Last month we kicked off our Green Guide to Prefab series with an article exploring the history of prefabricated housing. Now we’re back with another article in this series to take a look at mobile homes and their influence on the development of prefabricated housing. Although the words ‘mobile home’ today often conjure up images of sprawling trailer parks outside cities, these compact homes-on-wheels were, in fact, part of a design revolution that gave way to a low-cost, portable option for single-family home ownership. Read on for the second installment of our Green Guide to Prefab, where former Lindal Cedar Homes CEO, and green design consultant Michael Harris schools us on the history of the mobile home and how it helped shape modern prefabricated housing.
The Preassembled Prefab: Born On a Truck Chassis, Matured Into Cost Effective Homes
Motel Rooms on Wheels Evolve Into Primary Homes for a Mobile Society
A new type of factory-produced house evolved in the 1930s and 1940s – while architects and manufacturers were creating factory-cut and site-built systems, mobile homes metamorphosed from “weekend caravans” — or motel rooms on wheels — into practical homes able to hit the road. These mobile homes offered an alternative to traditional homes at a modest scale and affordable price.
When major weekend caravan producers shifted production to full-time homes on wheels, they sought to provide the lowest cost antidote to the mammoth housing shortages of the Great Depression and WWII, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned to their parents and spouses and wanted a home of their own. They also understood that relocating several times might be required if they were to find steady employment.
It is no surprise that the mobile home industry’s roots are in the Midwest – near cities where automobiles and trucks were produced. The mobile homes were built on chassis with wheels, clad in polished or enameled sheet aluminum with small sliding windows, and were sold completely finished with bathrooms, complete kitchens, wood paneling and furniture.
An Affordable Approach to Single Family Home Ownership
By the 1950s, hundreds of producers had sprung up across the country with names like Skyline, Fleetwood and Champion, selling 10 by 60 foot mobile homes for $4,000. These same companies have continued to refine their products and remain leaders among the nearly 100 mobile home producers today.
Mobile home owners didn’t typically purchase home sites – instead they tended to rent small “pads” with utility hookups in mobile home “parks.” The homes typically remained on wheels, sometimes with decorative skirting to conceal them. Affordability – not modern design and customization – was the primary design goal at the time.
While architects and producers of kit houses managed to create a new design paradigm aimed at efficiency and affordability, mobile home producers were the most successful in reaching that goal and they became the largest segment of the prefab industry. By 1970, mobile homes accounted for over 10% of new homes, with total production of over one million units.
The Mobile Home Construction and Safety Standards
Over time the popularity of mobile homes began to decline – fewer homeowners hooked their homes up to a vehicle and drove them elsewhere. Also, since they are classified as vehicles, mobile homes could not be financed with mortgages and this became a problem for consumers planning to purchase land and finance their homes. Mobile home parks were also viewed as a blight by some communities, and fatal fires and accidents drew focus upon the fact that the construction of mobile homes was not regulated by any building codes or safety standards.
In 1974, Congress enacted the Mobile Home Construction and Safety Standards Act (the HUD Code), and the mobile home industry was reborn as the “manufactured” housing industry. The wheels and chassis came off the units, which were placed, single or double wide, on permanent foundations. Sheet aluminum siding was replaced with aluminum clapboards, and windows were upgraded to double-hung windows which often came with shutters. Thus it was that prefab construction developed from caravans to mobile homes to modular houses that took on the appearance of conventional ranch homes. Home mortgage financing became available for modular houses, granting them legitimacy and giving buyers access to long-term home financing.
In order to capture more of the new home market, producers created systems that enabled flat roofs to fold up to form moderately pitched roofs once a home was installed on-site. Producers also developed systems for stacking modules together to look like traditional homes, drawing attention away from their modular construction.
Affordability was still the primary goal, and the crowing achievement of the modular producers. In 1995, they produced over 300,000 homes and captured over 20% of the new home construction market.
In keeping with the times, modular homes continued to grow in scale and complexity (I have seen a single family home composed of 35 stacked and connected modules!), and costs have risen with the inclusion of more upscale finishes and amenities. Still, the advantage of dramatically reduced on-site construction time and predictable cost continue to attract many consumers.
A New Model: The Green Prefabricated Home
Prefab Attracts Designers and Consumers Alike
During the last five years, changes in the economy, skyrocketing energy costs, and the growing understanding that the endangered environment poses a threat to humanity have forced a “time out” for serious reflection on how we are living.
The age of outrageously conspicuous consumption is thankfully over and has been replaced by a sober sense of reason and responsibility. Federal and state legislatures now mandate various green building and living measures, and today there is an increased awareness that building green does not mean adding significant cost. Different pressures – financial and otherwise – have made sustainable architecture a more viable option, especially in conjunction with prefabrication.
The current tight mortgage market makes the financing of cost overruns from building a new home a near impossibility. As a result, prospective homeowners have come to value predictability and avoid expensive time-consuming risks whenever possible. Prefab building systems meet these needs since they are based on streamlined processes and mass-purchased and produced components. They also make the modification of existing designs or the creation of new designs less time-consuming and cost-efficient.
Systems building also reduces waste in the factory (where remnants of larger pieces are often used to fabricate smaller parts) and on-site, saving the cost and environmental aftermath of carting waste to landfills. Overall, the amount of fuel required to deliver components is reduced when they are tightly packaged on one or two trucks, rather than in dozens of small deliveries. Systems producers also often invest in research and development that results in the use of innovative engineered components and sustainable materials. Today, for the first time, there is a real and measured consensus among consumers that prefab houses exceed conventionally built houses in both quality and value.
