Home & Garden

Want a dream house in a hurry? Consider going modular

Prefabs such as this 1,800-square-foot one on San Juan Island in Washington represent a speedier, though not always cheaper, alternative to traditional housing construction.
Prefabs such as this 1,800-square-foot one on San Juan Island in Washington represent a speedier, though not always cheaper, alternative to traditional housing construction. Method Homes

When Maura McCarthy helped launch Blu Homes seven years ago, she imagined the average customers for the company’s luxury prefabricated houses would be environmentally conscious couples, likely working in high tech and wanting ultra-modern sustainable homes that fit their Bay Area lifestyles.

Some prefab home buyers do fit that mold, she noted, but another group has become a driver for this emerging industry: aging baby boomers.

“These people are just beginning to retire,” McCarthy said. “They’re in their mid-60s, their children are out of the nest and they’re planning out the next 30 years of their lives. They’re often looking to downsize to a smaller, well-designed space.”

And they represent about three out of every four buyers of prefabricated modular homes, according to industry experts.

The attraction in part comes down to a combination of speed and flexibility. Modular building allows buyers to plop a house almost anywhere – quickly, efficiently and with sensitivity to the environment.

“Why doesn’t everybody build this way?” said Sheri Koones, author of “Prefabulous Small Houses” (Taunton Press, $32, 234 pages). “(Prefab homes are) the best kept secret in America. People just don’t know about them, but they will.”

Prefabs offer speedy on-site construction because much of the work is pre-done – indoors.

“They never see rain or other weather,” said Brian Abramson, co-founder of Seattle-based Method Homes. “The modules are built in a totally controlled environment. They’re not exposed to mold or mildew during construction.”

Under factory conditions, the modular units are prefabricated, either as block-like units or panels. Those pieces then are permanently fitted together on site, meeting local building codes and regulations.

According to the Modular Home Builders Association, speed also can add up to savings, with prices potentially 15 percent less than a conventional build. Modular construction can also save 30 to 50 percent of the time needed to build a new home, typically two to three months less than conventional construction, say association estimates. That means potential savings in interest paid on construction loans. There’s also half the waste of a typical home build, which means savings in materials and disposal costs.

“There’s no junk left over,” Koones noted. “You don’t see a lot of dumpsters at prefab home sites. It’s the ideal way to build a house.”

Koones, who has written several books on home building, found inspiration for her latest work in her own life. She downsized.

“We moved out of a 6,800-square-foot house built 20 years ago into a 1,200-square-foot home,” she said. “The hardest part: I got rid of 90 percent of the stuff I had. But I don’t miss any of that stuff. I’m not spending my life taking care of it.

“A lot of other people are in that same situation,” she added. “They want to be able to travel, pursue hobbies and not be tied down to a big house.”

Koones isn’t surprised that seniors represent the biggest market for high-end modular homes, she said. “It’s faster. You know what you’re going to get. You don’t want to wait.”

“(The process) compresses time needed to build a home,” said Abramson. “The costs are fixed. It removes a lot of the uncertainty. With on-site construction, it can be hit or miss.”

But modular doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper. Of the small homes featured in Koones’ new book, several projects approached seven figures. Blu Homes’ best-selling 2,000-square-foot model lists for $950,000.

About half of that cost is budgeted for on-site construction such as utilities, excavation, foundation and driveway, McCarthy said. In high-priced Sonoma and Marin counties, that modular price tag can make sense.

Smaller models such as Blu Homes’ 640-square-foot one-bedroom Lotus Mini starts at $275,000 and averages about $420,000 including shipping, delivery and $200,000 on-site work, McCarthy said. The 1,663-square-foot two-bedroom, 2.5-bath option runs about $725,000.

Serving as ideal vacation homes, smaller modular houses have become popular in Tahoe and other mountain resorts where construction costs are high and the building window is small, Abramson added. “We’ve literally delivered houses up there and people moved in the next week.”

Although prefabicated, each design is different and custom, Abramson said. “Our predesigned models are starting points, then they’re totally customized. They’re not one size fits all; no two are the same.”

Method Homes has built several prefab houses in Washington, the top market for modular homes, as well as other Western states including California. Method’s designs range from 600 to 8,000 square feet.

“Cost varies so much,” Abramson said. “It ranges from $250 to $450 a square foot. It’s comparable to a custom-built on-site home at about $300 a square foot.”

These luxury homes are packed with green technology and products, such as passive heating systems and whole air filtration. These systems can potentially save money as well as energy.

“We were spending $1,000 a month to heat and cool our old house; now, it’s $170,” Koones said. “That’s important when you’re getting older. It’s easy to maintain, too.”

Since the Great Recession, the building industry has seen a shortage of skilled craftspeople, Koones noted. Prefab factories allow those craftspeople to work year round in one place instead of seasonally at different locations.

To make its modules, Blu Homes took over a massive, 250,000-square-foot former Navy building on Mare Island in Vallejo. The company hosts open houses and occasional tours at its headquarters.

“Our building used to be where they repaired submarines,” said McCarthy, Blu Homes’ co-founder. “It looks like the Eiffel Tower fell on its side, it’s so huge. But it gives us room and we like things being made in California.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Holiday open (prefab) house

Where: Blu Homes, 1205 Club Drive, Vallejo

When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17

Admission: Free

Details: 866-887-7997, www.bluhomes.com

Highlights: See three model prefabricated Blu Homes during this open house. Presentations at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

More: Blu Homes will host a “Getting Started” workshop at 11 a.m. Jan. 7; register in advance via the BluHomes.com website. The model homes also are available for tours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; call in advance for an appointment.

Prefab 101

In the building industry, “prefab” means “prefabricated” and denotes homes or structures built off-site, either whole or in parts. The buildings are then assembled at the final building site. But not all prefabs are created equal nor are they treated the same.

Prefabs break down into four categories:

▪  Manufactured homes: Featuring single-, double- and triple-wides, this is the group commonly called “mobile homes.” Constructed almost entirely in a factory and built under special federal guidelines, the finished unit is placed on a steel chassis and towed to the building site. By law, the chassis stays in place after delivery; these homes are forever on wheels. Some communities do not permit manufactured homes on individual lots.

▪  Modular homes: These homes are built in modules in an indoor factory, then delivered and assembled on site. They must conform to local building codes for that particular site.

▪  Panelized homes: These are modular homes featuring pre-made wall panels and pieces that are assembled on site. Because there are more pieces, more time and effort are required for assembly.

▪  Pre-cut homes: With a “house in a box” concept, these kits can be assembled by do-it-yourselfers or local construction crews. Log home kits are an example.


ModularHousing.com: The official site of the Virginia-based Modular Home Builders Association offers a wealth of basic information as well as inspiration. Find a glossary of common terms as well as links to builders and a huge gallery of designs.