Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Regulations and Code Enforcement - The Modular Factory Viewpoint

We’ve all heard the stories of how much harder it is to build a modular home in some states and communities than site building a home. Builders email me on a weekly basis about a problem they encountered with a local code enforcer or with their state’s code office.

Rarely do I get one from a factory telling me about problems they run into while designing or building a modular home. I don’t know if they aren’t having any problems or if they just don’t talk about them openly.

Over the weekend I received an email from an East Coast builder telling me about yet another problem he ran into with the State and local code offices. Seems like the customer wanted a change to one room after PFS and the Certified Sprinkler Installer had both signed off on the plans and submitted them. The sprinkler system had to be redesigned and resubmitted showing the exact same system and head placement as before costing the home owner 2 weeks and another design charge. Yes, it was the homeowner’s fault that this happened but if it had been a site built home, there would have no need to resubmit the sprinkler plan.

I began wondering if there really was a problem with National, State and local regulations that single out modular home construction or are most of the problems just part of the modular building process.

So I sent out an email and got some great responses. First I asked the builders and then I asked the factory owner. Here is what I sent them:

I would love to do a series of articles about whether modular home builders in each state are having their homes singled out for more regs and tougher inspections than site builders or is it that having to add another player (factories), that site builders don’t use, into the mix causing a vast majority of the problems.

Here is a response from one factory owner in the Midwest that sums up a lot of the problem areas in the modular home process:

I think that a lot of the frustration is caused by the different approach that modular home building takes, compared to site building.

In site building, the builder knows all. They are responsible for knowing the ins and outs of the project, for making sure it is up to code, etc. etc. and they get to touch and feel each part of that project. They can get information from their lumber supplier which shows engineering information, and of course an inspector can stop in to make sure they are on top of things at each phase of their process. And, building departments are used to this, which is a big factor.

In modular building, there is a shared responsibility between the factory and the builder. We, as the factory, are responsible for making sure our homes are designed properly and approved at the state level, as well as inspected and sealed by our third party engineering company. Our builders are almost completely out of the loop on this, other than being able to read our standards lists and their order. The builder is responsible for telling us about any specialty codes that county may have because the factory does not have enough manpower to know each code in each county (several of our states allow their counties to supercede the state on code requirements).

The builder must go to the building department, with a partial knowledge in my opinion, of how the home will be built, and show the county building department documents that have been prepared by the factory for the state. So I think that at least the first time our builders work with a certain county (which can happen often because our builders are going further and further for business), they go through a learning curve. If our builder is dealing with a small or medium sized county, they struggle through this curve and then it is easier the next time. If they are dealing with a larger county, they are forced to get more information from the factory, put together in a new format. The factory engineering department is used to putting our information together in a certain format and when a rep comes in and asks for them to put it together differently, especially more thoroughly than they are used to, it gets thrown to the bottom of their pile.

So the builder must wait longer than they typically have to get the right information back to the building department, which I am sure makes the building department think the builder is inept. On top of that, the building department has very little ability to inspect the home which either creates fear on their part, or a feeling of resentment which leads to further issues.

All of that being said, I think the midwest is much easier to build in than the east coast, as far as regulations and inspections are concerned. First of all, land is not our problem, we have a lot of it. Unlike a lot of east coast factories, we have stocking builders that are over 500 miles away from us. Since there is a lot of wide open space, many of our builders focus on rural building, and in my opinion will do a lot to avoid building in or near larger cities because they do not want to deal with the larger building departments and more stringent regulations and inspections. This means that a lot of our builders are building in towns that may not even have a permitting department, or if they do, have one inspector. After their first home gets in and looks good, they will never be inspected at another job. So, I think that you will find that most of our builders do not have a lot of issues with getting permits, passing inspections, or dealing with regulations.

I will finish by beating up our industry a little bit, specifically in the Midwest.

As a factory owner in the Midwest, I can tell you that we are complacent about making this process easier because there is a lot of business to be had through smaller counties with easier building departments. If we ever decide to grow substantially we will need to focus on this issue.

We at the factory, are almost pushing our builders to only focus on more rural projects because of the difficulty of going through the building process in larger towns and cities. The few builders we have that are prepared to fight this battle and get into bigger areas, are often further dissuaded when we say we will not build to a code like electrical conduit being required in Chicago because it could choke our line, forcing the builder to spend more time and money to get it done on site. This is something that will have to change if we ever want to have more than a 3% market share.

Either factories will have to spend money on line improvements and technological advancements to make building better homes easier-which means we can keep our production speeds the same and our prices similar to where they are or we are going to have allow ourselves to build better homes, slower than we are used to running our production lines. Then we will have to be ok with not selling our homes based on price only, but rather selling them based off of quality improvement over site building, which is where we will need a lot of improvement from our builders.

