Modular Houses Barge In

Compelling economics, fast-track completions, and customized designs have triggered a modular mini-boom on the Vineyard.

Late one afternoon on Vineyard Haven’s harbor, eager eyes zoom in on the distant tip of West Chop.

“The barge from New Bedford is running a bit behind,” reports Rick Reinhardsen, manager of Tisbury Towing and Transportation Company. Rick is usually unfazed. He’s been in the barge business for twenty-one years; delays happen. Ferries command the right of way. Tides have their say-so too. On this day, a tugboat finally emerges from behind the Chop, trailed by what could pass for giant packages of Wonder Bread – white, gleaming, and as right-angled as buildings. Collectively, in fact, they are half a building. These are the first six modules – boxes, per the lingo – of a Vineyard-bound modular home.

On this day, Rick is less unfazed than usual, for this modular home happens to be his modular home, for a change. As the barge pulls into the dock, he points to one box and grins: “See the French doors behind the plastic wrapper? That’s my office.” Early the next morning, Rick’s office departs the docks on a tractor-trailer, escorted like a visiting dignitary by the State Police. The entourage negotiates Five Corners and slowly makes its way up State Road toward West Tisbury.

“Drivers are on auto-pilot this time of day, holding their coffee cups and cell phones,” says Sergeant Neal Maciel of the State Police, who has led many a modular home procession. “Then they look in their rearview mirrors and see a cruiser with a flashing light and a big house behind it. You should see the expressions.” Up until a decade ago, sightings of modular homes on the Vineyard and elsewhere were rare. Slandered as “pre-fabs,” they summoned visions of double-wide trailers, offending the sensibilities of discriminating home buyers, builders, architects, and preservationists. But many are offended no more. Compelling economics, smart engineering, fast-track completions, and today’s customized-as-they-wannabe designs have conspired to trigger a modular mini-boom. Inside vast, climate-controlled factories, manufacturers assemble modest bungalows, amenity-rich mansions, and everything in between in a matter of days. In near-move-in condition, homes are wrapped, strapped, and trucked to building sites that are often hundreds of miles away.

While nationwide sales of new homes have slumped in the past year, modulars haven’t slumped as steeply as their stick-built counterparts. In 2006, they reached an estimated 3 percent of U.S. housing starts. Make that 11 percent for wet, wintry New England. On the Vineyard, make that percentage higher still.

Island-wide statistics are hard to compile, since some towns don’t specify “modular” in their rosters of building permits or property valuations. Yet Tisbury building inspector Ken Barwick estimates that modulars now represent more than a quarter of the Island’s new homes, not to mention commercial buildings such as the clubhouse at Mink Meadows Golf Club. And for modulars alone, Tisbury Towing makes an average of two to three barge runs to the Island per week. Island commuters are barely surprised to drive past an open foundation on their way to work in the morning and find a whole house in its place on their way home in the afternoon.

What makes the Vineyard a hungrier modular market than most? Follow the money: Certainly, modular customers everywhere benefit from the economies of scale realized by big factories that purchase basic materials, from drywall to grout, in bulk. For Islanders, the resounding cost differential is labor. “Sixty dollars an hour is what I have to charge for labor here versus fifteen to twenty dollars off-Island,” says builder Ray Maciel, one of several Vineyard contractors whose business today is all modular all the time. After adding the expense of shipping boxes across land and water, and renting a crane to move them into place, Vineyard homeowners report shaving a quarter to nearly a half off the budget for an equivalent stick-built home.

“Land costs so much on the Island,” notes Ursula Prada, Edgartown’s assistant to the building inspector. “If someone has to pay $400,000 just for a lot, they might not be able to afford to stick-build too.”

Only Chilmark and Aquinnah lag behind the Island-wide pace. “A lot of up-Island properties are difficult to get into,” explains contractor John Leite of D& G Modular Homes. Imagine, indeed, a fourteen-foot-wide building making its way down one of those long, narrow, bumpy, winding, hilly, deeply forested, unpaved roads. “Some roads run through Districts of Critical Planning Concern [a designation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission]. You can’t cut back too much of the woods there.”

