Offsite, on target—Building more with modular building

The resurgent offsite construction industry affords many opportunities for builders willing to think inside the box
Offsite construction seems poised to grow as it solves a number of challenges for builders and for homebuyers.

Offsite construction isn’t new, and in fact, is still recovering from the precipitous drop that hit the housing market in 2008. In 1998, offsite construction accounted for nearly 7% of single-family homes, the largest market share in the period from 1992 to 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Characteristics of New Housing survey. The number of homes built using offsite construction was cut nearly in half between 2008 and 2009, but it’s interesting to note that when the housing market bottomed out in 2011 with fewer than 450,000 homes completed, offsite construction accounted for nearly 4.5% of those.

As the housing market started to recover, consumers turned to traditional methods and the share of modular and panelized homes shrank, even as the real number of homes began to climb. As of 2017, offsite construction accounted for almost 3.3% of single-family homes, roughly split between modular and panelized methods.

[Related: Understanding modular and prefabricated building]

Offsite construction seems poised to grow as it solves a number of challenges for builders and for homebuyers: labor shortages, materials costs, sustainability and affordability.

Mark Dearth, owner of Grand Junction-based Colorado Building Systems, saw the value of modular building early on.

Dearth started Colorado Building Systems 25 years ago to integrate modular building with site-built homes, building homes in areas like Telluride where traditional methods were extremely expensive.

Right now, all of the projects Colorado Building Systems is taking on are system-built, Dearth said. He said it takes about three months to complete a modular home project from the time the order is made.

“We are backlogged to October right now,” he said. “There’s just such a demand, especially up in the Carbondale, Basalt areas, where building starts at $450 a square foot. We can come in at half that or less.”

He added, “I think it’s going to be the new way of construction. We have 100 people that work in the factory. They could put out a house a week; there’s just tremendous value in that.”

For Ron Davies, CEO of Fair & Square Construction in Steamboat Springs, offsite construction was a way to expand his client base.

His company started building homes in 1980, but they started taking modular jobs in 2009. “We saw it as an opportunity to expand our market since site-built homes tend to be more custom and higher end,” he explained. “We wanted to be able to offer more [options] for the middle class, the working class.”

Fair & Square focuses on residential building, but has done everything from high-end custom homes to simple additions and renovations, Davies said. About 30% of Davies’ jobs are for modular homes, “and it’s growing,” he said. “Every year we do a little bit more.”

Davies said a modular home will typically cost between 10% and 15% less than a site-built home. The big savings with modular, though, is in time. “It usually takes about half the time with modular construction versus site-built.”

From website to jobsite

Like any other project, selling and building a modular home starts with the client. For Davies, clients may find him by searching for a modular builder, or by a referral from the manufacturer, Heritage Homes. Davies works exclusively with the Nebraska-based manufacturer for modular builds.

He starts by meeting with clients to make sure they understand what they’re paying for. “A lot of people really don’t understand construction costs, which I completely understand. If you don’t build, you wouldn’t know,” he said.

[Related: Panelization problems]

Then they’ll start talking about the lot and what the client wants in the home. Davies said that most of the time, they don’t end up building the exact floor plan that started the conversation.

“We typically do modifications: move rooms around, redesign to meet the owner’s desires,” both for the home and for the best views the building site can afford.

That process can take a month, he explained. Before manufacturing can begin, the owner has to pay a plan deposit and plans have to be approved by the Colorado Division of Housing.

“They provide all architectural drawings for the house,” he said of Heritage, as well as the “structural [plans] for what they’re building in their particular modules.”

Site work involves excavation, pouring the foundation, and sometimes building garages, decks or porches, Davies said. Sometimes a local engineer will be brought in to design a basement.

“It’s a combination of plans from the modular company as well as some local engineering plans,” he explained.

Customization is an inherent part of the design process, says Colorado Building Systems’ Dearth.

“We build each and every home to specific individual client’s requirements,” he said. He walks them through available floorplans and modifies each plan to meet the client’s needs.

Options for finishes are as endless as on any site-built home. Dearth noted one of his suppliers offers “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of upgrades. We get this thing just loaded up: alder cabinets, alder trim packages, just beautiful finishes inside.”

Danielle Andrus

Danielle Andrus was previously the managing editor for Colorado Builder, and is currently Editor for the Journal of Financial Planning.

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