Builders Embrace Modular Housing

A growing number of homebuilders now create single-family houses with modules that are manufactured in factories and carried to their construction sites on trucks.

Modular construction techniques can cut days and weeks off of the time needed to build a home – and that can save builders a lot of money. Meanwhile, these factory-built houses are constructed to the same standards set down in the local building codes for all the conventionally-constructed houses in their area. New designs can also create houses assembled from modules that are indistinguishable from conventional construction.

Saving time and money with modules

Modular construction is faster than conventional construction. That’s largely because the workers who build the modules do most of that work in factories where the work can be done in advance, while other workers at the local building site can prepare a foundation and set up connections to local utilities like electricity, water and sewer.

For development firms, the time saved can make a big difference to how much it costs to develop a home, because developers who borrow money to build their houses have to pay interest on their construction loans until the homes are finished and the sale of the house is completed. For private owners that use modular construction, a shorter construction period may also be important, depending of how quickly they need the house.

Many of the people who use factory-built modules to create new houses start with the site where they will build the home. They then typically order the modules to create the home from a modular retail center.

At the retail center they can choose from an existing design or personalize it by working with the experts at the retail center. Designers can now use modules to create houses that are indistinguishable from conventional “stick-built” homes built from scratch at the construction site. Almost any design that can be built with conventional construction can also be created with modules from a factory – though some designs use modules more efficiently than others.

Though factories can create buildings in nearly any shape the mind can conceive, the cost-effective temptation is to simply create modules that are roughly the right size to fit on the back of a flatbed truck without wasting space. That’s because the cost of moving these modules from the factory to the work site is a significant part  of the construction cost. Often the modules count as oversized loads, and the trucks have to coordinate an escort from the state highway patrol to travel with them, adding to the trouble and expense of shipping. As a result, designers rarely have features like domes and cupolas created in factories, even for expensive homes, because they would be inefficient to transport.

However, skilled architects and designers still create designs from modules that avoid the temptation to create plain, relatively boxy buildings. Their plans often vary the façade of modular houses, stack modules and add a variety of details and materials.

When the owner of a site is designing the house and workers in the factory are creating the modules, other teams of local workers can also be preparing the site and digging the foundation for the new house. That can shave a significant amount of time from the total time needed to build the house. Once the foundation is complete, the modules may already be ready to be lifted into place.

Building in a factory can also help developers avoid the growing shortage of construction labor. Construction workers have become very hard to find – especially in the cities and towns where developers been the most active. Modular housing factories are sometimes located in places where the labor market is not as tight and have a set of full-time factory workers. These factory workers are less likely then construction contractors hired by the job to be lured away to another construction site.

Developers who build with modules can also avoid bad weather. Because the modules are constructed under the roof of a factory, rain or snow typically doesn’t delay construction or damage materials.

Modular construction also often includes a higher level of attention and quality control than work done in the field. The workers in the factory who produce the modules tend to be permanent, full-time employees, rather than workers hired by a subcontractor who may be paid by the day for their labor. These factory employees may be more responsive to specific requests from the client. The quality control in the factory is also likely to catch issues, like problems with insulation.

Houses built with modules also typically comply with the same building codes as homes built conventionally at the building site. Building with modules can also save builders time that they might spend waiting for local inspectors to check framing or electrical systems at their buildings. Factory-built modules come to the building site already approved by inspectors who check the work at the factory.

Developers will need to make sure that they plan to include a staging ground near their building site where they can place the modules they will use – or at least have a route to bring modules quickly to the site that is relatively free of traffic. Developers don’t want to keep their workers waiting around while the next module needed for a building crawls through morning traffic on the back of a flatbed truck.