Ralph Packer, who owns Tisbury Towing and Transportation Company, which has barged every single Vineyard modular home of the modern era, recalls the modest ranch houses that first washed ashore thirty-some years ago. He says the earliest of the early birds sits on Leslie’s Lane in Oak Bluffs. “They were like little trailers with roofs,” he says. “There was one variety; no choices. Most people were still reluctant about them. I guess they were afraid they would degrade the Island.”

That was then. In the twenty-first century, even the simplest modulars have sloughed off their low-rent image. Moreover, many of today’s modulars are hardly simple.

Going modular

Consider the two-story colonial with the upstairs peek at the pond in Oak Bluffs’ Fresh Pond Estates. Doug Holloway of Scarsdale, New York, bought the 1.56-acre lot three years ago with every intention of flipping it, until a real estate agent advised him he would make a better profit if he built. “From that point, the project was all about cost and speed,” says the savvy speculator.

After researching his options assiduously, he decided to go modular, hiring contractor Ray Maciel and manufacturer Keiser Homes of Maine to do the job. “Once we go to contract, we can deliver a home to the Island in under twelve weeks,” says Keiser Homes’ Jim Martin, who says the Vineyard and Nantucket account for roughly 10 percent of his business. Winter is his busy season for building for New England’s coastal regions, to avoid deliveries during the summer tourist crunch.

Modular building is typically a cooperative endeavor between a remote manufacturer and a local contractor who supervises the whole project, including the prep and finish work at the building site. Ursula Prada says Massachusetts building codes prohibit modular permit seekers from being their own contractors, unless of course they’re licensed as such. “When you think about it, it would be stupid,” she says. But once a certificate of occupancy is issued, anything goes.

Ray says, “It’s important for customers to work with a general contractor, whether it’s me or somebody else, instead of trying to do the finish work on their own.” This, to ensure a continuity of coordination and responsibility for the final product. He won’t take a job unless the customer allows him to oversee it from beginning to end, although he acknowledges that for some Islanders, this is not an option. “They’re trying to save all the money they can.”

Doug Holloway’s spouse Susan was a tad leery about the modular thing. “I didn’t think we’d have as much say in the design as we would with a stick-built home,” she says. “The modulars I’d seen in Westchester County [New York] weren’t impressive. They’re pretty much boxes. I never would have guessed we could have a modular this nice.” Keiser did the detailed drawings based on the couple’s sketches. Their wishes were limited only by their subdivision’s covenant, which restricts house styles to colonials or capes of at least 2,500 square feet. At Keiser’s 80,000-square-foot factory, nearly all the interior elements, from cabinets and flooring to doorknobs and light switches, were pre-installed. Appliances were the notable exception. Doug works for General Electric; Keiser couldn’t beat him on price.

“With modulars, people are starting to look at houses like something that can be ordered like a car, choosing this color, that stereo system, and so on,” says Oak Bluffs building inspector Jerry Wiener. “With stick-building, you can get carried away. The project takes on a life of its own.”

At the time of delivery, Doug traveled to the Island to observe “all of it,” he says. “There was too much money at stake not to be here.” He watched the tractor-trailer load and offload boxes. He watched the crane lift boxes weighing upwards of six hundred pounds per linear foot and set them on his foundation. He watched guys with big wrenches fit the boxes together like Lego pieces and seam them with huge bolts. He watched the roof panels vault into position. “I’m going, ‘This is a miracle. I don’t know how they do this,’” he recalls.

The Holloways obtained their certificate of occupancy in March 2006, less than six months after ground-breaking. A screened-in porch and deck were stick-built on site, and the family moved in on Memorial Day. Uh, yes, they decided to keep the place after all. At the housewarming party in July, one wide-eyed guest after another whispered: I can’t believe this is a modular. And by the fall, the owners of the neighboring lot broke ground for a modular home of their own.

The extra barge to Chappy

In 1999, Hal and Jean Flack found an implausibly unbuilt yet buildable lot with a water view on Chappaquiddick’s Pocha Road. Hal vacillated about making an offer on it until Jean said, “Don’t get upset with me later when I tell you‘You blew it’ every time we drive down this road to the beach.”

