Modular Homes circa 2016 - Another Round?

I received an email from a friend who sent me a link to a specific program of modular homes. She asked me what I thought of modular homes for San Antonio. The link she sent me was for Indy Mod Homes.

One thing for sure, the concept of building modular homes is having another renaissance period right now, and it’s a very hot topic. Others have tried. You might be familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes. They were intended to be affordable, modest, modular, and even so easy to construct, any able bodied owner might be able to construct it him or herself. In reality, it didn’t really work out that way, but the effort started way back in the Depression years. So the current crop of modular homes is not a breakthrough movement at all. Thomas Edison built a series of concrete homes (some still exist). Sears provided kit homes, and Buckminster Fuller also kicked the idea around a bit with his Dymaxion Homes. If you are not familiar with what a Dymaxion house looks like, imagine combining an Airstream trailer with a hamburger bun. Here is a good link for an overview of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes.

In my opinion, the modular examples I’ve seen (mostly in publications), lean toward high-end luxury modernist tastes. As with almost all published versions of residential living, the homes are targeted for upper-middle class and upper class buyers. The examples on the Indy Mod Homes website were in the range of 1400-1800 square feet, which is good, but they start in the $300,000’s, which is not so good. And if you look carefully, not only are the Master Bedrooms modestly sized, but the secondary bedrooms are less than 100 square feet each. Some were ten feet by less than eight feet! Not what I would expect for a home priced at over a quarter of a million dollars.

As you would imagine, I’m one of those guys whose scrutiny radar automatically activates when claims of “green” and “sustainability” are tossed about. Clicking on the “Mod=Green” tab on the Indy Mod website, most of the bullet points refer to the control afforded by constructing the modules in a controlled factory and being able to recycle much of the scrap. That’s all a factor of design, and the same level of recycling can happen at site-built projects too. And they say the site is not disturbed during construction apart from what happens to the site to create the basements (which is not mentioned). And what exactly do they mean when they claim that, “The whole manufacturing process for modular homes is sustainable”? Really? Are they utilizing materials at a rate that would not prevent future generations from doing the same?

They admit that the homes are based on stick construction, so they’re not much different from conventional construction apparently, when it comes to the kind of materials that are used. From what I can tell, modular homes like this represent the offspring of a fling between conventional mass production housing and mass production mobile homes. Only mobile homes are not this luxurious.

I think that what’s needed in San Antonio are affordable, durable, quality (not luxurious), energy/water efficient, climate responsive, healthy homes that are appropriate at all stages of life and mobility. Entire communities could spring up from just a few good examples that can be built here. I feel kind of sheepish wanting to call this kind of home “green” or “sustainable” since those terms have already been widely misused, misunderstood, and corrupted. What I have in mind goes beyond what is now categorized as “green.” It’s going to be a huge challenge to achieve this kind of housing meeting all of the definition.

So, is San Antonio ready for modular homes? Maybe. But not the Indy Mod template. We should strive for better if we try at all. And jury is still out whether off-site fabrication is truly a “green” or “sustainable” advantage over site-built homes. One thing for sure, we need to start with climate responsive design and materials. That’s not new. The earliest builders here, and I mean the native tribes, the Spanish settlers, and even the soon to follow German builders figured it out. The industrial revolution, cheap electricity, and other factors gave all the builders mass amnesia and we generally forgot how to design responsibly. And that’s why we’re looking for energy and water efficient strategies now.

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