Thursday, September 26, 2019

Architects and the Custom Modular Home

One of the biggest hurdles any modular home factory faces is when the builder’s customer wants a custom home and arrives with their Architect’s plans in their arms.

Two things happen when the customer lays the plans out on the builder’s desk. First, red flags go up all over the place, especially if the Architect has never been told the customer was going with a modular home and secondly, more red flags go up at the modular factory when those plans land in the company’s engineering department.

The customer has already paid the Architect thousands of dollars for those plans which are almost useless if the home is being built as a modular. The barriers that need to be overcome are too numerous to mention.

If a customer really wants to use an Architect to build their new home, the big question is “when should the builder and factory get involved?”
The answer is trickier than you might imagine. The first thing the builder needs to do is ask their factory if they are interested in building an Architect designed home. That may seem like a no brainer but ”of course they do” is the last thing that should leave the builder’s mouth.

In every case, the Architect’s plans will have to be redrawn by the factory’s engineering department. Every factory may produce similar looking product but each factory has slightly different ways to produce it and those differences will not be known by any Architect if the builder “shops” the house around to a couple of factories.

The answer to when to get the factory involved is before the customer selects their Architect. Early engagement is highly useful to allow the customer to fully understand that a modular factory’s system of building a house includes dimensional arrangements of walls and floors, materials and finishes that the Architect probably has never encountered before.

At this point a huge red flag should rise up immediately. Architects and the CAD and design team at the factory will almost without a doubt take on adversarial positions, each telling the other they are wrong.

And who could blame either side. The Architect, with their degree and experience in designing custom homes comes at the project from a more aesthetic point of view while the factory people look at the project from a practical build point of view. Rarely do the two sides agree on anything.

So what is the builder to do? You need to talk to your customer, hopefully before they sign a contract with the Architect and tell them the factory will help them come up with a custom home that fits both their wants and needs and can actually be built on the production with minimal disruption to the factory’s total process. And the factory can do it for a lot less of an investment by the customer.

In traditional site built custom homes, progress and quality can be monitored directly as the house is being finished. Big red flag here! Architects will visit a site built house and demand changes be made to reflect more closely what they designed and the customer, especially the ones that can afford to build with an Architect, will continually make changes in sizes and materials as the house progresses.

This is different for the custom modular house as a significant amount of investment in time and cost is needed before anything turns up at site and is tested for fit and quality.

Are Architects needed when the customer builds a custom modular home?

“Yes”, “No” or “Maybe” are all appropriate answers. However, if they are involved, they must understand the game rules set out by the factory and the state modular code regulations which will probably be quite an eye opener for any Architect that has never done modular before.

The simple step of having the Architect involved from the very beginning will at least allow the factory to understand what they want and the Architect to understand the limitations of modular in that particular factory.

The Architect and the customer will also have to be told that no changes will be allowed after the final set of plans is approved and the house ready for production. Both can visit the house on line but only to observe it’s progress.

I remember when a builder’s customer camped his motorhome in the factory parking lot and watched his home from the production mezzanine the entire time it was on the line. He arrived on a Tuesday morning and left Friday morning. It was not a pleasant experience for anybody. Good thing he didn’t have an Architect with him!

The bottom line: If an Architect is going to be involved in designing the customer’s modular home, make sure she/he meets the factory engineering team and completely understands what the limitations are in going modular and the added expense to the customer if he/she demand the factory to do more than they have ever done before.

And we haven’t talked about special order products that Architects love to add to every home. Those can become a real bottleneck for both the Purchasing Department and on the production line.

And what happens when the Architect specifies Kolbe VistaLuxe casement windows throughout the home with Neat Glass and Preserve™ Film and only 20 of the 24 windows arrive in time for the house’s slot on the production line? You guessed it...It’s the factory’s fault.

I love what Architects bring to the custom home market but they’re usually not a good fit for most modular home factories.

Gary Fleisher is a housing veteran, editor/writer of Modular Home Builder blog and industry speaker/consultant.


john Connell said...

