Modular building Is the luxury home of the future

I'm thinking about buying a house in a box. Not Ma and Pa Joad's, but a high-end modular that will let me be both frugal and green.

The Washington Post did an encouraging story on the trend. It quoted not only people who had bought one of these houses and paid more than a $1 million or $2 million (way out of my league) and also people who watched one being built next door, who first shuddered and then applauded.

The story featured Haven Homes, a modular homebuilder based in the Washington, DC, suburbs. Haven CEO Jerry Smalley says the publicity is good for business, but he wishes that people didn't refer to his homes as modular. "Modular is a technique, not a type of house," he says.

It's true that once these homes are finished, it's impossible to tell by looking the difference between them and what the industry calls "stick built." But these homes are built in a factory to architectural and buyer specifications and then trucked to the site where they are erected on a previously built foundation. This Washington Post video shows one being constructed with amazing efficiency.

Smalley says his company doesn't sell to do-it-yourselfers. There has to be a builder in the middle. "There are so many technical dimensions that it takes a builder to deliver finished results," he says.

Most of the homebuyers who come to Haven are looking for semi-custom houses, Smalley explains. They find an architect from a wide range of firms in one of the 20 or so states where Haven does business and choose among that architect's pre-designed homes. The architect can make some modifications to please the buyer, but it's not a from-scratch plan.

Then Haven builds the house in its factory. Meanwhile, the buyer contracts with a builder in his area who works with Haven and that builder prepares the site. When the home rolls off the assembly line, it is transported to the buyer's neighborhood and the builder's crew puts it together in a few days like a kid constructs a Lincoln Log house.

The Washington Post story says the savings compared to a stick-built house is at least 15%, but Smalley is reluctant to confirm that. "Let's just say that this kind of construction wrings 55% to 70% of the risk out of custom-home building," he says. "We can guarantee you design-certain, specification-certain, set-up, delivery- and delivery-date certain. Most of the vagaries are gone. That materially reduces the risk and that's a real value added."

I've hired builders for several projects and while the idea of reducing risk is appealing, I'd have to take Smalley's claims with a grain of salt. Stuff happens. But even if he's just half right, modular construction sounds like it could be a good deal.

When I first got interested in putting a prefab, semi-custom home on our lakefront property, my accountant husband, who grew up living in a trailer, was pretty skeptical. But when I pointed out that billionaire Warren Buffet has invested in a company selling high-end modulars, he mostly stopped complaining.

Next step -- choosing the right house. Neither Haven nor Buffet's company, i-House, do business in my state, so that's out. But there are others and I'm having fun looking.
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