It's a Mod, Mod World

They’re greener, they go up faster and they may be cheaper—which is why builders and new buyers in the area are embracing luxury modular homes.



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Robin Schlosser made an offer on a brand-new, colonial-style home last spring, she had no idea it had come in a box. Nine boxes to be precise, strapped onto flatbed trucks at a Pennsylvania factory and delivered to Edgefield Road in Bethesda.

With five bedrooms and 4½ baths, it didn’t look like her idea of a modular home, although that’s what the home inspector said it was.

“To me, a modular home was like a construction trailer,” Schlosser says. “I had no clue.”

In the last decade, hundreds of modular homes have popped up in Montgomery County—with dozens in Bethesda alone. Some of the area’s best-rated builders are recent converts to the trend, including Meridian Homes and Sandy Spring Builders. The latter’s New Classics division even has a website that enables potential buyers to mix and match modular floor plans and select the color of the siding, the stonework and more.

Both Bethesda companies have teamed up with area architects in the last five years or so to formulate designs that include all the luxury accoutrements you’d find in a house built on-site.

“Consumers in this market have been more open to the idea after they walk through one and go, ‘This is not my grandmother’s double-wide trailer,’ ” says Jonathan Lerner, CEO at Meridian Homes, which built Schlosser’s house.

Schlosser’s one regret with her new home is that she didn’t get to see “the set,” as it’s called in building circles: that moment when the ready-made pieces are assembled—Lego fashion—by a few construction workers and a crane. An experienced crew can usually “set” down an entire two-story house in just one day. After that, it usually takes anywhere from three to six months to make the home move-in ready, builders say.

Schlosser’s new neighbors couldn’t stop talking about “the set” when she moved into her home last June, about 45 days after the house was finished. Some even offered photographs and video of the big day—the latest variation on welcoming new neighbors with coffee cake or a casserole.

Those who want to see what insta-home assembly looks like can go to Sandy Spring Builders’ New Classics website at www.newclassics.com. A time-lapse video renders into a few minutes the 12 hours it took to stack all the pieces of a 6,300-square-foot luxury model home that the company erected on Bradley Boulevard last May to woo prospective buyers.

“Our niche is here,” says Phil Leibovitz, one of Sandy Spring’s owners, gesturing above his head, then lowering his hand to add, “not here.”

Fans of modular construction point to multiple reasons for its successful “re-branding” as part of the luxury market. They say it can cut construction time in half, while still allowing clients to customize everything from floor plans to color schemes. And since the rooms are built indoors, materials aren’t exposed to the elements, which can lead to rot and spawn mold and indoor air quality problems later on.

“These homes are well-built, the way houses have always been built,” says Craig Kay, whose Potomac-based K2 Development has built two custom modular homes in the Washington area and plans to build another in Bethesda this year. But given the factory construction, “you don’t have to worry that it’s going to rain through the roof” and warp the wood floors, as you would if it were being built entirely on-site.

And that’s not all. Modular homes are considered “greener” because the factories where they’re built tend to do a better job of using lumber and other materials efficiently, leaving little waste for the landfill. That makes it easier for builders to rack up points toward “green” building standards such as LEED certification.

It’s a matter of debate whether custom modular construction is less expensive than the traditional “stick-built” method. Several builders say these houses aren’t significantly cheaper to put up. However, cost overruns—notorious in custom building—are less likely, they say. The reason: Buyers of these factory-made residences make most of the big decisions up-front—everything from the color of the roof tiles to whether to forgo a formal living room in favor of a den.

“Change orders are the exception—definitely the exception, not the rule,” Lerner says.

But, according to Kay, when changes are made after a house is on the assembly line, they can result in even greater overruns and technical headaches. “If you don’t know what you want, this is not for you,” he says.

As with traditional building, the final cost depends on the quality and price of the materials the buyer selects, plus the cost of the land, which can vary widely. Bethesda modulars built “on spec” in the last couple of years have sold in the $1.1- million to $1.5-million price range. For people who already own a parcel, Lerner says, construction can cost $600,000 to more than $1 million.

Industry sources say the economic downturn has helped spur interest in custom modular construction among homebuyers skittish about cost overruns and lavish spending. And modular factories such as North American Housing Corp.—which had to close two of three area factories last year—are more willing than they might once have been to collaborate with upscale developers on customizing homes.

North American’s engineers have worked with Meridian’s architects, for instance, on adapting to Bethesda’s tony but traditional vibe.

“Bethesda has a look our standard stock plan didn’t have,” says Kelly Timmins, director of sales and marketing for North American, which built Schlosser’s house. “That was the big issue—getting away from the traditional colonial look and getting into an architectural look [of Bethesda] that I think is unique.”

That has meant “heavy, heavy customization and architectural detail,” he says, including special interior moldings, kitchen and bath upgrades and attached garages. The rooflines are particularly special, Timmins says, incorporating “reverse gables and a lot of peaks and roof curves.”