They bought, and five years later, they built. Their wish list included abundant room for family, an open kitchen/dining/ living area for entertaining, and in anticipation of their golden years, a first-floor master suite. They didn’t skimp. Jean joined forces with Hal’s sister Janet, a professional designer, and worked up a 3,500-square-foot plan that included multiple shed-style roofs, private guest quarters over the three-car garage, his-and-her offices, multi-level rear decks, and marble bathrooms.

Hal and Jean reside in central Pennsylvania, which happens to be the silicone-gun valley of the modular building industry in the eastern United States. There they found their ideal manufacturer in Avis America. “They will build anything you can spec,” says Hal, whose specs included joist hangers and other exterior hardware made of stainless steel. “I’m in the perforated metals business, and I’ve acquired a deep appreciation for stainless steel in corrosive, salt-air environments.” On a visit to the factory, the couple watched their own boxes roll along the assembly line on parallel sets of railroad tracks. They were able to hop from one half of their living room into the other. “I’ve overseen the construction of a number of buildings over the years, but I had no idea how different this process would be,” Hal says. “I was impressed.”

According to Hal, stick-built construction costs on Chappy at the time of his project were running about $400 to $450 per square foot. The Flacks slashed their expense to about $250 a square foot, taking into account about $100,000 for transportation alone.

Ah, the transportation: Finding a local contractor who could and would deliver nine 14-by-38-foot boxes to Chappaquiddick was a tough nut. And no wonder. Chappy has no dock facility capable of receiving large barges. An Avis-authorized contractor on Cape Cod finally rose to the challenge. After arriving by barge in Vineyard Haven as per usual, the boxes were trucked to the Katama landing, where a small dock-building barge floated them, one by one, trailer by trailer, across Katama Bay to Chappy. A backhoe offloaded the trailers onto heavy steel plates that were laid on the beach near the ferry landing. (Plan B would have involved a freight helicopter service, at a going rate of $18,000 an hour.) With a special permit from the town of Edgartown, the crane traveled overland to Chappy from South Beach for the lifting of the boxes onto the foundation.

Following the stellar performance on delivery, the mainland- based contractor let the Flacks down on the finish work. “It was a nightmare,” says Hal. “They cheated on allowances, they didn’t show up on the job for extended periods of time, and they lied to me constantly. The owner disappeared as soon as things went bad.” After sacking the contractor, the Flacks turned to a rescue team of friends and Island vendors to build the decks, shingle the roof, connect the plumbing, and so on. The disruption extended a six-month timetable to nearly a year – the typical timetable for a stick-built house.

Still and all: “After renting typical ’60s and ’70s construction on Chappy for eighteen years,” says Hal, “living in modern comfort – with crisp air-conditioned sheets, granite counters, cedar, no bugs, no mold – is a dream come true.”

A choice for affordable housing

Tony Lombardi of Morgan Woods is a self-appointed cheerleader for the $15.7 million affordable housing development completed last year on Edgartown’s Pennywise Path. The new community comprises sixty units in twenty-one modular buildings.

“What attracted me to the apartments, aside from the affordability, is that they’re beautiful,” says the high school special needs teacher, YMCA part-timer, and a founder and volunteer with the Safe Haven Project for youth affected by HIV/AIDS. He shares a one-bedroom apartment with two cats. “I never would have guessed the buildings were modular before someone told me. It’s not what you’d expect of a home that was carried over on a boat.” He speaks about the design detail, the layout, the roominess, and the lack of cookie-cutter sameness from one unit to the next. Ranging from one to three bedrooms, the apartments and town homes come in six different designs, yet they’re basic enough in color and style that “you can put your own fingerprint on your own unit,” says Tony. One of Tony’s fingerprints is a statue of Buddha that welcomes visitors onto the front porch.

Modular construction helped make Morgan Woods affordable to build and, in turn, affordable to rent. Since the developer’s architects had no experience doing detailed drawings for modulars, Keiser Homes did some heavy tweaking of the plans before work got underway. The factory then worked in tandem with Tisbury Towing to build and deliver one barge-load of boxes per week for a stretch of twenty-six weeks. “We missed only one week, due to bad weather,” says Keiser’s Jim Martin. “Later, we added an additional barge and stayed right on schedule.” The development was completed in twelve months.

