Prefab Housing Becoming Pretty Fabulous

Hear "prefabricated housing" and you can picture a tinny box that just had its wheels kicked out from under it.

But the image of a mobile home is being turned on its ear as more consumers, designers, builders, and developers unfurl creativity on manufactured housing.

In a marriage of economy and aesthetics, dwellings that are partly factory-made then assembled onsite are enjoying a fashionable renaissance. Though they may not appeal to everyone, these houses are taking off--even without the wheels.

"That's where the trends definitely are going," says Bruce Savage, a trade spokesman for the Manufactured Housing Institute, in Arlington, Va. "You're seeing more and more of the manufacturers embracing these kinds of exterior design options."

It has such potential that billionaire Warren Buffett has been acquiring prefabricators through his Berkshire Hathaway Inc., investment company. And IKEA, the world's largest furniture retailer, has a joint venture building prefabs in Scandinavia and now Britain.

Dan Rockhill, a professor of architecture at the University of Kansas, founded Studio 804, a nonprofit program through which students have designed and built award-winning prefab houses that sell for less than 0,000.

"What we've found is we can't build them fast enough," Rockhill says. "Granted that our situation is really unique in that we're building only one a year. But I've got a list, and people want what we have to offer."

The National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C., has declared prefab among the fastest-growing segments of home construction.

A few years ago, John Carricarte was in Vail, Colo., customizing hoity-toity housing for the well-heeled. Now, he's catering more to the hoi polloi--the general population--as vice president of design and product development for Patriot Homes, Inc., a housing manufacturer in Elkhart, Ind.

Carricarte made the switch because he senses a real yen for high design in prefab.

"The image, I think, is definitely starting to turn in the industry because the industry is starting to react to what the market is actually looking for," Carricarte says.

Awakened interest

A bad rap against trailer homes has long dampened interest in manufactured housing.

"No one has looked at it in a long time, and so it has been dormant," Rockhill says. "It's ripe for all kinds of wonderful opportunities."

Part of the surge is a realization among builders and developers that manufactured housing allows them certain advantages in economy and quality.

By making wall panels, roofs, and exterior framing with specialized technology in controlled environments, manufacturers can make home building more efficient-- regardless of the weather. That can mean faster completion and higher profits for developers.

"It's ripe for all kinds of wonderful opportunities."

Also, factory-made housing modules--because they have to be transported to the construction site and handled by cranes--need to be more durable than components built from scratch.

"Prefab tends to be thought of as maybe a little lightweight and flimsy, and in fact it's quite the opposite," Rockhill says. "We tend to overbuild, just because we have to be able to absorb, without any visual results, the force of moving and lifting."

Carricarte says manufactured houses have about 20% more lumber in them than site-built structures.

"These things have to travel to the site, and in many cases they'll reach hurricane winds before they'll ever get there, being pulled by a carrier," Carricarte says.

Accompanying developers' interest in modular construction is a growing demand from consumers for unconventional living space that's stylized yet affordable. Not including land costs, the Manufactured Housing Institute, Arlington, Va., figures the average cost per square foot is 10% to 35% less than a site-built house.

Factory-made housing is made to be more durable.

"There is a surge of interest, particularly in younger, art-oriented professionals, who feel that modern is great. They're embracing it," Rockhill says. "And if it's wonderful, we're in the right place at the right time."

And if consumers are pressing for a fresh look, the industry isn't minding the attention.

"It does kind of deconstruct a lot of the stereotypes that people have. It helps kind of bring people to the table if you will, in that it doesn't automatically have that mobile home look to it," Savage says. "And they can see that it can be compatible in a suburban or urban neighborhood. So it opens up people's eyes and gives them a greater sense of the options available to them."

Advice to consumers

Consumers looking into prefab housing need to school themselves on the pros and cons.

Savage recommends contacting your state manufactured housing association to check the reputation of businesses. Carricarte advises making sure the manufacturer offers all the options, flexibility, insurance, and warranties you need.

Per square inch, manufactured housing costs 10% to 35% less than site-built homes.

One drawback of off-site prefabrication, Rockhill warns, is a possible lack of coordination between the structure and its address.

"Be careful that the house works on the site well," Rockhill says. "That means things like orientation. If there's a broad expanse of windows, that you don't inadvertently have them all facing west, for instance."

Not out of the woods

Prefab's coming of age has been gradual. Carricarte says the market potential he imagined when he was designing high-end homes in Vail remains mostly on the drawing board.

"What I saw or would like to see is still years out," Carricarte says.

In some cases, overcoming the stigma of manufactured housing has meant disavowing it.

"We use the word prefab today, but 30 or 40 years ago, these were mobile homes, and that was always seen as being a blemish in any planning activity," Rockhill says. "Mobile homes suggested poor, disadvantaged housing elevated up on wheels, and so most municipalities really went out of their way to get rid of that kind of stuff. And they've been successful."

The student-built houses he supervises sell before they're finished and inspire further developments in their modest neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kan., Rockhill says. But typically, the designers let the houses speak for themselves.

"We don't label anything that even suggests that it's modular or prefab or anything," Rockhill says. "We're very careful."