Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Site Builders Need to Build to Our "Inferior Standards"

Listening in on a conversation at this month’s Boot Camp between a couple of modular home builders and Tom Hardiman, the executive director of the MHBA, proved very enlightening.

One of the builders from NJ was saying how he had to do more to please the code and review people during the permitting process than any site builder does but he also has to continually defend the fact that modular is built to higher standard to every code enforcement person that shows up at his jobsite. He said that even though he builds a better house than the site built guys, the code officials look down on modular as an inferior building method.

The “Ah Ha” moment for me was when Tom said “Maybe it’s time that site builders have their plans reviewed and built to our ‘inferior’ standards."

I have been mulling that statement over in my head and I completely agree with Tom. It’s time that site builders come up to our standards and have to submit the same paperwork and have their plans scrutinized and bashed just like the modular home builders.

So I reached out to several modular home builders and asked them how obtaining a building permit and an occupancy permit is different from their site built brethren.

Here is what one of the builders sent me and I think he captured the essence of the problem.

The over engineering of modular make it extremely difficult for inspectors to decipher.   They think modular homes NEED this over engineering and anything less is inferior. They do not know how to navigate the plans. The modular homes have so much metal in them and they don’t know where the responsibility of the factor ends and site work begins therefore they are always requesting letters, additional strapping and over connections (more money and time) to pass inspections. We could save $1000’s of dollars in unnecessary strapping if the factory and local engineers worked better together in design and assisting in educating the local guys on what is truly necessary.

Again the responsibility factor of where the factory ends and the site builder responsibility begins.  Our Modular plans are CONSTANTLY being unnecessarily reviewed and criticized by local officials when these plans were already approved and passed.  They want to critique them when they already far exceed local/state standards thus losing a lot of time with explanations.  Decks, porches, foundations drawings should ALL be done by the factory on the sealed plans and there would be no confusion.  Having too many hands in the pot leads to local inspector’s confusion or lack of interest in plans reviews therefore they fail it for every little detail that 99% of the times is in the large packages submitted but they were too “lazy” to look for it.  We are constantly clarifying or pointing out the location in the plans submitted-their typical response is “get a letter stating this information when it is already in there.”

Plumbing, HVAC, electrical, framing etc., items and details of the construction of the home are constantly being looked at when they are already approved-local guys need to do their job and inspect what is necessary and what is not-foundations, decks, porches, site work not the modular for that was done already.  Again most places if they had a choice would ban our product for it is “too difficult” to manage/inspect.

When in doubt (which is a lot) FAIL.  I have NEVER had a modular permit go through the process without failing-I can submit the same plans to the same town 5 times and it will fail for 5 different reasons each time-there is not consistently.  We are ALWAYS on the defensive-our homes are built MUCH better and more accurately than conventional stick building but due to lack of knowledge and effort the easy thing to do is fail, fail, fail and make us constantly prove our way through the process. We have about 12-15 permits in now and cannot obtain an approval on any thus delaying home sets and scheduling, factory deliveries and new order scheduling.  I have an entire staff dedicated to permit packages, submission and follow ups and it still is the hardest part of the homebuilding process.

When submitting for a permit the township’s don’t know what should or should not be on the tech cards-some towns on some permits are making us put all electrical outlets, plumbing fixtures, etc. while on another permit in the same town are telling us only put the items that are being done on site.  Then through the review or inspection process this can change.  I know that the only items that should be on the cards/permits is what is being done on site and that is what should be charged for and inspected by they seem to be very confused.

Fees being charged are supposed to be charged for the work on site. The majority of these items include, foundation, decks/porches, and site work.  Well the townships argue with us the fees to be charged because they are charging for the entire structure in lieu of just the work being performed.  We have had to go back after the house is done and show them their mistakes and “try” and get reimbursement.  We don’t fight it earlier for it would again hold up the process.  Some modular home permits are being unfairly charged for the “on site” work compared to conventional permits for the entire house-for a foundation, and porches we have been charged 6-7K for the permit-I guess they are trying to get their fees from somewhere.

Bonding and site access.  Many towns are making us put up a bond for the site for construction due to what they say “is damage we will cause” during construction.  Well what about conventional construction bringing in lumber trucks, cement trucks, booms, etc. and I have seen them take out stop signs, curbs, damaged neighbor’s homes etc. and there are no bonds or additional criteria involved with that as well as the curfews they put on bringing in the boxes to the site as opposed to no curfews bringing large trucks and materials to the site for stick build.  This also is in line with how much of the site we will “disturb” with regard to soil sediment control plan-we are again unfairly abused with how much land we will disturb with bringing in the boxes as opposed to site bring in in materials.

This is just one builder in one part of NJ. Imagine just for a minute the difficulties we face all over the country.

Blu Homes recently announced that they will be withdrawing from selling their homes nationally and will concentrate on building in northern CA for this exact reason.

This is not a factory problem nor is it a modular home builder problem. The problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the local municipalities and their plan review and code officials. Nobody in our industry has taken the time, effort or made the investment to teach these people the real benefits of modular construction.

The best we can currently hope for is that site builders have to build to ‘our inferior standards’ and get a taste of what happens at the local level.

1 comment:

John Beddow said...

I found this article very interesting. I've been in the modular business for over 30 years and the challenges with the permit/local approval process has not changed much in many states. I agree that local building officials have problems understanding us, but I have found that when you take the time ot explain your project in advance and work with them, they can be reasonable. Of course, there will always be those who don't want you there. That happens in any industry. To say "this is not a factory problem nor is it a modular home builder problem" is absolutely wrong. The local building official has a stake in the status quo. He is paid whether you get a permit or not. It is definitely our industries problem. Some states, such as north Carolina, worked closely with the Fire Marshall's Office (they regulate the modular building industry) and legislature to obtain their support in backing the process and getting local building officials to accept factory construction as approved. While this does not remove all of the obstacles, it has provided significant improvement.
On a recent multi-story, 440 apartment project in the CA Bay area we found the local building officials to be very cooperative. It did not start out this way. It took a concerted effort by the architect, GC and modular builder working with the local officials to get the project done. But it paid off for everyone, including the local inspectors and plan reviewers.
John Beddow