Architects, seeking to make their services and designs accessible to a broader base of design-savvy yet value-conscious consumers, have turned to the prefab industry to deliver the dream: an architect-designed home, produced efficiently in a factory, sustainably built on-time and on-budget.
Res4 Architects, Marmol Radziner, and Michele Kaufmann have led the way in offering both strikingly beautiful pre-designed homes and custom homes produced in modular home factories and co-joined on-site. While the costs may seem high for those familiar with modular home pricing, in actuality they are more affordable than conventionally built homes designed by architects.
Dwell Magazine shined the spotlight on modern prefabs by selecting a Res4 design as the first Dwell Home, which was built as a demonstration home in 2004 in Pittsboro, North Carolina. The idea was appealing enough to attract over 2,500 visitors on the opening weekend.
Architect Marmol Radziner’s prefab Desert Home
Prefab as a Modern and Green Option for Homeowners
Today, prefab is no longer simply about saving money – it is also a system for producing personalized homes while still providing predictability and confidence in a process often fraught with surprises. Modernism and green design share a common creed: the efficient use of materials, time, and economic resources.
Building green is a twenty-first century extension of modernism’s mandate of environmental and economic responsiveness. A contemporary home is not modern if it is not green. A prefabricated house enhances its green credentials through numerous efficiencies in resources, labor, money and the time inherent in its building process. Buyers interested in a prefab housing design project must ask the tough questions. They need to explore the methods utilized by producers to respond to personal, societal, and even environmental priorities.
Where to Start: Understanding the Basics
When it comes to your own purchasing decisions, don’t look for a magic bullet. Ask yourself a series a questions such as: Is there a higher quality solution, or a less costly, faster, more enduring, or greener solution? As you begin your exploration of alternative housing approaches, recognize from the start that there are likely many excellent solutions. But before diving in head first, you should take a moment to go through the following exercise:
Make two lists of your priorities:
List one: The first list should describe your vision qualitatively — do you want your house to be funky, glassy, modern, warm, super green, and energy-efficient? Also include all programmatic essentials – whether it’s a room for your elderly parents, a ground level owners’ suite or a home office with a special views, list them all.
List two: The second list should be process related. Ask yourself: do you want to work directly with a designer or work from an existing design? When do you want your home to be ready? What are your budget limitations? Do you want local assistance in planning, builder selection, and permitting, or are you planning on going it alone? How much time can you invest in planning?
After completing each list go back and prioritize everything you’ve listed starting from the essential to the desirable. Take your time and collaborate with all stakeholders, young and old. This exercise sounds simple, but trust me, my forty years of direct experience with clients suggests otherwise. A project this important and a process this complex requires discipline. In the heat of decision-making, having clear-headed, prioritized criteria will be invaluable as you explore and determine which options are most responsive to your needs.
Your Road to Prefab Home Ownership
The next three parts of this series will explore the three different types of “clients” that are served and satisfied in every successful project. I will also explain which form of prefab typically satisfies each of the three clients. I hope this will help you on your way to a successful homebuilding experience.
One last thing – if I were a brain surgeon I wouldn’t consider operating on myself, nor would I be comfortable with a surgeon performing their first surgery on me or a loved one. Unless you are an experienced professional, don’t undertake this endeavor without seeking the proper guidance. Experience matters. Prefab producers who have endured the current downturn (and prior downturns) offer stability. Survival is the result of continuous improvement and innovation and in all likelihood, working with these kinds of companies will result in a product that endures as well. The journey to a green prefab home is far more likely to reach a satisfying destination when you are guided by experienced, local professionals who can facilitate every aspect of design and planning, and make the most of your time and money.
Lindal Cedar Homes is the world’s largest provider of quality custom cedar homes. Founded in 1945, there are more than 50,000 Lindal cedar homes—and satisfied homeowners—worldwide. Known around the world for their signature post and beam building system, quality building materials and detailed craftsmanship, their experienced Lindal Cedar Homes dealers will help you each step of the way.
Michael Harris is a MIT graduate with two degrees in architecture. Michael has made it his professional mission to innovate system-built design and the planning process to ensure fulfilling client experiences. Michael spent 31 years at Deck House Inc. working with clients, designing new products, innovating client-centric sales process and marketing, and was involved in the acquisition of a competing brand (Acorn Structures). He led the company as CEO and served on its Board of Directors for 15 years. In 2006, Michael joined Lindal Cedar Homes, working with executives, staff and dealers to build a new strategic plan, then implementing the plan as President and CEO. Today he works as an independent consultant and dealer (testing the efficacy of the plan by” walking the talk”).
While at Lindal, he led the company’s entry into the modern market; forged a collaboration with Dwell Media initiating Lindal’s participation in the Dwell Homes Collection; and created the Lindal Elements program, a new line of on-system designs and process he designed with the company’s creative staff. He brought the iconic industry player to become the first “Green Approved” building system by the NAHB Research Center and the only single family home included in TIME Magazine’s Green Design 100 in 2010.
In addition to selling and consulting, he serves on the Board of Advisors of Blu Homes, writes on the subject of manufactured housing, and enjoys life with his wife Carol, splitting their time between Seattle and their family’s home base in New York City.