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As a prospective new homeowner, Lachance's buying attitude therefore meshed perfectly with the modular homebuilding world, which is one of the fastest-growing segments of the residential construction market today in Washington.

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Shelli Lachance is a hard-nosed shopper. She generally knows what she wants in a new home and won't stop looking for it until she gets it - at the right price. "When someone says, "No, you can't have that,' I get stubborn and start looking around, checking to see how to do it, doing whatever I have to do to get what I want," says the 40-year-old mother of five.

As a prospective new homeowner, Lachance's buying attitude therefore meshed perfectly with the modular homebuilding world, which is one of the fastest-growing segments of the residential construction market today. The New Hampshire woman was eventually attracted to modular building for several reasons, not the least of which was saving a few dollars. "We've lived in a drafty old house once already, and I didn't want to do that again," she says, recalling past New England winters with a shudder. She also wanted a house tailored to her large family plus a growing home-based business. "People looked at me funny when I said I was considering modular, though," she concedes. Indeed, modular home construction's single-greatest drawback is the general public's perception of exactly what it is. "If people only knew what we can offer, there would be no stigma," says Jack Donnelly, sales and marketing director at Customized Structures of Claremont, N.H. "Basically, if you can think of it, we can build it." The What and Why The idea of modular housing is actually hundreds of years old. When the Pilgrims set out for the New World, they had sections of pre-assembled houses aboard their ships. Those house and barn sections were built in England and shipped along with the Founding Fathers, largely for the same reasons modular housing is still attractive today: to save time. The Pilgrims knew they wouldn't have much time to build proper houses before the New England winter began.

So pre-assembled houses were a logical shortcut. Moreover, as is the case in many areas of the country today, skilled workmen were scarce amid those first colonials. Assembling large sections requires less on-site labor than building from the ground up, so Myles Standish and company went modular. Whether they saved a few shillings or not is unknown. But ever since then, modular housing has been a good option for time-and-money-challenged prospective homeowners. And if you get the right modular builder, the variety of finished products is indeed virtually limitless. "They really worked with us to give us just the house we wanted," Lachance says of Customized Structures. "And we love this house."

Modern modular home construction is quite distinct from the pre-fab housing of the late 1950s and '60s. The cookie-cutter houses of those huge, sprawling subdivisions near the suburbs of New York, Chicago and the like just don't apply to modern modular products, mainly because that's not what the homeowning public wants these days. "Most people want something distinctive, something that meets their own special needs," says Donnelly of Customized Structures. "We have some stock plans, but we know people will want to modify them to suit their own circumstances." Indeed, computers have revolutionized modular construction even in the last 15 years or so. Stock plans can now be modified in minutes, where it would have taken days or even weeks to draw up new specifications, material schedules, blueprints and the like.

A closet here, a bigger room there and an extra bath on the second floor can all be drawn up and presented to the prospective homeowner usually on the same day they're requested. And if you want a wood-framed house design that's totally out of the ordinary, most modular companies have in-house designers who can lead you through your dreams step by step. If you have a computer, you can even e-mail floor plans back and forth for even quicker execution of a wish list. Modular is also distinct from "manufactured housing," which is mostly mobile homes or one-story structures of a similar size and construction. The size of those buildings is dictated by over-the-road trucking limitations, which generally confine manufactured housing pieces to a width of 14 feet and a height of 9 feet or so. But Donnelly says modular construction can ship the pieces of a home either as whole rooms or in large wall panels, which allows greater diversity in the finished product.

That's why modular mansions of up to 6,000 square feet and as much as three stories high have been built recently at some pretty ritzy addresses, including the Fairfield County suburbs in Connecticut and high-end resort areas like Nantucket Island and eastern Long Island. Even with fairly complex design changes, the time between writing a deposit check and the arrival of the modules for a modestly sized new home can be as little as four weeks. With a good, local general contractor to handle the hookups of plumbing, electrical and heating, plus some additional time for finish work that is not done at the factory (tiles, hardwood floors, masonry), it's possible to move into a modular home in as little as eight weeks.

