn the trades or work in factories like we did.  Everything with them is instant gratification and electronics.  He went on to say that his nephew was offered a job on the production of his factory for over $20 an hour but turned it down because he wouldn't be allowed to have his iPhone while he worked.  He took a $13 job as a flagman for a road construction company with no benefits just because he would be allowed to text and talk on his phone.

He went on to say that with the increasing lack of skilled laborers, the only type of homes that would be available in 20 years would be converted shipping containers and modular home components made overseas and shipped into the US.
For those that want to call modular housing "prefab", here are some pictures of your future homes:


lavardera said...

Its interesting, because I agree with your skepticism of "PreFab" but not for the same reasons you appear to.

The prefab term is used by architects to distance the products they are promoting from what they see as the poor design reputation of the modular home and mobile home markets. It does not mean that modular is dead, which I am sure you don't believe. It certainly does not mean that the market will be left with nothing but these fringe offerings.

That said I would offer that Modular is only one type off-site building technique, and the US industry would be better served by adopting a broader term for what they do and Modular is too narrow. I think Off-Site is a better choice than PreFab in this regard.

But I get the distinct feeling that your objections to "PreFab" revolve more around what these houses look like, and that fact that architects have almost exclusively associated PreFab with modern style design.

I'd say that its not about that at all, and you should not worry about it. PreFab is a bad term simply because its too general. Anything can be called PreFab. Any building component that is produced in a factory is "PreFabricated". Off-Site Construction speaks more to what is actually going on. Houses are being built off site.

My last contribution is the observation that American modular builders almost universally fail to offer modern design. Even though a customer who prefers modern may be a small percent of their overall business, by failing to offer any modern designs they simply allow that business to walk away. When you look at the size of the country, this is thousands of sales. Sales that site builders can't capture because its harder for them to have a broad offering. Its a missed opportunity. Why would you not have a product in your offerings to sell to that customer? This is part of a general failure of American builders to leverage design effectively in their product lines.

By comparison Sweden has a very mature off-site home building industry. 96% of new housing starts in Sweden are off-site built. Enviable numbers. All of these factories have multiple modern houses among their offerings. And all their houses are well designed, updated, and kept fresh, the way automobile offerings are done here.

Anonymous said...

Really good comments about modular, pre-fab, and off-site. Your recommendations that manufacturers offer more modern design is interesting.

One challenge the industry faces is that we have regional markets. There seems to be three main markets eastern, midwest, and west. Eastern markets seem to embrace modular as a well built quality home, midwest still seems to have a bit of a lower end stigma, and the western markets seem to have gone modern. Probably an over generalization, but it is close.

One thing that often gets lost in this discussion is the local builder perspective and how it has a huge influence on the design of our industry. The more complex the design, the more complex and time consuming the site work. There are some builders who take pride in a the beauty and artistic design of the homes the build. I think most are just looking to make a profit and survive. Unless a builder can get a premium for their product (and very few can), complex design is frequently a profit killer. Thus, builders tend to gravitate to less complex homes.