Saturday, January 14, 2017

Confusion About “Modular” at IBS

One of the biggest takeaways from my adventure at the International Builder’s Show (IBS) last week was the general lack of awareness of what “modular” means. Not only did most vendors not really understand the term, builders and even some of the speakers in the different Centrals didn’t either.

So let me take a minute and explain what a modular house is and what it definitely isn’t.


A modular home is built of “floors” or “modules” depending in what part of the country you live. I’ll call them modules. Modular homes are built to IRC standards while manufactured homes are built to the less stringent HUD Standards.

Individual modules are built on an assembly line with production workers building the floor, walls and ceiling. Everything that is needed to make the module part of the finished home is included while on the production floor. Insulation, drywall, wiring, plumbing, flooring, cabinets and anything else the builder’s customer wants are built into the new home in the factory.

These modules are built to the latest International Building Codes (IRC) and to the state and local codes required where the home will be located. These are permanent structures.


Once delivered to the job site, the modules are lifted by crane and placed onto a permanent foundation. Individual modules are fitted together to form the finished home. Once it is “set and weather tight” which usually takes less than 8 hours, the builder moves onto the job and completes the button up and finish work. This can take as little as 30 days in many cases. The builder is responsible for completing all electrical and plumbing connections, finishing the work on the “marriage walls” and any special items the customer had ordered that were not installed in the modular home factory.

It gets appraised and financed EXACTLY like a home built on site. HUD manufactured homes, are taxed as chattel property and most are found in mobile home communities.

Over the years I’ve identified 5 distinct regional differences in what comprises a modular home. All of them share the things mentioned above but there are distinctions that need to be noted about each.

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The New England/Mid Atlantic region is the real hotbed for custom and semi-custom modular homes. It is not unusual to find homes comprised of 6-10 modules with custom kitchens, baths and floorplans designed by Architects. Factory plan books are simply the starting point with most home buyers walking into the builder’s office with a floorplan sketched in a notebook along with lots of custom features and products the want in their new home.

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The Midwest is the region for the modular ‘ranch’ and ‘cape’ style designs. The vast majority of modular homes are derived from the factory’s plan books with only minor variations by the customer. The homes are solidly built and in many cases they have to be shipped 500 miles or further to the job site. Even though their are some custom modular factories in the Midwest, most builders only sell the two module home.


The Southern States from NC to FL and over to LA also like their 2 module homes but there is a big difference in the way their build their floor systems. Many factories use a steel floor system (on frame) rather than wood joists. The reason is two-fold. First, many of the IRC modular homes need a better joist system than wood because they are put in place on shallow foundations with ground moisture exposure and secondly, many Southern modular homes are built in factories owned by HUD or manufactured home companies like Champion and Palm Harbor that had been producing HUD product for decades.


Moving into the Southwest you will find that there are very few true modular home builders or factories. Instead you will see lots of HUD manufactured dealer lots and communities very similar to what is in the Southern region. The reason I chose to make this a separate region instead of putting the Southern and Southwest together is the Southwest has almost no modular homes according to the US Census. Ouch!


Finally we come to the Pacific West Coast where the term “prefab” is used to describe modular housing; a term I want stricken from the vocabulary of every modular factory, builder, industry expert and home owner.

The proper term is MODULAR HOME. The modular homes found in PWC tend to be custom, modern looking and many are framed completely with steel. Almost every modular home is a “one off” Architect designed gem. Yes there are ‘regular’ looking modular homes but they are few and far between. This is the part of the country where used HUD manufactured homes sitting on a lot can sell for a $1,000,000 or more.

To recap, every region has modular housing, some with a lot of customization and some where it would take days to find one. But they are all MODULAR HOMES.

Now let’s talk about what modular is not.


It is not “Prefab” which is short for ‘prefabricated component’. That term must be reserved for the individual components of a new home that are built in a factory. These include wall panels, trusses, windows, doors, cabinetry and even bath and kitchen modules that can be added to a site built home. They by themselves are not a modular home even though the modular home factory uses all of these ‘prefab’ components.


It is not a “manufactured home”. Those homes are built to Housing and Urban Development or “HUD” code. Most of us simply refer to them as ‘single or double wides’ and they make up a large part of all new homes in the United States. Four big home building companies dominate this market and each build good, solid homes designed for the HUD market. They are Champion, Clayton, Cavco and Commodore.

They all have modular housing plants across the US in addition to their HUD factories. Clayton is taking a bold step in home building and started buying big regional site builders that have communities with empty lots on which to place their factory built homes.

Enough said. Modular is a manufacturing term used to describe a complete IRC approved dwelling and Prefab is the term used to describe components used by both site built and modular homes. GOT IT?

And a Tiny House is definitely NOT a modular home.


Anonymous said...

I hear this confusion every week someone uses the wrong term when talkig about modular homes and I agree that prefab should not be used to describe a type of house.

Anonymous said...

Coach, I disagree to an extent on the "confusion". These guys all know about Modular but either play dumb or talk it down. The expansion of this industry is being held up by the entrenched interests in the construction industry. Modular makes too much sense but is a threat. Only the enlightened see that it is not the bogey man they perceive it to be. Thanks for the show reports.

Bill Murray said...

Coach--I read with interest your comments and reporting on the "confusion" within the home building industry as it relates to the term modular. I have been a part of the modular industry for over 35 years and this "confusion" has been an Albatross around our collective necks for that 35 year period. The vast majority of those years having been spent in the NE and in the SE. I am currently residing in Portland OR and for the past 18 months have been involved in the construction industry here in Portland which reflects the attitudes and practices of the Pacific NW in general. I see the same ignorance here that i witnessed long ago in the NE and currently in most of the SE.
The vast majority of those i have come in contact with have no idea of the product or practices associated with the Modular industry as I/we know it. Their initial reaction is almost universally a reference to the manufactured HUD code product and industry. I would be preaching to the choir to elaborate further on that ensuing discourse. It yet again points out the fundamental "Albatross" to the growth of the industry--Lack of education on the part of the consumer and the traditional home building industry. That hurdle has not been successfully cleared plain and simple. With few exceptions the regional nature of factory ownership does not lend itself to promoting the industry in general and consequently thwarts the broad based educational efforts that would be required to educate the general public to an extent necessary to gain an understanding and public acceptance of our product and methodology. Real substantial growth can't and won't come until such time as we can tap this part of the market that does not understand what we are really all about?
I firmly believe the above is the essence of the rut we have been in with respect to market share. As is generally the case the problem is obvious to me the solution is fleeting.
Bill Murray