I guess we'll just have to "agree to disagree" on this one. I'm an architect who specializes in energy efficient custom homes that respond closely to site specifics. We've had fabulous success with KBS, PBS, Westchester Modular Homes, Huntington Homes and several panel shops.
I agree that there are many pitfalls for the architect and/or client wandering uninformed into a factory delivery for the first time. As with everything, there's a learning curve that applies. And every factory IS different, just as every builder and GC are different. So the learning curve needs to be undertaken by the client and architect as early as possible.
I think the generalizations presented above do little to encourage collaboration among some of the great players in our building industry. Some factories need to step up and many architects need to learn more about factory delivery.
Sitting on opposite sides of the room won't serve either.

Anonymous said...

I can certainly understand John Connell's comments and I am happy to hear that someone has been able to bridge this gap between architect and modular home manufacturer. The beautiful homes produced by the manufacturers mentioned are evidence of this success. However, this does not appear to be the norm here in the South. Architects bring a tremendous amount of expertise, knowledge and incredible design work to the table but are often inflexible. Even those that work with us from the beginning do not seem to "get it". We have a fellow on staff that is working towards his Architecture degree and have utilized his talents to do our conceptual renderings with great success. I would be excited to meet with an architect that wanted to understand the parameters and processes of building modular and wish more would tackle this. I just haven't found any yet.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time , into my office came the retail customer, the builder,,His Architect and Her interior decorator....The His and Her part of this mess just sat back and let interior decorator and architect have at it....I did this once..hopefully never again....

Michael S. said...

Best outcome for everyone is an architect who is fluent in designing site-specific architecture using modules and who has a history of working closely with a small group of modular fabricators. New York firm Resolution:4 Architecture is a good example. I am not affiliated with them or their vendors.

Anon said...

Res 4 is a perfect example of one who is out of touch with modular concept.

Phil Kaplan said...

As architects, before we started BrightBuilt Home about 5 years ago, we had already started working with factories, trying to learn more about how the modular industry was able to deliver a product so cost-effectively. We realized that we had to understand each factory's methods and play to their strengths in order to optimize our designs and their related costs. There was a ton to learn, but the benefits of our learning have been substantial. Sometimes, other architects will come to us to "tune" their designs so they're applicable to modular. We love talking about it to other architects because we really feel like modular construction is they way of the future, and all designers need to get on board. More and more, we are finding factories, such as Preferred Building Systems/New England Homes, KBS, and Simplex very open to working with us as architects with specific design demands. A collaborative attitude from the outset will be tremendously beneficial to our industry, since it will receive an increased focus in the very near future.

Studio Kiss / ASAPHouse said...

I found the tone of the article very condescending towards design professionals, making them out to be incompetent artists with limited construction knowledge who specify exotic products. I feel that this is a very unfair view to promote on a blog where the advancement of modular is the primary goal. I would think that educating architects to the benefit of understanding modular construction would be of importance.

I am an architect who has built numerous modular homes using Simplex, Professional Building Systems, Icon Homes, and APEX Homes factories. While the process varies from factory to factory, the basics are the same. It is not rocket science to adjust designing to the modular process, you just need to educate yourself as to the limitations. The analogy I like to use is that just because you can drive a car and are licensed to do so, it does not follow that you can drive an eighteen-wheeler.

Based on my experience, I have created a two-hour USGBC approved Continuing Education Seminar for architects about the advantages of prefabrication and modularization for residential building. I feel that the goal of the modular industry should be to expand the traditional product line towards custom orders which are in line with their capabilities and the way to achieve this is to educate the architectural community.

Here is one of my modular houses:

Modman said...

I have worked with John Connell, Doug Cutler, Res4, and a host of other architects in my 35 year career. Professionals like John get it, and strive to achieve the same goals we do, i.e. capitalize on efficiencies of the factory and at the same time, meet the customer's financial and aesthetic goals. Many architects, however, are creating the Mona Lisa, and are difficult to work with. I sat with a customer and an architect reviewing a plan, and showed the customer a slight change we could make that would save her $10K. The architect said, "no, no no". She turned to him and said "oh yes yes, that detail does not mean that much to me". Kudos to the pros like John that keep the customer's needs in mind, and Gary is on target to point out that there can well be challenges with those that have other goals.