An East Coast factory owner added more insight into this matter talking about how complicated modular home construction has become:

In my opinion it is quite simple. Our exposure to codes and compliance is much more closely monitored than our stick built cousins. The scrutiny given to structural and codes in building a modular product far exceeds any engineering done on a stick built home.

Stick builder go to the Wood Frame Construction Manual, we are forced to have an engineer look at the package and he then develops a calculations package. I have seen us build 20” reverse gable with 1 ½ “X9 ¼” framing members for the first two rafters and the span is only 15’.

Honestly it is that simple. Now there are more blatant displays of discrimination that put us at a disadvantage, like Maryland, where we are just singled out for discriminatory practices (Sprinklers mandatory in all modular homes built) and a few other smaller issues in other states. And Remember Connecticut with their enforcement of the devisable load laws!!!! and how strongly they enforce them. 

The worst part is, what can be done about it? The product that builders want manufactured has become increasingly more difficult and intricate to build. That requires more structural, because we build in components meant to be joined once on site as opposed to simple one piece framing. The only advantage we have to offset these increases in engineering costs and fees is that we have a readily available workforce to manufacture the product for the builders.

Costs savings on the price of the home from the factory are no longer an issue for builders in most markets.

Another East Coast factory added that a lot of small problems in isolated localities caused by local code enforcers can drive both the factory and the builder to look for a quiet place to hit their head against the wall:

We’re running into problems in certain municipalities in New Jersey with Sandy reconstruction, but that’s mostly because one town or another (principally, it seems, by fiat of one or two inspectors) begins adding to the code. 

For example, Little Egg Harbor requires modular home factories to insulate supply lines and traps even though, to my knowledge (which could very well be incomplete), it’s not required by the 2009 IRC, and it hasn’t been required by any other code official in New Jersey (that I’ve heard of). 

I don’t know if New Jersey’s DCA permits locals to adopt requirements that are more stringent than the code, but it’s just a battle not worth fighting, and these last-minute “oh-by-the-way” requirements are sometimes more difficult to deal with than up-front difficulties of building in, say, Maryland, where at least the rules are clear and every builder should, in theory, be on equal footing. 

With that said, every inspector, it seems, has a family member in the deck-building business or HVAC business and seems to over-critique a factory installation that took a local job away.

These are real answers from real factory owners. This is a side of the equation that most modular home builders rarely see and to hear that factories also have their share of problems with codes and regulations aimed at them that site builders don’t should be an eye opener for many.


Anonymous said...

I have been in this industry in the North East on the manufacturing side for over 30 years and I fully agree with the structural issues we, as manufacturers, are now forced to provide... I know that our company is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly to outside engineering firms to produce these structural calculation packages...I have seen a lot of site built approval packages and have yet to see any of these, building department approved submittals, contain anywhere near the structural calculations packages that we have to provide in order to get sealed drawings from either the state or the third party let alone build to the same requirements that these calculation dictate...I personally have seen modular home approval packages with literally hundreds of pages of structural calculations for one individual house... Some of the structurally required items coming from these calculation packages borders on the absurd... Not only does this practice cost us the time and money to produce the calculations but also increases the cost of the materials required to comply with the requirements of the structural analysis... These additional expenses are being passed along and this just further increases the cost of modular homes to the end user... I have often asked where this requirement is coming from, the State, the Third Parties? Obviously since the site builder does not have to produce the same documents to obtain building permits it is not being required by the local building departments... I have to wonder if some of the reluctance our industry receives at the local level is not generated by these immense packages that our builders receive to submit to the local code enforcement officials, some of these submittal packages are very intimidating...This further validates the comments from the mid-west manufacturer in the article, that the builders do not have a full understanding of what is in the packages they are submitting...It is one thing to understand the drawings but understanding the structural calculation packages and how they apply to the build is a whole other level... I think this also applies to the local code enforcement office as in my experience some of this information is either confusing to or above the level of the person who is reviewing the permit application package.
The other issues I see is that in our industry we have to go through one, sometimes two or more plan reviews than the site builder has to endure...With our modular product we have either a third party and/or a PE review and seal and depending on the type of product it is in some states this is followed by a state review as well...Once these reviews and subsequent deviations are completed the package then goes to a local code enforcement office for their review before the final permits are issued... This puts our submittal packages at the mercy of a number of different building professionals knowledge and interpretation of the building codes (which, by the way, don't always agree)...For the site builder he submits the drawings to the local building code enforcement office and his submittal is reviewed by them alone and the permits are issued based on only their review and interpretation of the codes...I have seen many instances where a local code office has approved drawings with issues that would not have made it through our third party's review...This alone puts our industry on a different playing field than site built homes... In my 30+ years in the industry the "equal playing field" has been sought after but the divide still exists and in some respects seems to have grown even further.