The buildings of Morgan Woods are clustered around three common areas that were originally intended for the preservation of vegetation, according to Mark London, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which reviewed the project as a Development of Regional Impact. However, the vegetation was ultimately cleared – “partly to create usable space,” Mark says, “but partly because the developer needed room to stack the boxes before the homes were assembled.” He notes that vegetation may similarly be cleared for a modular staging area at the Bridge Commons housing development in Vineyard Haven.

“In principle, there’s not a lot of staging required,” says Dick Mezger, executive director of the small Island nonprofit Bridge Housing Corporation, which created the project and aims to disturb nature as little as possible when the project breaks ground this fall.

“If affordable housing is something that truly needs to be accomplished on the Island, modular is the answer,” says Tom Richardson of JE& T Construction, which completed the Fairwinds development near Lake Tashmoo in 2006. Under provisions of the Massachusetts Chapter 40B housing law, the project set aside five of its twelve units for low-to-moderate-income buyers. The three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot homes, built by Avis America’s Excel Homes division, were offered to qualified buyers at a bottom cost of $154,100. “If the homes hadn’t been modular, they certainly would have cost more,” Tom says.

Are modulars un-Vineyard?

Tom notes that on the outside the development’s affordable units don’t look any different than the units that sold at market rates. The flip side of the coin is that Fairwinds homes look alike overall, making for a rather atypical Vineyard streetscape. Some abutting neighbors have denounced the home designs for being out of character with the Island aesthetic.

“What’s out of character?” rebuts Richardson. “The houses have cedar shake siding and dormers. They look to me like they could be on Franklin Street.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission hasn’t formally studied the impacts of modular building on the look or life of the Island, but it has reviewed a number of applications for modular projects. “We’ve never debated the pros or cons of the construction,” says Executive Director Mark London. “We just look at the designs and whether or not there are narrow roads involved.” Mark, a professional architect, feels the physical impact of modulars is mixed. “I’ve seen some modulars that are okay. But they’re generally boxier; they don’t necessarily have the refinements of older buildings. Some of them seem to stand out from other buildings on the street. But maybe that’s only if you happen to know they’re modular.”

David Wilson, chairman of the Oak Bluffs Historic District Commission, says, “It would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that modular homes can’t look every bit as nice as stick-built homes....But the danger is that Martha’s Vineyard could wind up looking like a cookie cutter of Missoula, Montana, or someplace in Vermont.”

To the best of David’s knowledge, the historic district has just two modular homes of recent vintage, both in the town’s Copeland district of mostly Victorian-era cottages. One that’s being completed this year near Our Lady Star of the Sea Church is similar in style to the worn, historic cottage it replaces, complete with detailed brackets and a mansard roof. Wilson knew just by happenstance that the new house would be modular. “By the nature of our bylaws, we can’t ask how houses are going to be built,” he says. “We can only ask about the design and the materials. I doubt we would prevail as a commission if we dictated construction methods too.”

The impact of modulars on the Vineyard economy may be as hard to forecast as its impact on character.

“On the one hand, modular construction is bringing the price of housing down somewhat,” Mark London observes. “On the other hand, more construction work is being done off-Island, which takes work away from Island workers. It’s really the same issue as a lot of other issues here: Is it better to buy off-Island – at Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart – just because it’s cheaper?” Mark notes a sharp decline in grassroots Island home construction in recent years, along with a decline in the availability of land. “There’s room for maybe five or six thousand more homes on the Island. If they’re built more quickly than the local work force can deal with, and if half of those homes are built off- Island, then we’ll lose potential jobs and incomes. But for now, the anecdotal feeling seems to be that construction is thriving. More money is being spent on fixing up or adding on.”

Carpenters at stick-building sites around the Island shrug at the idea that outsourcing may put their livelihoods at risk. “I haven’t been affected, at least not yet,” says a framer working at an Oak Bluffs job site for Cornerstone Building and Remodeling. “But who knows? Maybe a few years down the road.”

“There’s no real resentment among the stick-builders,” says modular contractor Ed Charter of Arrowhead Homes. “Everyone’s so busy. I personally employ a lot of local tradesmen to do decks, electrical, plumbing, shingling, and so on. I think everyone who’s worthwhile is working.” Ed transitioned from stick building to modular building in 1995, when the Island was experiencing a labor shortage. He never went back.

