Modular houses, the umbrella term for homes constructed entirely or partially at facilities far from their eventual addresses, were extraordinarily popular during the late sixties and seventies, when the suburbs were growing along with the middle class. Today, these homes are more closely associated with the displaced and the stylish. As if to illustrate that point, Brad Pitt built prefabricated homes in New Orleans for displaced locals after Katrina. Even when no disaster has hit, shelter magazines frequently devote spreads to the modernist prefab homes cropping up in hip locales like Marfa, Texas and Big Sur, California. But, despite the press, only 8.9 percent of the new houses built in the U.S. last year were modular.
The value proposition offered by a modular houses is two-fold. They are considerably cheaper to construct because they are built on an assembly line pre-stocked with appropriate materials and manned by specialists, and they are fast to build for exactly the same reason. The hard part, generally speaking, is installation, which can be particular tricky for anyone looking to build a retreat far from urban centers. Fortunately, a number of firms creating entirely manufactured homes and modular homes shipped in pieces like Ikea furniture – the Swedish company now sells houses – are streamlining installation to such a degree that vacant lots can become homesteads in a single day.
There is also the matter of predictability. "We're able to show clients what their homes will look like and work to customize the details," says Geoffrey Warner of Minneapolis's Alchemy Architects, which sell the modern, prefab weeHouse. "We've tried to make it so our homes offer good design value for the money." The weeHouse, he explains, gives design buffs the chance to live in something cutting edge without having to go through the expensive hassle of building from the ground up. "We re-use good design," Warner explains. For home builders, that means saving and avoiding the kinks, which have already been worked out.
There are a variety of options for modular builders, each suited different types of builders. Here's what to look for:
The Pre-Built Option
Manufactured homes are built entirely off site then shipped to future inhabitants. Many are small and many are built as low-slung ranch homes so that they can be loaded onto the back of flatbed trucks. The best are built in two or more pieces and then sewn together on site. Excel's 1,315-foot Cape house model is a perfect example of how manufactured homes can be both affordable and attractive. It can be shipped anywhere in the lower 48, doesn't look modular, and combines charm with convenience. The catch – and this is something to look out for – is that Excel is a wholesaler not a retailer and will only work with builders. Still, finding a builder is never particularly hard.
The Prefab Modern Option
WeeHouses are great looking small homes with clean lines that can be ordered with appliances, hardwood floors, and all manner of amenities pre-installed. The rectangular boxes can be stacked into bulkier homes or, in warmer climes, arranged around a courtyard. Warner has built them in Northern Minnesota, Texas, California, and Maine. "Working with modular factories around the country, we make sure our customers get what they're looking for wherever they are building," says Warner.
The Log Cabin Option
America's most iconic modular homes, log cabins come as pre-cut wood piles and are stacked, Lincoln Logs-style, into homes over the course of a few quick workdays. The advantages of this mode of construction are the natural insulation offered by bulky materials and the fresh-from-the-sawmill charm. Every man dreams of owning a log cabin and, as it turns out, they aren't particularly expensive, especially if you're willing to keep it small and do the homesteader thing. The Original Log Cabin Homes, an offshoot of the western outfitter Cabelas, sells its 224-square-foot, two-room Grizzly 1 model for $20,670 – sometimes discounting it by as much as $7,000. It's rustic, but that's the point.
The Most Convenient Option
Architects have been turning shipping containers into modular homes for years. It's a great way to re-purpose a bulky, ubiquitous object, but the homes created can be unattractive or out of place in a rural setting. Meka World (pronounced "Make a World") has solved this problem by constructing wooden boxes the size and shape of shipping containers. The boxes can be stacked or arranged in a variety of ways, but they can also be easily shipped anywhere cargo ships and flatbed trucks can be found. That's a lot of places. And easy shipping means lower prices: The brand's glamorous but small 320-square-foot Alp model goes for $71,000 including installation.