Modular Homes Up the Design Ante for Custom Builders

Custom home builders notice modular building has found its time.

January 01, 2009

The Captiva
The Woodmere
The Desert House
The Ibsen

Haven Custom Homes and Sandy Springs Builders
Photo: Haven Custom Homes and Sandy Springs Builders

You can't distinguish a modular-built home from its traditionally built counterpart, and neither can your clients. This is because of the quantum leaps in design and fabrication on the part of modular home manufacturers. To build high-end custom modular homes, you have to push the element of design with special module sizes, heights and products not normally found in a custom builder's portfolio.

Custom builders who take on these modular homes face a few obstacles, but with the right planning, they can be overcome. James “Skeeter” Seekford, vice president of builder sales for Nationwide Custom Homes, says, “There are two primary challenges in high end modular design, those being the opening of space for dramatic appeal and roof lines.” He says open spaces are overcome by the use of engineered wood products, which allow for increased spans for a greater element of design, shown in Nationwide's Baby Boomer House, also called The Captiva, in 2007's Professional Builder Show Village at the International Builders' Show in Orlando, Fla.

Modular-built roof designs and the intricacies of interior design can achieve the same look as those that are built on site. “Interior design has no real constraints,” says Seekford. “Often for high-end products we are working with the customer like an orchestra. We go over the designed plans and with interior designers for achieving the desired look and feel.”


Marmol Radziner + Associates
Photo: Benny Chan/Fotoworks

Nationwide Custom Homes
Photo: Nationwide Custom Homes

Ballymore Homes
Photo: William Busch Photography

If you decide to build custom modular homes, you'll likely have to educate your home buyers. “The biggest public misconception on modular homes is that you can only build what is in the brochure,” says Jerry Smalley, CEO of Haven Custom Homes. It's the attention to detail that has driven the custom modular industry forward.

“We will deliver any custom module or product in the house. The modules don't leave the factory until everything is all squared away. The houses arrive 60 to 80 percent done; we have plenty of time to cross the Ts and dot the Is,” says Sandy Spring Builders Principal Phil Leibovitz. Smalley says that, according to his company's figures, 55 to 80 percent of the “bricks and sticks” cost can be covered and delivered under one contract.

More valuable, Smalley says, is the reaction from the neighbors. He claims it is always something of a prairie-dog effect. “From concept to completion, you're usually looking at a period of time between six months and a year, all things considered. But when we pull up on-site with those trucks, the neighbors leave for work, and when they come back there's a new house in the neighborhood.”

Seekford expects a shift in the way and frequency custom builders use modular methods. “As our workforce ages, the trained craftsmen are leaving the industry, with no one to take their place,” he says. This will force builders to more heavily rely on supporting companies, such as floor and truss companies, pre-built cabinetry and more to fill the void left by the departure of these skilled craftsmen.

“As builders take their construction process from the site to off-site,” Seekford says, “the transition to modular production is a natural one to make.”


Above: The Captiva at 2007's Professional Builder Show Village. Below: Deliver the custom elements high-end buyers desire, such as winding staircases and dramatic ceilings.
Photos: Nationwide Custom Homes

The Captiva

The Captiva was designed as a high-end baby boomer home. “The concept was to provide an exciting yet well-designed floor plan that addressed the needs of the aging baby boomer. The design achieved the much-wanted master suite on the first floor, providing one-level living for the owners.”

Nationwide designed The Captiva so owners wouldn't have to sacrifice space for visiting or live-in children and grandchildren; they're served by three additional bedrooms on the second level. Jack and Jill bathrooms create both privacy and convenience. Additionally, a home theater and game room keep pace with technology.

The master bedroom features a separate retreat area with coffee bar. Adjacent to the master bedroom, a luxurious bathroom features a dramatic bathing area, separate dressing areas and a large walk-in shower with curved glass walls.

One of the most dramatic design focus points inThe Captiva was the curved stairway to the second floor, which homeowners can see from the outside through the double entry doors in to the foyer, which sports inlaid tile and hardwood flooring. The curving stairway, says Seekford, “Just needed a bride to stand on the stairs with her white dress flowing over the hardwood treads for a photo. It would have been beautiful.” 

