Mention modular housing and the first image that comes to mind is probably a TV reporter standing in front of a devastated trailer park in Tornado Alley.
The "double-wide" with the screened-in porch somewhere in Florida may offer a much more comforting image. Nonethe- Americans their first chance at homeownership by manufacturing houses in factories and shipping the prepackaged kits to home sites. The visionary homes featured open floor plans, modern appliances, lighting fixtures and mechanical equipment. Sears sold more than 100,000 home kits to people nationwide before it stopped manufacturing them around 1940.
After World War II, about the only houses built on assembly lines were mobile homes, now called manufactured homes. Most mobile homes were aluminum-sided banalities that strived to look like traditional suburban houses, but fooled no one. Their sole virtue was their relative low cost. Today's manufactured homes are touted as a low-cost alternative to site-built housing, but they tend to be small, and they still use the cookie cutter as their primary design tool.
At the same time, many homes being built in large developments today actually have the same floor plans, sit on the same size lots and share the same exterior elevations. Often, only the color of siding or the brick is varied. Moreover, site-built houses are usually the most expensive type of housing, and they tend to have construction-quality issues.
So how can we build affordable, highquality houses that have their own distinct flair? Designers, architects, engineers and others in the housing industry view modular construction as the solution.
Custom modular homes are built in cli less, most people have a negative view of modular housing, one that's been formed by mobile home parks.
Not trailer parks
Think about modular housing again. This time, forget the negative stereotypes of manufactured housing and, instead, imagine several components built with laser-guided precision on a factory assembly line. Picture these components being delivered by truck to your site, assembled on a custom-built foundation. The only work required on site is the joinery and final finishes, including any special exterior stylization. Picture a remarkable home that's indistinguishable from a stick-built house.
The idea for manufactured-or prefabricated-housing is 100 years old. In the early 1900s, companies like Sears, Aladdin and Gordon-Van Tine offered middle-class mate-controlled factories, set on prepared foundations, and finished as required in the field. They're built to conform to all state, local and regional building codes at their destinations, and the total construction time is three to eight months.
Modular homes have several advantages over site-built homes.
Because they're built in a factory, modular homes are precision-engineered: Quality control is high, cuts are more precise and there is little wasted material.
The overall building time is reduced because construction and site work can be done concurrently. In addition, there are few weather delays because outdoor work is minimal.
Modular homes are naturally "green" because they are built with minimal waste, they use the maximum amount of recycled or biologically diverse materials, and they incorporate energy-efficient systems.
The savings in construction costs can be applied to interior and exterior detailing that wouldn't be available in comparable site-built homes.
Modular construction is more viable today than it was in the early part of the 20th century. That's why it's gaining popularity, but its resurgence seems to be based mostly in the northwestern United States. Indianapolis-and other parts of the state-could benefit from this type of housing, and those of us in the building industry should move toward that end.
The aging housing stock in parts of Indianapolis coincides with efforts to invigorate those same neighborhoods. Why not replace the old houses with modular homes? Because modular housing is less expensive and can be built more quickly, neighborhood turnarounds can happen more quickly. And by introducing a more contemporary image with a sleek detailing, the younger "creative class" is likely to be drawn to these refurbished areas.
Indiana has strong links to the prefabricated homes industry-a position that could help us lead the way in modular homes. In the 1960s, National Homes in Lafayette offered a remarkable vision for environmentally friendly neighborhoods with a unique vacuum sewer system, but that message could never climb over the avalanche of two-bedroom bungalows.
Northern Indiana still has several large mobile home manufacturers, such as Skyline Corp. in Elkhart. And across the state, we have prefabricators of other types of structures, not to mention large pockets of highly skilled craftsmen who can easily create the precision components.
It would be interesting to see what could happen if progressive home designers and builders put this concept back to work. Tomorrowland in Indiana-today.
Altemeyer is founding principal of BSA LifeStructures, the city's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.