Vineyard contractor Ed Griggs, who specializes in renovations and additions, eschews modular construction for reasons of quality. “Some of the houses that were built twenty years ago started coming apart at the seams later and had to be repaired,” he says. Predictably, contractors of latter-day modulars laud their quality over stick-built homes. Many if not most have built modular homes for themselves.

“When the modular boom first came about, some builders were putting up more houses than they had the manpower to complete,” says modular contractor Mike Morrison of Reveal Homes. The attitude was ‘set it and forget it.’ But that attitude has changed over the years.”

“A modular home is a stick-built home,” says Ray Maciel. “It’s just built under factory-controlled conditions.” He and others in the business readily tick off the advantages: Modulars are bolted together, not just nailed together. Building materials and unfinished frames are never exposed to rain, wind, snow, or ice, not to mention unreliable pickup workers. Excess materials are transferred to other projects, thus minimizing waste. Because self-contained boxes are joined to one another, walls and floors are doubled in thickness, making the homes sturdier, quieter, and more energy efficient. Foundations are generally built with more steel, to handle the heavier loads. And neighbors are spared the many months of screaming saws, ballistic nail guns, rumbling trucks, dust clouds, and general unsightliness normally associated with stick-built – or “site-built” – projects.

“When you jump on our floors, they feel like concrete,” says Hal Flack, who has supervised a few traditional construction projects in his own right. “Quality like that can only come from a factory environment. You can’t stick-build a house as true and straight.”

In the interest of building “green,” Bridge Housing hopes to insulate the thirteen buildings of Bridge Commons with cellulose, made chiefly from recycled newspaper, versus traditional fiberglass batting. “This seems to be a challenge for modular companies,” says Dick Mezger. “They say they prefer fiberglass batting because it’s lightweight and stays where it is during transit. Cellulose tends to settle.”

Simplex Industries, a modular manufacturer represented by Mike Morrison, woos green-conscious customers in particular, offering environmentally friendly bamboo floors and energy-saving extras such as double-thick wall sheeting and laminated windows. Mike estimates that building green roughly ups the cost of building modular by about 7 to 10 percent.

On January 1, Massachusetts raised the bar on the state building code, calling for improved resistance to hurricane-force winds. Jim Martin says his factory, for one, was in compliance well in advance. He further claims his company doesn’t cut corners on building fundamentals for affordable housing projects or other budget-conscious jobs. “The Morgan Woods buildings are solid as a rock and tight, tight, tight,” says tenant Tony Lombardi. “That helps keep the cost of heat and air conditioning manageable.”

Yet stuff happens on modular jobs that no stick-built home would ever encounter. Small drywall cracks occur in transit. Wave heights can rule out barge runs. Roadside tree limbs get whacked by wide-load tractor-trailers. A house-bearing truck might get stuck on the shoulder of a road. A crane might arrive at a building site on lifting day, only to be discovered to be too lightweight for the job. On at least one Vineyard occasion, a whole house was reportedly set on its foundation backwards – thus it remains for the ages.

Speaking of cranes, the Flacks lucked out. Since the breach of ’07 at Norton Point, rolling cranes from South Beach to Chappaquiddick is no longer an option. Barging boxes has become dicey too, given the newly erratic tides of Katama Bay. But as the magazine goes to press, Chappy’s newest modular is scheduled to brave the water passage, and so too the crane hired to lift it. It’s a far cheaper option than a helicopter ride.

If you’re thinking about going modular... 

Whom do you pick first? A contractor or a manufacturer?

It all depends (get used to that answer): Some customers prefer to scrutinize and select a manufacturer first, based on visits to factory sites or websites, and then identify an authorized local contractor. Other customers prefer to start out by finding a contractor who inspires their confidence. Some Island contractors hold real estate licenses, thus offering a one-stop-shopping service for land and house.

Ultimately, the customer signs a contract with a contractor, not with a manufacturer. Some contractors represent specific manufacturers exclusively. Others recommend manufacturers on a case-by-case basis, matching customer specs with factory strengths.

What elements of a modular home get installed at the factory, and what gets installed later at the building site?