"The majority of our clients come to us before they seek out an architect to see what we can accomplish," says Finlay.
Photo: William Busch Photography

The Woodmere

The Woodmere, one of Ballymore Homes' most recent projects, was built for a family of eight with six girls. The order was tall. The lot size was 70 by 100 feet. The customer gave Ballymore, a full-service contractor that partners regularly with other firms on modular projects, a wish list that included bedrooms and bathrooms to accommodate the family as well as a spare bedroom, pantry, butler's pantry, mud room, spacious dining room and large kitchen ith attached breakfast room and connecting family room. The firm called on the experience of architect Jozsef Solta from New Canaan, Conn.

“I have worked with Jozsef over the past 15 years. He and I have done many projects together over the years from large to small, and I knew he would be the right fit for this project,” says Donal Finlay, president of Ballymore Homes.

The firm was able to fit about what Finlay says was 98 percent of the client's wish list into the 4,200 square-foot house. On-site, crews poured a 10-foot finished basement with a walk-up attic space. An added touch was the laundry chute from the second and first floors into the full-scale laundry room in the basement. Upstairs opens up with a foyer, an oak stair case and a Velux Sun Tunnel skylight that provides tons of streaming natural light. The house also has radiant heated floors throughout (including the basement) with a multi-floor sensor system that gives give feedback to the special thermostats.

The company didn't skimp on the small stuff, either. “We installed a beautiful 2½- by ¾-inch rift and quarter-sawn select red oak with a medium dark stain throughout. The dining room through the library has great ¾-inch dark black walnut accent strips with an inlaid design in the corners to give that rich feeling,” Finlay says.

To Finlay, the level of design will continue to become more and more sophisticated. “When I started building modular 14 years ago I visited many local architects in my area to talk about modular building, and they were not interested. Today the times have changed, and they are calling now and asking the questions like 'Can you build this?' as their clients are driving the demand to modular systems.”

Marmol upped the proverbial ante with this ultra-modern and wide open kitchen for the Desert House.
Photos: Benny Chan/Fotoworks

The Desert House

The Desert House, located on a five-acre site in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., was built for Marmol Radziner + Associates' principal Leo Marmol and his wife, Alisa Becket. Built with four house modules and six deck modules, the house blends indoor and outdoor living with a great view of the surrounding mountains. “The Desert House was the first project we completed using modularized steel frame components. That was our first experiment, so to say. We've come a long way from our first trial, but no doubt that was an important first step for us,” says Marmol.

Marmol says for too long the industry has primarily been focused on cost and scheduling. “That's wonderful, but there hasn't been much emphasis on design until very recently. The industry has a great opportunity and challenge here,” he says. The Desert House, for example, extends through the landscape with additional, covered outdoor living areas, which account for double the 2,000 square foot interior spaces. A detached prefab carport allows the owners to leave the car behind as they approach their home. 

"Walk through the house and you see long spans, high ceilings and a ton of glass. It feels light and airy," says Leibovitz.
Photo: Haven Custom Homes

The Ibsen

The Ibsen, named after the street on which it sits, is the progeny of a relatively recent relationship between Haven Custom Homes and Sandy Spring Builders. The home was made under the Sandy Spring Classic Homes name, a brand of homes created by the companies' strategic alliance.

“[Building modular is] nothing more than a highly precise, very high quality technique that is becoming ever more attractive given its value proposition,” says Smalley. “It's specification certain, quality certain, price certain and time certain.”

It was this level of efficiency that won Haven a contract for a new custom home on a ½-acre in one of the swankiest neighborhoods in Bethesda, Md.

Sandy Spring Builders' Leibovitz talks of the transition the company made from traditional stick-built homes to highly customizable modular building — a rather dramatic transition that occurred within a year. “It's a pretty new relationship, but we've pushed our techniques and they've pushed theirs. It doesn't hurt to get more sophisticated,” says Leibovitz. He says the company rarely builds the same floor plan twice.

It also doesn't hurt that the Energy Star-rated Ibsen features ultra-high-end finishes. Among the perks are a gourmet kitchen; formal living and dining rooms; a walk-out basement; oversized trim and other accents and dual-staircases.

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