Beyond design finesse, advances in technology combined with engineering ingenuity have contributed to the modular mansion’s appeal. For instance, engineered beams, which are stronger and lighter than typical lumber, have made it possible to build larger “great rooms”—as wide as 23 feet—as well as higher ceilings.

Workers at the factory build the walls and the roof, add the drywall and other structural elements, completing entire rooms that are then boxed up. A crew accompanies the boxes to assemble them into a house on-site. Then a second crew does the finishing work, installing tiles, flooring, appliances, the heating and cooling system, and more.

One of the biggest challenges for modular builders is getting the pieces to the site without snagging power lines or having to negotiate too many hairpin curves. As is the case with North American’s Strattanville, Pa., factory, which is more than a four-hour drive from southern Maryland, modular factories catering to Greater Washington are located deep in the exurbs, where space is abundant and labor costs lower. Transporting the parts down a highway and then onto sometimes curving, tree-lined neighborhood streets is always a concern. Because no traffic lane is 23 feet wide, the bigger rooms usually come in two boxes, and are put together on the construction site.

Timmins says his engineers’ most recent dilemma was how to build the elaborate roof trusses on one home and get them to the construction site. They eventually figured out how to have the trusses fold down on themselves to clear power lines and other obstacles. When the trusses reached their destination, North American’s crew was able to unfold the roof and secure it in place.

Once built, a modular home is virtually indistinguishable from one that went up the old-fashioned way. Sandy Spring offers a “driving tour” of its modulars in some of Bethesda’s most exclusive neighborhoods, enabling perspective buyers to judge for themselves. The company chose to build its model home on Bradley Boulevard last spring because about 17,000 cars pass that spot each day. It figured that was a great way to advertise the modular home, Leibovitz says.

Despite all the positive publicity, modular homes have their critics. Those disturbed by the “teardown” phenomenon, in which older homes in densely settled neighborhoods are demolished and replaced by larger residences, see the burgeoning modular trend as more of the same—only faster. And some people, hearing the word “modular,” fear they’ll cheapen the look of a neighborhood.

“People get a complex; they say, ‘I would never buy modular,’ ” says Kay, who is a Potomac real estate agent in addition to being a builder. “This is better and quicker and built to code, but they are caught in the stigma against modular homes.”

Kay, who comes from a family of builders going back generations in Greater Washington, sees a similar divide in the trade. “If my family ever thought I was building modular, they would throw me out of the family,” he says facetiously. His brother and a cousin develop commercial and residential properties in Northern Virginia. His father, now 82 and retired, built houses throughout the region for decades. A grandfather was also in the business. Of course, Kay concedes, they already know he has switched to building “100 percent modular” after decades of doing it the old-fashioned way.

Both Kay and Bethesda builder Mark Scott expect modular building eventually will take over the custom homebuilding industry. Scott, president of Mark IV Builders, hasn’t considered swapping traditional building methods for modular himself, and he’s not convinced by claims that modulars can be built faster than stick-built homes. But as modular becomes more prevalent, he expects lower construction costs to drive the industry transformation.

Regardless of what traditional builders think, homeowners appear to be coming around to the mod squad. Barry Shuler is among them. His six-bedroom house in Edgemoor, listed for sale at nearly $1.8 million, is not a modular but it is located near several modular homes built by Sandy Spring. “I don’t think modular is the issue,” Shuler says. “It’s style and quality,” two things he thinks the modulars often have.

George Myers agrees. He’s president of GTM Architects, the Bethesda firm that designed the Bradley Boulevard modular as well as a Sandy Spring modular mansion in exclusive Phillips Park in the Foxhall neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Clients “are more interested in what the finished product will end up being,” Myers says. Modular, he adds, is “really just a different way of building. It’s the same two-by-sixes, the same drywall and trim. You just put it together at a factory.” In fact, he considers modular houses structurally superior, with additional layering between floors and a reduced likelihood of human error because they are made in a factory.

Modular owners tend to agree that the result is more important than how it was achieved. Julie and John Garel commissioned a modular home in Bethesda’s Edgemoor neighborhood from Sandy Spring Builders late in the spring of 2009.

“The fact that we could get the house that we wanted, and quickly, was just a no-brainer,” Julie Garel says. Her previous experience with a builder involved the renovation of the family’s old home in the Virginia Beach area—a project that failed to stay on budget or on schedule. “You had to constantly be vigilant,” she says.

No such headaches with the modular building process, Garel says. Once the pieces were delivered from the factory, the house was finished in 140 days. The family moved into it in January 2010. And “once we were in, this whole idea that this is a modular home just started to fade away. It just became a wonderful home.”

Schlosser feels the same way after being in her modular home for nearly a year. She has all the amenities she was seeking when she first went looking for a home: the big, open spaces, the second-floor laundry room, the mudroom off the garage, the built-in shelving, the top-of-the-line finishes.

“I’ve been very happy with it,” she says.

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