It all depends: At minimum, modular homes are delivered with installed windows, primed interior walls, doors, trim, sub-flooring, internal wiring, piping, insulation, and little else. At the other extreme, the factory can pre-install your cabinets, shelving, finished floors or carpets, kitchen appliances, light fixtures, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, recessed lighting, and on and on. All homes come from the factory encased in house wrap (e.g., Tyvek). Vinyl siding and shutters are often applied in-factory as well, but wooden clapboards or cedar shingles are almost always affixed on-site. Elements that tend to protrude – decks, porches, turrets, outdoor showers – are usually stick-built on site too.

As a rule, the more that you choose to have installed in-factory, the lower your expense. But if you’d like to spread out your expense over time, or if your brother happens to be a flooring guy or if you need to observe the sunlight filtering through your kitchen window before choosing the color of your counter tops, installing some features on-site may be the better way to go.

What constitutes “finish work”?

Finish work is anything that happens after the home is delivered, assembled, and bolted. Besides the aforementioned post-factory options, the necessary work includes utility installations and hookups; roof shingling; factory-supplied, pre-measured trim application; drywall touch-ups; and painting.

How much flexibility do you have in the design of your home?

It all depends – again: Every manufacturer offers customers a choice of standard designs. The range of styles varies widely from company to company. Some come close to the New England aesthetic; others look altogether Texan. You can choose a design as-is from the factory catalogue. You can also ask the factory to modify a standard design. Or you or your architect can create a custom design, which the manufacturer’s architects or engineers will fine-tune to modular specifications. Note that some manufacturers are more amenable than others to highly customized jobs.

What about a choice of factory-installed amenities?

Most manufacturers have preferred vendors, which probably compete most favorably on price, and the brand names are generally familiar. You can go with the factory’s standard-issue faucets, carpets, toilets, cabinets, switch plates, and so on. Or you can think as far out of the box as you please, depending on your taste, budget, time, and tolerance for minutiae. Again, some manufacturers are more flexible and friendly about customizing than others.

If your house is being built hundreds of miles from the Vineyard, how can you be assured it’s being built right?

Town building inspectors obviously can’t see the insulation, pipes, wiring, and whatnot inside the walls of a house after it arrives on-Island. Nor do they travel out of state to make inspections at the factories. Third-party inspectors certified by Massachusetts do the job on their behalf.

“On the whole, it’s less work for us,” says Edgartown’s Ursula Prada. “We just approve the designs, inspect the foundation, and then do the final inspection when the house is finished and utilities are connected. Modulars get thrown around a bit on their trailers, so they need to be rechecked for things like leaks and cracks in the walls. But about 90 percent of the time, everything’s up to code.”

Another Island building superintendent whispers (off the record) that inspections at some factories may be more random than at others.

What if my pre-installed counter tops are granite, and the tractor-trailer hits a really big speed bump?

Most manufacturers are fastidious about bracing modular boxes for transit. Although little drywall cracks are common, damage is rarely an issue for seemingly fragile elements like granite, porcelain, ceramic, marble, and glass.

And when it is an issue?

Both your contractor and your manufacturer stand behind the integrity of your home. Sometimes the manufacturer hands over responsibility to the contractor at the time of delivery to the mainland barge terminal. Sometimes the manufacturer’s responsibility remains in force until the boxes are lifted off the trailers at the building site. Bottom line: It’s not your responsibility. Let your contractor address any problems that arise. However, you do need to hold construction liability insurance, just as you would for a stick-built home.

Note to all Vineyard homeowners: When it comes to calculating replacement costs, your insurer presumes that you’ll stick-build your next house. Modular replacement – and its attendant cost-savings – isn’t on the insurance industry’s radar screen. In the event of a catastrophe, you may profit handsomely. Meantime, you’re paying premiums at a premium.

Modular building contractors and agents on Martha’s Vineyard

Michael E. Carroll and Friends Construction Inc., 508-693-6284

Arrowhead Homes, 508-693-4878

Atlantic Modular Homes, 508-696-5252

D& G Modular Homes, 508-696-8080

Ray Maciel, 508-693-5193

William Macomber Modular Homes, 508-627-8030

Reveal Homes, 508-696-4567

Tom Richardson, 598-693-3438