A similar site-built house might take up to eight months or more. "And saving time means saving money," says Donnelly, who notes that construction loans are often much more expensive than an ordinary mortgage. Thus, having a construction loan for a shorter time saves on interest payments. Moreover, many prospective homeowners live in rental housing before moving into the new place. Shorter construction time means less money spent on rent. Checking Out Methods Just exactly how good are modular building methods? Lachance had that same question and asked Customized Structures for a tour of their factory. "A lot of people want to see how this is done," Donnelly says. "For serious potential customers, we're happy to show them what happens here." Lachance says the tour sold her on modular's reliability and attention to detail. With those recommendations in mind, I, too, took the tour, hoping my background as a former building contractor would turn up some points Lachance might have overlooked. What I found surprised me.

Located in rural western New Hampshire, Customized Structures is a sprawling complex of metal factory buildings, storage yards and loading lots, all of which are measured in acres rather than square feet. Just the building in which the modules are constructed is almost three acres under one roof. That's how modular builders are able to put out such a high-quality product. Unlike a site-built home, the modules are all constructed in a controlled environment. You build the first floor deck and don't have to worry if it gets rained on for the next three days. That eliminates any chance of warping due to shrinking and swelling wood, pushing the possibilities of a squeaking floor, cracked tiles or gaping hardwood boards to almost zero, even 10 years after the house is up. Just as important as the conditions during construction is the storage and use of raw lumber and plywood before construction begins. At Customized Structures, all those materials are stored outside, bundled under heavy weatherproof covers.

The covers are only removed when the materials are needed inside the factory. With site-built houses, raw materials can be delivered under wraps, but usually are not. Moreover, even if they're delivered wrapped, the bundle gets torn open and is usually exposed to the weather for several days or weeks before it can be used and (possibly) removed from the elements. Equally impressive were the raw materials themselves. Customized Structures buys hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber and plywood every year, far more than an ordinary general contractor would ever dream of buying. "That gives use some leverage with our suppliers," says Donnelly, noting items such as spruce 2-by-6s that are warped, checked or in any way substandard are weeded out first by the suppliers.

The weeding process continues at the factory, where I saw piles of scrap cutoffs that looked okay, but were indeed not the best materials to use. Some had sap pockets in them; others were a bit twisted. When I was building, I knew sap pockets may or may not become troublesome later on, and often we were able to twist a plank back into usable shape. In short, a small general contractor usually can't afford to be too fussy and often ends up using lumber or plywood that's on the edge of substandard, even if it passes muster with the local building inspector. At Customized Structures, they were clearly tossing out anything even vaguely questionable. Detail work at Customized Structures was also better than average. The lion's share of modular homes these days are sold in the Northeast, where heating costs are a major concern for prospective homeowners. Thus, building well-insulated and weather-tight structures is crucial, whether you're a small general contractor or a modular-home builder. The standard these days is to build walls out of 2-by-6s rather than the 2-by-4s that were the standard for decades. The bigger wall cavity allows for more insulation and lower heating bills. In theory, a general contractor should be on equal footing with modular in this department. But a measuring quirk often leaves site-built homes a little less thermally efficient. Here's how: Over the windows and doors of an ordinary house is a support called a header.

The header is made by placing 2-by-6s on edge for extra support of the walls and structure above. For adequate support, three 2-by-6s set on edge are usually sufficient. Unfortunately, a modern 2-by-6 is really only 1 1/2 inches thick and 5 1/2 inches wide. Therefore, three of them stacked together on edge don't completely fill the header void. It's a rare general contractor who takes the extra time and materials to round up some half-inch lumber or plywood and cut them into the right size to fill those voids. Those unfilled voids would never be noticed by a prospective homeowner, because they're buried deep inside the walls. But voids do cause significant heat loss. At Customized Structures, every header I saw was built to completely fill the voids. Air infiltration is another big reason for heat loss, even in new houses. One of the biggest infiltration problems is around wall switches and electrical outlets. The box behind the switch and outlets minimizes the amount of insulation that can be placed between the outside wall and the inside wall. Moreover, the opening cut in the wallboard to accommodate the electrical outlet is rarely a tight fit. The gap around the outlet box combined with the limited insulating material allows cold air to enter the room.