Michael Younus, New England Homes/Preferred Building Systems said...

While agreeing in principal with my manufacturing brothers and recognizing that we, as an industry, are placed at competitive disadvantages when subjected to intense or unwarranted scrutiny as well as a higher bar of approval I believe it crucial that we not lose sight of our own shortcomings.
No, I am not going to throw our industry under the proverbial bus and yes I am in agreement that in some geographic areas and jurisdictions the playing field is tilted but what happened to our ability to identify areas of concern, challenge and unfairness and respond in a way that denotes identification of the problem and development of a response?
Our industry, over my 30 plus years as a builder, salesman and at the corporate management level, has proven with to have the ability to identify the issues but has continually fallen short in unified efforts to respond in a positive and productive manner. That statement is the subject of another dialogue for another day but as for the subject at hand; how many invitations to learn or to question have been extended to the officials we are quick to criticize? Whether a single inspector, those from a municipality, a state chapter or the state association; how often are they extended a chance to learn what they don't know? How often have members of state regulatory agencies, the ones that make the rules and dictate how we operate, been given a tour of a plant, not to inspect or audit but to learn? I am not naive and hope that all these years have taught me something. Have I ever dealt with the inspector from hell, of course? Have I heard that all building inspectors are failed builders who are jealous of success and on a vendetta, of course? Have I seen unfairness in regulation and code interpretation and its damage, once again, of course?
So I have seen and heard a lot, as have many of you, so what? Unless we determine to take a different tack we will be hearing the same complaints and accusations years from now. At a time where code compliance and home performance demands continue to escalate and where we as an industry are touting our ability to meet and exceed I believe the time has come for an attitude adjustment.
Let’s reach out to the “enemy” by offering opportunities where none exist. Let’s have dialogue with the people with the power providing them an opportunity to learn who we are and what we do on our terms. We should reach out under the premise there is nothing to lose and a lot to gain. I suggest that every manufacturer be willing to open themselves to the other side. Utilize those in management, our sales people, our builders and any viable network connection to build the bridge to an environment where we create and offer information and a learning experience. We can only dispel misconceptions and faulty thinking through exposure to our real world and what we offer the inspection and code community. Again, a bit naïve? No, as we have the ability to demonstrate how we are more regulated, more scrutinized and expend more dollars toward code not only compliance but exceeding the base requirements than those in the field.
If you want to say; been there and done that go right ahead. Most of us have learned that we don’t succeed by looking at failed efforts of the past and allowing them to control the future. If tried and successful do it again. If things didn’t work and the desired outcome was not achieved; a more accurate understanding of who we are, what we do and how we do it then I can only suggest an new attempt with a new approach.
Educating, building relationships and trust takes effort and time but in the absence of that, as an industry, we will continue to bemoan the unfairness and obstacles and hoping something or someone will finally come to the rescue. We are that someone, I encourage you to become part of the effort to bring about the change.

Anonymous said...


Based upon the number of advertisements for commercial related positions by factories are we to assume that commercial projects have less bottlenecks and that commercial inspectors are more enlightened than their residential counterparts.

Than again maybe its a NIMBY response to the image of modular for SFR construction where many view our product through the lenses of yesteryear.

Michael is right that maybe through combined efforts from the MHBA, factories, and builders with factory tours, lunch and learns, and assistance from our third party approval firms we can bring eduction to the residential inspectors and the public in general that we and our cousins in the manufactured area endeavor to not only meet but exceed building codes and energy standards.

CodeInspector said...

I'm a code inspector, and stumbled upon this conversation as I was researching how to deal with this issue. I work in a large city with all the ICC 2012 codes in place. We don't get many modular projects, but we've had a few and they might be picking up (it's hard to tell).

It seems to me that the challenge is that we're not going to be able to see a lot of the underlying construction of the house. Some people have suggested a trip to the factory, but I'm not really sure that resolves things, since it just offers a look at operations that day, not the construction of the module under consideration.

Furthermore, and while admittedly early in my process, I can't even tell what certifications or inspections a quality modular builder undertakes. I see the HUD manufactured housing requirements, are those considered the baseline? Do most manufacturers do ISO certification or anything else? It could be useful to develop a guide for inspectors helping to frame the issues: I'd recommend not some treacle about how great they are, but an actual guide to their strengths and weaknesses and what an inspector should look for. Our devils are all in the details. You write it, I'll read it.