IT HAS ITS PLACE. BUT IS IT HERE?
Driving through my town of Eumundi I am surprised to see people installing modular homes on the newly vacant blocks being carved out in the hills. Having worked as part of the establishment team of a modular home company in Melbourne - Archiblox - I am very familiar with the design, cost and construction of Pre-built houses. So it came to me as a oddity that two have popped up in the last a few months and I wanted to explore whether my categorization of them as a city solution was wrong.
There are many companies creating amazing homes that provide modern affordable homes that suit your budget and style. The benefits of choosing this method of building are:
Defined plans and prices.
The cost of building a house and the constant pressure to not overcapitalise can be daunting when approaching a builder of designer/architect who cannot give you a definite price. The cost of a modular home and inclusions is set, and if you choose one of their standard plans and fit outs it is a relief to know what you’re in for and exactly what it will look like before committing.
Manufactured off site modular houses are not dependant on good weather, timing of trades and builders who work on multiple sites instructions. The cost of physically moving the home means the company is very invested in ensuring an accurate delivery date that the client can rely on. This reassurance of how long the process takes means the client can effectively plan their life around this and alleviate any poor effects an in-situ build can cause.
The majority of clients who chose a pre-built plan had small inner-city blocks which suited the available dimensions perfectly. They need to replace their dilapidated, poorly constructed home and as renovation was not a realistic option, they needed a viable method to construct a new home. The modules could be built of site and when completed the demolition crew would raze the site in 3 days. The next day the building would show up on the back of the truck and lifted in. The whole process would take about 1-2 weeks for the structure to be installed and habitable. The real benefit is the cost savings of doing this - in an area where you are paying $50k a year for rent not taking 9 / 12 months to complete of onsite build is a real benefit to a client’s bottom line.
Using rational, pre-made buildings seems like a good choice - but are the benefits outweighed by the shortcomings? Some elements to consider are:
A prebuilt modules dimensions are determined by the allowance for truck sizes. If the transported modules were to exceed this there would need to be specialist trucks, larger cranes, road closures and police escorts – something that would blow out the cost. This means floor plans have to be rectilinear and often don't utilize the site efficiently.
Lack of Personalised Design
Many of the world’s best architects have attempted to design pre-built houses of the last 70 years with little success. The issue is that no client and site and budget is ever the same and a successful building must respond diligently to all these elements. The modular home has a number of shortcomings when reacting to site conditions that cannot be overcome.
Grand Designs Australia had a great example of this with their documentation of a prebuild home in Sydney that failed to capture the water views without bending down – something that would have been picked up in the framing stage of a regular build
The Potholes, bridges and corners experienced buy the home when transporting put a great deal of strain on the building compared to in-situ homes which only have to contend with wind loads and gravity. Prebuilt Structural framing has to be strong enough to be lifted (maximum of 3 times) from the engineered lift points. All this extra structure adds to the expense of the building’s construction.
The building can also never be put on a truck again without voiding the engineering certification as it has been lifted too many times. So the implied sustainable reusability of the homes is not realistic. Despite the over specifying of the walls.
Roof Structure and Shading Elements
The main downfall of the designs is that due to the transportation restrictions and lifting methods any eaves and roofs cannot exist as they would tear off while driving down the highway. This modern style of eave-less building looks great, but the homes are not in Japan, Scandinavia or even Melbourne, they are in a subtropical environment where the summers are long. To live in this Queensland there are simple architectural elements required to effectively keep out the summer sun and the sunshine coast and Noosa council require all buildings have 350mm deep eaves for shading. These can be provided be a hood system like a HEKKA, but without careful consideration these homes can become extremely hot and energy dependent to keep cool.
Another issue is that the very low roof pitch and box gutters are not suited to an environment where leaf matter falls all year round. Without being continually cleared, this can cause big issues for the house with water intrusion into a habitable room a possibility. There is a reason rural houses have high pitched roofs and gutters on the eaves.
High cost of the homes
A modular home cost per square meter is as much as a architectural award-winning home with the same footprint designed for the client and site. This high cost of prebuilt is offset when the building system is used in cities where installation of a home in 4 days saves you a significant amount of money by alleviating lost rental income in the 10’s of thousands. As this is the main benefit of prebuilt, it therefore begs the question of why go with this option on the Sunshine Coast? - Most buildings are installed on new, open blocks with no-one occupying the site and clear and free parking. Even with the granny flat additions, it is arguably not an issue to have a construction site in your backyard if it created a more connected outcome and saves money.
Modular homes are not really built any faster – they are just built off site.
With the clients I dealt with in Archiblox it was always interesting that the prebuilt projects seemed to get people in the door who ideologically wanted the buildings, but ultimately they had so many changes/requests that they ended up requesting on-site builds. The company directors did not want this as they had put significant time and energy into some great ideas for providing pre-built architecture, but the consumer wants meant that over 80% of houses built were on-site.
Perhaps the real benefit of Modular Homes are that they have rigid design parameters with justifiable reasons of what building you can get for your money. This restriction of choice makes the complicated nature of building much easier to engage with.
The issue is that with the guidance of a trained professional a better outcome can be achieved.
Modular Housing has its place – but is it on the sunshine coast?
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