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Monday, March 22, 2010

Dwell's Rubbish

I love the effort of modular makers and designers have embarked on to make everyone feel stupid who doesn't buy their load of baloney about the brave new world of housing.

This Month's cover "Smarter. Cheaper. Faster" -implying that their side business of making factory built homes and selling them doesn't somehow affect their ability to be unbaised. And last year Builder Magazine thought a modular was the wave of the future, although someone forgot to tell the consumer.

The thing about modular prefab ready made kit homes is that the people behind these grand schemes to condescendingly force the modular into the main stream are missing the boat.

HOMEBUYERS AREN'T STUPID. You can't say it's cheaper when it's not. You can't say it's faster when it's not. You can't say it's Smarter, when it's not. People talk, and I know better than anyone that a pre fab home can't be built any quicker than a stick-built home unless you conveniently neglect about half the tradesmen involved in the process. You can fool some of the people some of the time, etc...

Look, pre fab is cool. I've looked into on several occasions. Pre Fab is compelling. Pre Fab is new. So I got nothing against it- I'm not some old stick-in-the-mud - I just think the Dwells, Versaci the architect and New World Homes have to come up with a better hook than faster, cheaper and smarter.

It's not any of those things and modular will never win market share because some marketing machine says it makes you smarter. That's so 2007.


  1. pre fab is NOT new .. you should do some research
    to see how long its actually been around. it is faster because of the factory ,non weather factor assembly line construction.and can be ordered with ( extras ). the only down side is the details or quality that most people expect when they build or buy a new home.some people are just fine with what is provided.modulars can be bought and ready for furniture within weeks.
    before you read an article or two and suddenly become an expert do your homework.

  2. I like Dwell, but the complete absence of pricing is annoying, if not downright disingenuous. I agree that prefab does not mean cheaper. That was the initial rallying cry (ex editor of Dwell's book for one) but it has not panned out that way. Take Rocio Romero's LV house. I really like it, and the kit is like $45k. But look at the site and you will see homeowner builds running to $400-$500k. Any consults with Rocio herself, and the clock as well as the ATM start ticking. A few hardy souls have done a sub $200k build through creative managing of costs, being their own GC, but this is outside of what most people will do. If someone who was capable, knew what they were doing, and had access to competent skillsets, ie you Chuck, managed the process, you would have a nice little business, building rustic farmhouses for one niche, while providing modernist prefabs for another niche.

  3. OMG - I love comments, so thanks people.

    KM - I like Dwell too, and you hit the nail directly on the pinhead - Dwell's home's without the land, architect and upgrades start at some crazy price. One thing they are not is affordable. Even the other guys out there doing cool pre fab architecture haven't made any inroads on the pricing front - it's expensive, or as expensive as stick built - so they should just stop claiming it's cheaper.

    KM - totally agree that we should come out with a pre fab line, as well. Thing is, we studied it up and down and just can't find the hook - it's expensive, the land you choose is limited (need to get a crane in), and you can't improvise during the process - all the decisions are made in the factory. And mostly, we can't find a way to 'keep it real' - it's prohibitively expensive to change the mold for every house, like we do.

    As for anonymous - look, until the Pre Fab crowd stops claiming that it can be done in record time and for drastically less money, Pre Fab will remain a fringe product. The well, septic, driveway, foundation, slab, finishes, CO all take time OUTSIDE the factory, and are subject to the same risks (weather, labor, financing) as any construction.

    Pre Fab needs to lose it's insecurity complex - if it's a better house, higher quality, viable alterative - great. Then compete on those merits.

    But it will never be cheaper, smarter and faster -

    And in the end, it's not me making these claims - I've watched the marketplace reject every modular overture over the past 5 years. (no matter how pretty the marketing packaging is). The company that comes closest to competing head on with traditional construction is Conner Homes of VT. They do a nice job - but notice how no where are they claiming faster cheaper smarter. They just claim it's a great house.

  4. As both the owner of a modular home (i.e. boxes put together and NOT a trailer) and a fan of CF's work, I gotta chime in here.

    I think the most debateable branch of the "cheaper, smarter, faster" slogo is "faster." Charles, you build a lovely house and you do extraordinarily fast. I attribute those facts to your focus and work aesthetic. But not all stick builders are you, unfortunately. Many, many stick builders out there still prescribe to the old way of building a house: moseying their way through the process, taking their time and building on their schedule, not the customer's. They're stuck in the old days when 6 months beginning-to-end was extremely quick, and a year was more the norm.

    Quite honestly, when we built we were concerned about the time factor. A neighbor had been working with his stick builder on his new house for THREE YEARS. Now some of this was town regulation entanglements... but a lot of it wasn't. We chose a modular and went from lot clearing to final payment in seven months. Would have been faster but we had a few entanglements of our own.

    The only other item that I feel modulars have in their favor is the aspect of being built indoors, in a factory. It just makes quality control easier, and I, personally, like the idea of the lumber of my house not sitting out, exposed to the elements.

