By Bill LaHay
In homebuilding, as in other endeavors both professional and personal, old habits die hard. Innovation in materials technology and energy efficiency is everywhere, but construction methods seem always to lag behind as many contractors stick to the familiar and sometimes the cheap. Builders need to sell homes, and most are reluctant to make changes that add upfront costs, even if they actually provide net savings to the homeowners in just a few years.
The custom home market offers more alternatives, and those builders tend to use a wider range of methods and materials because their clients want key features and show a willingness to pay for them. But pricey and rarefied designs can’t be a solution for homebuyers of average means, whose budget constraints often mean settling for generic or uninspired aesthetics, inefficiency and mid-grade craftsmanship.
Author Sheri Koones finds this situation frustrating and champions an alternative path — prefabricated housing — that she has been promoting for years in a series of books about this option. The latest is “Prefabulous and Almost Off the Grid,” which features more than 30 homes built using some sort of prefabricated components.
Of course, prefabricated and modular housing has been around for decades, though for most people, the terms conjure cheap or unappealing structures such as mobile homes. That’s part of what Koones would like to correct. Far from being shoddy or generic homes, prefab designs can be refreshingly original (or period-style for traditionalists) and their build quality can easily meet even high-end conventional homes.
The prefab “pedigree” can come in varying degrees, from nearly complete modules trucked to the site for final assembly to just major components, such as timber-frame sections or structural panels, that are produced off-site and brought in as building materials. Koones has explained the advantages in her earlier books but recaps them here:
— Fewer weather worries: Fabricating sections or modules of the home inside a factory or shop building means materials stay clean and dry, and typically reduces the on-site construction time to mere days for getting the home weather-tight. Eliminating rain delays, temperature extremes, wind issues and other weather-related problems not only saves time and money, it helps prevent mold and rot-issues from rearing their heads later.
— More consistent quality: Workers building wall sections indoors will have the advantage of using assembly platforms, alignment equipment and other big gear an on-site crew must do without. They’ll have more tools to process lumber and other materials to more consistent dimensions, which means a better fit as everything is put together later.
— Less risk at the build site: Having fewer delivery trucks and smaller work crews can reduce damage to the building site, and closing the house up quickly helps deter vandalism and theft of materials.
— Less waste: On-site framing crews often generate a lot of scrap lumber and plywood that gets tossed aside randomly. When they need cutoffs or remnants, most consider digging through the pile as a waste of time, so that material sits to degrade in the weather, tempt vandals or be hauled off to a landfill. The planning that goes into prefab design and construction means most of that “waste” material will be stored inside and used later.
Aside from these virtues, prefab homes can now boast levels of energy efficiency that conventional structures are hard-pressed to match, and the homes Koones chose for this book highlight that advantage. More coordination and precision during the building process means insulation can be integrated into components and sub-structures rather than added on site.
Other energy features such as solar panels, geothermal furnaces or in-floor heating systems also add efficiency and can be better integrated into the home. Some of the houses featured actually produce more electricity than the occupants use and return it to the grid, thus earning the owner a small monthly income.