|Several mods mocked up before shipping at the Blazer Industries Factory|
In recent times I've noticed an uptick in people shopping custom home services in parallel with a modular solution. In an effort to address this burgeoning market, I decided to go up to Oregon to take a look at a few prefabrication plants. At first blush the prefabrication industry seems fairly opaque and many traditional building contractors and designers are predictably suspicious of how the proverbial "sausage" gets made in a prefabrication facility. It is not uncommon to hear stories about the less skilled labor associated with building in a factory and it is difficult to say how much of this is fact and how much is fiction. Certainly, the less conspicuous manner in which a prefab building is executed away from the watchful eye of a client or a designer doesn't help this perception. After this visit, I'm relieved to report this appears to not be the culture of the operations I visited. Both outfits have established reputations delivering quality products to Bay Area clients the fabrication I witnessed was executed in an efficient manner.
The online prefabrication presence, on the other hand, can make it difficult to know if an outfit is designing the product or making the product. Equally unclear is the nature of the product. Is it something for which plans already exist or is a designer marketing an idea they are willing to put into working drawing form once there is a client? Many people are speculating in this realm. There is a lot of interesting conceptual stuff and not-so-interesting "fluffy" stuff to wade through.
|Fidelity Builder's factory. Two modules of a three module residence.|
In an effort to demystify this subject, I decided to visit Kevin Allen, of Fidelity Builders. While I was there I also visited the more established Blazer Industries company that Kevin worked for before starting Fidelity Builders. Both visits were very interesting. Kevin has a lot of experience building noteworthy homes for people in the bay area. This includes several Michelle Kaufmann homes while Kevin was at Blazer Industries. He is just starting his business so there wasn't a lot to see at his location. But for the same reason, people interested in doing new prefab homes would get great service if they used him. His overhead is low and he is passionate about what he's doing. This is always a great combination and people in the prefab design industry who have worked with him in the past have nothing but good things to say.
Some basic rules of thumb for would-be designers and installers:
- Keep it to 14' wide modules and you will be trapping all the efficiencies of the modular approach.
- If the house is coming into California you'll want to keep the overall height under 15'-7". This works out to be about a 12'-10" maximum modular height if one accounts for the trailer height. If you plan on the building being taller than this, plan on stacking things.
- Once a modular building gets delivered it tends to be about half the cost of the project. The foundation and the utility hookups make up the lions share of the other half.
- A price of $180 to $190 a square foot is a fairly common range for the modular component of a prefabricated structure.
- Make sure you invest in a good foundation. Imprecisions in the foundation work can be costly to rectify. Remember, the foundation and the infrastructure cost are the other significant piece of the price puzzle and can often work out to be as much as the mod itself. The nature of modular construction requires a foundation that is, in all likelihood a bit more costly than a standard foundation because of the lower tolerances.
It is important to keep in mind that modular construction is not the same thing as conventional construction. There are built in inefficiencies and efficiencies. If you are building modularly keep the following in mind: The fewer seams the better. Everywhere there is a joint, there is site cost for two reasons:
- It is very easy to design something that will require the entire interior to be repainted after it is installed. This is especially true if the wall finishes are close to what one might expect in a nice residence. If you like a level V drywall finish I'm not sure I would bother having the factory do more than prime it. There will likely be substantial patching required after delivery. Compromising on wall finish quality is probably one of the biggest hurdles for the would-be prefab customer to overcome if they want to capture any efficiencies.
- Everywhere two modules meet there are typically two structural elements not one. For example, if two modules are side by side, there will likely be two walls up against each other. Equally, if you install a second floor module, there will likely be a separate floor and ceiling system
|Building with masonry at Blazer Industries|
All in all I was very impressed with what I saw and heard. Blazer Industries, which handles more commercial projects, was clearly very capable. If a project has an economy of scale that justifies a certain degree of complexity or is just very straightforward, they would be a great resource. I walked away from my visits feeling like there are reasons to go prefab that are compelling. These have to do with quality control, managing expectations, shortening the construction period and minimizing waste. In the strictest sense, cost does not presently appear to be one of the explicit reasons to go modular in the custom home market. If you are willing to compromise sufficiently to produce a paradigm of efficiency, one could make a modular home that exploits these efficiencies. I'm skeptical, at this point, people are willing to do these things instinctively. There are many historical examples that chronicle the typically-slow response of a society to exploit the efficiencies of a new way of building.
Perhaps the most provocative reason to go prefab is a psychological one. How often does a client want to change something midway through construction? These changes are often good ideas in theory but they are notoriously expensive in the middle of a project. In the traditional construction method, a good architect should make it clear to the client ahead of time how critical it is to avoid late changes. But it can be difficult to persuade a client of this. "The customer is always right"is the credo that often governs and if there is additional income to be had by addressing this request, the architect will often capitulate to a client's request to modify the design against all better judgement. Knowing when to capitulate on this sort of thing, is perhaps one of the bigger quandaries of a residential practice. Prefabrication imposes a kind of "saving-you-from-yourself" discipline on a project that separates the pros from the amateurs because there is just more likelihood with a prefab solution that some site specific design element will get missed. All parties need to thoroughly review the design before triggering fabrication. This being said, if the architect is thorough and does a rigorous design, the economic pay off of avoiding design discovery on site is very promising.