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Prefabricated Modular Homes -- the Post-Structural Dwelling of Energy Efficiency

Posted by: Tony Dean
16/06/17

According to the International Living Future Institute, building operations today account for 40% of energy use/carbon emissions worldwide. Veracity notwithstanding, statistics such as this one have inexorably, inevitably become the foundation upon which the world's architects lean as they sketch their designs in their stylish efforts to minimalistically save the world. 

Meet the Prefabricated Modular Housing industry--although, perhaps using the word industry has the wrong connotation. Modular homes consist of multiple sections, called "modules". The modules are built individually and are delivered to the site only once they are ready to be fitted into their relevant position on the floor plans. Imagine playing with children's building blocks (colour isn't important)--the difference is that each individual block is a module or room of the house, meaning you'll only need a handful of blocks to create your new home. 

Phrases such as faster to buildmore affordable, and more sustainable have become the buzz phrases of the prefab modular housing movement, but what's the reality? Are these claims true?And should we expect this sector of the housing industry to suddenly burst into popular life?

Are they faster to build?

If we begin with a timeline comparison of a site-built construction versus a modular construction, the first two stages of construction--the design and engineering, and then the permits and approvals--will take roughly the same length of time for both types of housing construction...unless. Unless what? Well, unless the modular house is designed using a preexisting floor plan that the builder and manufacturer are familiar with already; if this is the case, then the design and engineering of the modular house will be faster than a site-built house. While the permits and approval stage of both types of housing construction take longer than first-time home builders would likely expect, there is no real discrepancy between the two.

If the next stage is considered as site preparation and foundation work, the two types of housing are, again, evenly-matched in the time required. A site-built house will of course require a sturdy foundation to be laid before any framing can be built upon it; however, with modular construction, you are able to take advantage of the benefit of simultaneously working on the house during the foundation preparation. While manufacturers put their latest technology through its paces in the controlled environment of a modular housing factory--where, it's worth remembering, irritating delays caused by weather or by damaged, sub-par, or stolen building materials ultimately cannot have an adverse effect on the manufacture. Once your modular home's site and foundation are prepared, the prefabricated components of your new home are delivered to the site, and the hired workforce can set the various pieces into place, connect up the utilities, and move off to their next project while a site-built worker is twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the rain to stop and for fresh, correct materials to arrive. 

Are they more affordable?

The off-site production of homes has been pioneered as the future of construction previously. During the 1990s in the UK, Labour's John Prescott tried, and sadly, failed, to revive the trend. During the recession, the supposed high cost of the homes meant that housebuilders were opposed to building houses at a quicker rate than that at which they could sell them.

The shortest answer to this question is that it largely depends on the type of modular home you want and on your budget. Your calculator is going to have to put in a handful of different sums, these include but aren't necessarily limited to:

  • The house kit: by this, I mean the flat-packed structural elements of your modular home. The walls, windows, doors, floors and ceilings. 
  • Interior kit: all the utility components of a home, including heating system; ventilation; electric cables, sockets, and switches; lights; plumbing; sanitary ware; and any custom kit such as floor tiling.
  • The foundation. Depending on the land you've bought, this could take time and cost a lot of money if landscaping is required. 
  • The land itself. Don't forget about this bit. Being able to afford a shiny new flatpack home is fantastic, but where are you going to put it? 
  • Transportation. Well, even contemporary avant-garde houses don't carry themselves. Trucks will be required. The bigger the project, the larger the convoy. 
  • Installation. The time required to put everything together, and the manpower necessary to make sure everything is completed within that time and according to safety regulations. 

Before the outlandishly-minded architects began drafting their designs for these eco-friendly, aesthetically minimalist homes, construction modules were being used for offices, commercial spaces, locker rooms and shower facilities, portable guard houses, plant control buildings, daycare centres, portable medical centres, and plenty more. Many of these different functions require a modular unit to be constructed quickly and for the furnishings to be far less lavish than a new home's has the potential to be. 

In terms of some real figures, cheap prefab modular homes in the UK can be purchased for as little as £30,000 ($38,000). And the average price lies roughly between £100,000--£250,000 ($128,000-$320000). As with any kind of housing, you budget, your lifestyle, and your location will influence the prospective price of your new home. 

Estonian practice Architect 11 showcase some fantastic examples of what large-budget modular housing could look like. Their Passion House range comes in three variants, M1, M3, M5, and Villa. Villa, their most expensive, is the kind of home you see in Hollywood films when an important person is sheltered within a safehouse, with lush verdant forest on one side and an endless swath of moonlit ocean on another. For the Villa, you would be looking at around  £545,000 ($696,000). And that's before you purchase your land. Obviously at this sort of price, many beautiful traditional houses are already on the market, and could be also be constructed (albeit slower), and so, this is where the third buzz phrase comes under the spotlight: are they more sustainable?

The Sustainability 

Currently, the modular home market has involved lots of homes built using the same plans. This enables manufacturers to record the quantity of required materials, they can tailor their manufacturing systems towards maximum efficiency knowing that, as mentioned earlier, parts will not disappear from a site unexpectedly. A site-built dwelling's waste can often fill numerous refuse trucks. UK group WRAP claims that up to 90% of waste can be reduced by going modular. Wood, cement, concrete, cardboard, plasterboard, are all reduced in terms of usage and therefore waste. 

Modular homes also offer the flexibility of continual opportunity for expansion or development. The easy disassembly enables modules to be relocated and refurbished far more easily than, say, an extension to a site-built house. Some examples exist of entire modular homes being recycled for new use. As far as quality goes, modular homes are required to meet the highest building standards. This is one of many ways in which a modular home is not a mobile home or a doublewide

From a UK perspective, Joey Gardiner wrote in The Guardian in February 2017 that the sustainability argument for prefab modular housing is not as clear-cut positive as the proponents of these eccentric examples of house design would suggest. And there is definitely some level of merit to Gardiner's words. For all of the energy efficiency, the components of a modular home are--according to Mike Leonard, Chief Executive of the Building Alliance--largely imported. This means more air miles. Leonard further argues that traditionally-constructed houses source roughly 80% of their materials domestically. There is also the consideration of sustainability in the job market. If the components are manufactured overseas, then there is a risk to construction jobs in the UK; moreover, given that the assembly of modular houses is so much quicker, requiring less heavy machinery and consequently less tangible skills, the manpower could be sourced through the design studio for cheaper than a highly qualified builder's services would cost.

As with anything, modular housing comes with advantages and disadvantages. The extremely high levels of waste reduction arguably outweigh the prospect of increased air miles. However, the effects that such speedy construction could have on jobs remains to be seen until the industry grows larger. 

Google recently announced that it will invest in modular homes quickly in order to (in the short-term) house its Silicon Valley employees who cannot find affordable housing. They have reached an agreement with Factory OS for around $25 million. In terms of trendsetters, if architects in black turtle-neck sweaters don't give you a reason to look at a modular home, then perhaps the world's biggest search engine might. 

Some curious looking modular homes: 

The Micro House

Arc House

Magic Green Homes 

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