With scores of outlets throughout a house, the heat losses can be significant. The only solution for this air infiltration would be to caulk around outlets. In a site-built house, it's extremely unusual for a general contractor to do this. Moreover, it's often not very effective, because the caulking goop often doesn't bond well with the exposed wallboard material around the outlet. But in a modular home, workers have access to the back side of the outlet. At Customized Structures, exterior walls are not put on first, as they must be with site-built homes. Thus, workers simply caulk around an outlet from the back side, easily bridging the gap between the outlet box and the more stable paper backing of the wallboard. Air infiltration is therefore cut off. And the list of efficiencies goes on and on. At site-built homes, there's frequently pilferage of materials at night and on weekends - a cost of business that is usually passed on to the homeowner. When the modular-home factory shuts down for the day, pilferage possibilities drop to almost zero. With a site-built home, it's constructed to simply stand up and stay put. A module must be able to survive the over-the-road trip to the home site and the crane lifting and setting the parts into place.

The modules therefore have to be built to a higher standard. Metal reinforcing plates at critical structural corners and junctions are added to reinforce common building joints. All sheetrock is both glued and screwed to the studs, which prevents "poppers" from developing where the screws leave an indentation that is filled with drywall compound. Overall, when I left Customized Structures, I was convinced their product was better than what I could have built, even with the most conscientious subcontractors and workers. Getting It Done and Beyond Still, a modular home doesn't eliminate all the problems of on-site labor and materials. Obviously, your new home site has to be prepared - foundation dug and poured, plus water, septic and driveway in place - well before the modules show up. A local general contractor does that. And once the modules are in place, the builder of the modules no longer has responsibility for completing your house. The builder of the modules must stand behind its product and usually offers a warranty of up to 10 years. But completion of the home is also up to a local general contractor and a platoon of subcontractors. Fortunately, most modular outfits provide prospective buyers with a few names of local general contractors who have worked with modulars before. And most subcontractors, such as plumbers, electricians and heating professionals, prefer working on modular homes because most of the difficult work is already done. Hookups are frequently done in a few days. It's the finish work, particularly masonry and flooring details, that often takes a lot of extra time. Masonry, such as chimneys, fireplaces, tiled walls and floors, and decorative brickwork, are done on site because the over-the-road trip would likely damage the mortar or grout.

Moreover, the sheer weight of brickwork would make setting the modules much trickier. Flooring, on the other hand, is left until last, largely because of subcontractor traffic during the hookup phase. Wall-to-wall carpets, hardwood floors and the like do not work well with steel-toed work boots and muddy work sites. Still, the final phase is pretty quick. "They had it weathertight in six hours," says Brian Reid, an 40-year-old airline mechanic whose two-story modular home was put together in Hyannis, Mass., four years ago. "It's held up pretty well, too," he says, noting he has two active children and a father-in-law who has been a professional building inspector all his life. Neither the hard use by the kids nor the critical eye of an inspector has turned up any serious weaknesses in the short-term test of time, Reid reports. One of the few downsides to modular over site-built homes is flexibility during the construction phase. When I built houses for other people, sometimes a customer would get inside a half-built structure and say something like, "Oh, I didn't know this closet was going to be this small. Can't you make bigger?" And of course we could. Additional windows, doors and the like were sometimes added or subtracted, porches were added or eliminated and so forth. For people who have trouble visualizing a finished home based on drawings, or even the latest computer-generated tours of a prospective home, on-site changes are very valuable.

They are also very expensive. And since modular customers are pretty price-sensitive to begin with, the on-site flexibility may never be exercised. Flexibility also may vary from one modular manufacturer to the next, too.

Lachance considered two other modular builders before settling on Customized Structures. She rejected the other two in part because they were unwilling to consider a variety of changes she wanted in the three-story house she finally settled on. "I knew what I wanted," Lachance says. "And it wasn't just a rock-bottom price - but that sure helped." In any case, both Reid and Lachance realized some extra savings in their modular homes by doing some finish work themselves, which is a common practice in both site-built and modular homes. Donnelly says many customers prefer to do some finish work themselves, both for savings and to add a personal touch. Tiling, wallpaper, light finish carpentry, shelving, even drywall finishing and cabinet installation can all add up to thousands of dollars in savings. But Donnelly warns against taking on more work than you actually have the time or ability to complete. "Going modular is really simple," Donnelly likes to tell his customers. "Think of it this way: When you buy a car, it gets delivered complete. You don't call up Detroit and order a thousand parts to be assembled in your garage. It's the same thing with a modular home. It gets delivered complete. And with a good general contractor, all you have to do is turn the key - just like a car. It's a beautiful thing."

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