    Cheaper? It's a draw. I've never found any evidence to support that modulars are cheaper. Seems that modular construction is roughly about the same to marginally more, depending on the house, the lot, etc.

    Smarter? Well, that's entire up to the designer and builder. A house is as smart as what you put in it. The process in which the house gets built, in the end, doesn't make one house smarter than the next.

    The moral of my story is that not all stick builders are you, my friend... although they should be. If they were, there would be no arguement of which process is better... you'd win hands down.

  5. Great points NestDweller.

    Questions - Are you including the factory construction time?

    Did you have any sort of customization?

    Again, as you mention, my point is simple - if the 'pre fab is going to change the world' crowd ever wants to make major inroads, they will need a better hook than 'better, smarter, cheaper, easier, faster' -

    ND - it's also fair to say that across the country there are thousands of builders like Catskill Farms, who build quickly with quality at a fair price - so the pre fabs ARE competing with the likes of us. If the entire country was as labor scarce as Sullivan County, then modular would have already taken over. Luckily, not all builders have such a hard time putting together a team as we do up here.

  6. Denise @ Cornerstone TileMarch 23, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    Having a Modular home, myself, I have to chime in here. By no means are they cheaper, if you take the bare bones, cheap carpet in all the rooms, basic crap cabinets, doors and windows then maybe you can pay a "cheap" price for one. But thats EXACTLY what you get "Cheap"! The old you "get what you pay for", fits in here. Once I started adding the upgraded cabinets, Anderson windows, an extra 20 feet to the basic footprint, a Huge deck and all the other bells and whistles, you want if your building a home, then it adds up to more than a stick built one.
    And Faster?...only if you have a competant GC.
    I hired & fired 3 GC's and finally completed the home ourselves. Took 3 yrs and 3 moves to complete (prematurly sold our home), because it was supposed to be "FAST".
    Smart?...only if you do your homework. And your right about the crane. What a nightmare that was....took out the community fence around the pool, the house ended up sitting in parking lot for a few days until they could remove more trees to fit the crane in.
    So the bottom line is.. sure you can get a cheap bare bones one built,on a tree less piece of property and providing you have a reputable builder, like yourself. But, I gaurantee the home won't have the same charm as the Catskill Farms homes do, unless you spend a substantial amount of money over budget.
    I have a beautiful home, but only after customizing it ourselves!
    When I can finally downsize (2 kids down, 3 to go) I will definitely consider a Catskill Farm home. Funny Steve & I, were just talking about this! ;)

  7. Denise - No wonder my customers love you (and consistently ending up busting their budget at your store!)

  8. Denise@Cornerstone TIleMarch 23, 2010 at 6:09 PM

    What?? Is that a compliment & a dig all in one sentence...hmmm.
    My opinion is.. if your gonna do it...do it right the first time! ...have no regrets..shoulda, coulda, woulda doesn't make it in life.

  9. For me, it's less about quality (since of course there are many different quality levels, if you can pay for them) and more about improvisation.

    People who build homes change their minds, become inspired during the process - with modular, you get what you designed the first time, from a plan. If you change something, you are changing a finished house -which is expensive.

    Our process - or more accurately, traditional construction - allows for a lot of organic, improvised, and inspired ideas at all phases of construction.

    I personally can't imagine many of my customers coming to a decision where a fully complete house dropped on your site is a very cool process.

  10. Hey, sorry for the lag in replying... busy week.

    "Are you including the factory construction time?" - Good question! I actually didn't... we signed off on our boxes in January, so the actual amount of time on our project was over ten months. Three unforeseen things REALLY extended our schedule, however: a zoning variance request, a problem in electrifying the property and the fact that we built in 2005, when our builder was VERY busy. Yes, I know... none of these things would slow you and your crew down. But like I've said, all builders are not you.

    "Did you have any sort of customization?" We did, but nearly all of said customizations were done by our builder and not the factory. Truth be told, our place was 65% pre-fab and 35% stick-built... it's a cape, so the entire second floor had to be hand-finished. And yes, just about anything that made the house "special" and more than just a tract house (the porch, the deck, the fireplace, the loft and nearly all the trim and finishes) were done by the builder and not the factory.

    And there's the rub. When you buy modular, you get legos. And legos are legos. How well the legos are made is up to the factory. How well the legos are joined together is up to your builder. How much charm you can infuse into the lego house is up to the buyer. Suffice it to say, when you're not starting with blocks, you get a warmer, more authentic product.

    "People who build homes change their minds, become inspired during the process - with modular, you get what you designed the first time, from a plan. If you change something, you are changing a finished house -which is expensive." Amen to that. Thankfully, we had a very, very good idea of what we wanted and didn't deviate from the original plan much at all. But we're not like all clients either. :)

    "Our process - or more accurately, traditional construction - allows for a lot of organic, improvised, and inspired ideas at all phases of construction." That's because you don't just build a house, you build a home. You care about the aesthtic statement your product makes, and how your company looks in the end. Our builder never even made it back to straighten our out-of-plumb deck piers... and doesn't that speak volumes?

    (PS - Know anyone who can fix out-of-plumb deck piers?)