Entrance foyer to a new modular home in Sag Harbor. | Beachouse

Entrance foyer to a new modular home in Sag Harbor.

Last week I was enjoying dinner with some friends on the Upper West Side, and we got to talking about their dream—a timeless home in the Hamptons. They know that I build spec homes on the East End and recently have been experimenting with modular – or prefab – construction. I was both surprised and pleased to hear that they had recently had a similar conversation with other friends of theirs who had researched the benefits of building modular. These conversations were almost unheard of just five years ago. But today, with highly advanced technology, more sophisticated engineering and a lower building cost, there is, in fact, a popular movement emerging in the modular construction arena.

Perception is reality and the perception of modular has been negative, especially in areas of the country like ours, where homes sell in the tens-of -millions of dollars. Say modular and expect to hear words like trailer, mobile, mail-order catalogue and kit. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The prefab phenomenon dates back to 1890’s when many Americans bought homes out of mail order catalogues. Sears built over 100,000 prefab homes in the first half of the 20th century, which helped ease the housing shortage following WWII. In fact, there are a number of Sears homes here in the Hamptons. But we’ve come a long way since then. Today’s prefabricated  homes are built as “modules” or “boxes” in tightly regulated, state-of-the-art modular factories. Unlike “stick-built” houses constructed on-site, the “boxes” are constructed indoors and subjected to closely monitored inspection. Once completed, the modules, which are essentially the rooms of the house, are transported to the building site where assembly and construction are completed. The comparisons to mobile homes or trailers are, at best, uninformed. A modular house cannot be moved once it is attached to its foundation! They can be 1500 square feet or 7500 square feet. They are designed by licensed architects in every imaginable style from traditional to contemporary to Mediterranean. The construction materials used both inside and outside the home – from the framing itself to roofing, windows, plumbing, electrical, cabinetry and interior finishes – are identical to a traditional “stick-built” home.

A new modular home in Sag Harbor.

A new modular home in Sag Harbor.

The factors that account for the growing popularity of modular homes are many. Among them, time and money. Prefabs can be built faster (no delays due to bad weather!) and less expensively. Within two to four weeks of finishing the plans and obtaining permits, a 3000-4500 sq foot house will be ready for delivery to the building site. Perhaps the biggest factor contributing to the time savings is that while the house is being built at the factory, the building site itself is being prepared with the foundation, grading, septic, etc. Once the home is delivered, and depending on the size and finishes to the home, the new owner can expect another six to twelve weeks before moving in. This may sound like a lot of time, but for any number of reasons, including bad weather, a “stick-built” home will take two to three times longer to complete. (In all it would take 50% longer to complete.)

Generally speaking, compared to a “stick built” house, a modular house can be built for about twenty-five percent less because of the efficient use of resources — labor, energy and materials — inherent to a factory. This can be especially appealing in the Hamptons where the pool of labor is limited, therefore, driving up costs.

But, the number one reason to consider building modular rests in the achievable quality of the home. As with any investment, you’ll need to make an informed decision about who builds the house for you, or in this case, the factory you choose to build the house. Once you have made that decision, you can expect a closely supervised workforce, assembly with precision jigs, use of the highest quality kiln-dried lumber, unmatched structural strength (modular homes can be built to withstand 175mph winds!) and the highest possible energy efficiency. You should also receive extended warranty coverage.

To my mind, the modular option just makes logical sense. Think about it: when any  house is built, the windows are prefabricated as are the appliances, doors, cabinets and fixtures. Much of a new house is already plug and play. There’s a good reason for this: Would you trust the consistency and quality of your windows if they were made one by one at the site? No, you trust factory processes to be more precise, more consistent and more efficient. Modular construction simply takes house building several steps further and prefabricates the structure, installs the plumbing, electrical systems, windows, doors, trim, roofing, bathrooms and kitchen before shipment.

Is there a downside? The same downside in every home building process whether on-site or factory-built — and that’s simply the fact that creating a home is complicated. Designing the house can be time-consuming if you agonize over every decision. Navigating your way through any building permit process is likely to be frustrating, and there are insurance and financing issues that are different for any new construction vs. a pre-existing home. If you renovate the home down the road, it will be important to work with architect or contractor that understands the modular building process in order to move forward with any structural changes.

The modular trend is really a movement fueled by innovation. With all of its options, it’s exciting because it opens the door to new possibilities for many a dreamer! As a developer, it continues to work for me, and it very well may be a great alternative for you.


Crosby Renwick builds modular spec homes on the East End of Long Island and is a licensed real estate salesperson at Brown Harris Stevens in Sag Harbor

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