Friday, August 8, 2014

Russell Versaci Understands the Advantages of Modular Housing

In 2006, Russell Versaci, the renowned Architect that uses the beauty of older traditional homes to design homes for today, wrote an article for New Old House Magazine that actually explains why people are turned off to prefab and why modular is actually the better way to build your new home. Fascinating reading.

House in a Box

Our great-great-grandparents would have been horrified by the idea of a house built
in a factory. “A house in a box? It’s unnatural! It can’t be done! It will never last!” You
can imagine the howls of righteous indignation.

Times have changed … or have they? Over the last hundred years, surprisingly little
has changed in our attitude toward factory homebuilding. We still consider it novel
and bizarre, and certainly second rate. This despite the fact that, at the turn of the
last century, houses built in factories blossomed across America as Sears Roebuck,
Montgomery Ward, Aladdin and their imitators cranked out well-loved houses for
the middleclass.

So why our contemporary disdain for the manufactured house? In part the blame
lies in what happened after the beloved kit homes of the 1920s, when the house on
wheels was born. Following the lean years of the Depression and the dislocations of
World War II, homebuilding soared in the 1950s with the invention of the suburban
tract home and its nomadic cousin, the mobile home. Mobile homes were small,
cheap, and light enough to be towed behind the family car. Cheap was the label that
stuck, though, and mobile homes were stigmatized as tenements for the underclass,
labeled “trailer trash.”

20th century Modernists were not deterred. Unable to resist the romance of a house
on wheels, the idea of a “pre-fab” house was a recurring fantasy for architects trying
to invent a home that could be mass-produced like an automobile. LeCorbusier
dreamed about building a “machine for living.” Buckminster Fuller toyed with a
trailerable stainless steel igloo he called his “Dymaxion House.” Lesser lights tried
their hand at everything from collapsibles to inflatables to modulars. None of their
ideas ever caught on with a public who remained skeptical about these novel
experiments in home.

What modern architects have stubbornly ignored is the fact that Americans like
their homes to look traditional. Not a glass box, not a metal shipping container, not a
concrete egg crate – a house with windows and doors, a roof and a chimney, just like
a child’s drawing. An architect’s vision of pre-fab never looks like home.
Maybe the answer to a house in a box is not to reinvent the wheel. As with all things
of lasting value, tradition may provide a readymade answer. Why not look back to
the last time factory homebuilding actually resonated with the public? The kit
homes of the 1920s offer a successful formula.
Let’s look at the Sears model. All the pieces to build a Sears “Modern Home” were
pre-cut to size in a lumberyard, numbered, palletized, and shipped by railroad car to
a building site for assembly. The kit included everything from studs to siding to
windows and doors to roof shingles, plus hardware and plumbing fixtures and
kitchen cabinets – in short, everything including the kitchen sink. It was a complete
house in a box, accompanied by a thorough set of instructions so that even a handy
homeowner could build his own house with a little help from his friends.

Today an updated version of the same system is called “panelization.” In this new
version, complete stud walls are assembled in a factory along with their windows
and doors. Floor joists and roof rafters are pre-cut to size; millwork details for
cornices, window casings, and door surrounds are pre-built; and, staircases and
kitchen cabinets are readymade. They are shipped to the building site in two or
three flatbed truckloads timed so that materials arrive just when they are needed.
The result can be every bit as charming as a Sears bungalow.

A newer edition of systems building is called “modular” construction. As the name
implies, this system involves building modules, or complete boxes that are joined
together to make a house. You have seen modular sections driving down the
highway – wide loads on flatbed trucks wrapped in plastic sheets. When they get to
the building site, they are hoisted by crane onto foundations and bolted together
into a complete house. The walls and floor finishes are tidied up, the electrical
wiring, plumbing, and heating ducts are coupled together, and viola! – a finished

What’s the point, you may ask? Why not just build a good traditional house the old
fashioned way, one stick at a time? Just ask any builder about the state of today’s
homebuilding industry. Good stick building is not easy anymore. Try finding capable
craftsmen in the building trades who know how to properly lay out a stud wall,
miter a crown molding, or set a tile floor in mud. They are few and far between.
Most of them only know how to snap parts together like Lego blocks.

Have you gone to the lumberyard lately to find a nice clean, straight 2 x 4? Lumber
quality has deteriorated so badly that you have to cull through a whole pallet to find
a decent stick. What about doors and windows? These days a good double-hung
wood window is considered a premium add-on rather than standard issue. The rest
are made of plastic. The same is true of every building product across the board.
And nothing has gotten any cheaper. Today good stick building is difficult and

If it’s so hard to build well, what purpose is served by building in a factory? A home
building plant is like a fine woodworking shop, filled with precision cutting,
clamping, and nailing equipment often run by computer programs that streamline
production and minimize waste. The people running this equipment are skilled
craftsmen who concentrate on performing specific tasks day in and day out, rather
than a crew picked up in the field with uneven skills. They work in ideal conditions
throughout the year instead of dodging the weather or just not showing up. Every
job is done on the flat rather than going up and down ladders. In short, it’s a
systems-based approach to homebuilding – just like Henry Ford’s assembly line.

Because a factory can order and store lumber in bulk, higher-grade materials can be
purchased for about the same price. Almost nothing goes to waste because the cut
offs are used for blocking or sheathing small areas. What’s left is sawdust, and even
that is carted off for animal bedding. Once the rough frames are built, the finishing
work begins. High quality decay-resistant woods are used to make corner boards
and trim moldings. Door and window casings are mitered and fitted into place, and
crown moldings are pre-cut and assembled in long runs. Even the clapboard siding
is cut to length and numbered for easy assembly. Nothing is left to chance and it all
goes out the door on pallets, shipped to the jobsite with a how-to manual.

It’s hard to discount all of these advantages. There is still the old stigma, of course,
that it just can’t be done as well. The truth is that factory-built houses are often
better than their stick-built cousins, as anyone who dares take a factory tour will
surely see. Today many of the best builders in America are taking a hard look, and
some are already committed to the benefits of panelization. One thing we can be
sure of: traditional homebuilding skills are not going to get any better. Barring a
miraculous return to old-fashioned craftsmanship on the building site, the future of
a new old house rests on the promise of a house in a box.


Harris said...


Jaco Schultz said...

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