For many Maine homeowners, the best presents come in the biggest packages. Watch Route 1 for any length of time, and you'll almost certainly spy a convoy of trucks, each adorned with "wide load" signs, as the fourteen-foot-wide pieces of another Maine house make their way toward becoming a home. These prefabricated sections, or modular units, are built in a factory and then installed on a foundation and secured to each other using lag bolts or screws - and they're appearing in record numbers in the Pine Tree State. More and more Mainers are discovering that just because a house arrives on a trailer doesn't mean it's a mobile home. Instead, it is more likely to be a five-bedroom colonial with two dormers and a cupola, a three-bedroom New Englander with granite countertops and radiant-floor heat, or a sprawling ranch with an attached horse barn.
Today Maine leads the country in modular homebuilding, with about 15 percent of all new homes using the prefab technology - twice the number found elsewhere in New England and far above the 3 percent of new homes nationwide that are modular, according to the National Modular Housing Council. "Maine has the highest percentage as far as I know nationally," remarks Thayer Long, the council's executive director. "Even though the modular housing industry follows the housing trends nationally and has seen a decline this year, the decline has been less severe and so the industry is actually grabbing market share." The 1,190 modular homes that the Maine Manufactured Housing Board reports were built in Maine during 2006 was a slight decline from the high of 1,623 set the previous year but still represents a sizeable percentage of the 38,500 modular homes built nationwide in 2006. (The number of new single-family homes, including mobile homes, also dropped, from 8,323 to 7,946, according to the Maine State Housing Authority.)
This spectacular popularity is being fueled by several factors: an acceptance of the quality and versatility of modular technology; a realization that a prefab home can be erected in weeks instead of months or years, an important consideration given Maine's short building season; and the simple economics that modular homes can represent a savings of 15 percent or more over conventional stick-built construction.
"Modular houses are just another option for people, one that gives them the ability to get into a house that they otherwise would never be able to get into and start building equity," explains Alex Cohen, a Realtor in Camden. "Like anything, you can have a really poorly built stick house or you can have a great one, and the same is true for modulars. But people understand that modular homes give them more bang for their buck, and they can usually get more home for less money."
Even architects, who might be expected to see such pre-designed homes as competition, are recognizing their potential. Carol Wilson [Down East, May 2007], a noted Falmouth architect, designed a home for herself using modular units to prove that premanufactured does not have to mean uninspired or boring (the home won an award from the American Institute of Architects). And Rob Whitten, a prominent Portland architect, says that while he has not yet had one of his upscale clients request modular construction, he is intrigued by the possibilities. "As they're manufactured in a factory setting, they could be greener by using more post-consumer products, and be more efficient," Whitten remarks. "However, the net result sometimes is not so green because you're spending a lot of time driving the units to the site."
By far the largest obstacle facing modular technology is overcoming the perception that modulars are somehow inferior to stick-built construction. "I've debated this with Rob Whitten, but I'd say that the quality of the framing, the structural integrity of the house, is better than a site-built house," says Gordon Hamlin, president of the Modular Home Builders Association of Maine and owner of Friendship Homes in Hollis. Hamlin cites the stringent regulations put on modulars as proof of their quality: unlike conventional construction, each set of modular plans needs to be approved by a third party; installers need to be licensed by the state; and the pieces of a modular home are assembled indoors, away from the rain and snow that can soak into lumber piles at a construction site.
And while some might wonder if a home that travels overland to reach its final resting place will sustain stresses or cracks along the way, Hamlin says the units are over-built to handle precisely such a strain. Finally, he says, the same efficiencies and lower wages that allow modular home builders to undercut stick builders can lead to a greater level of quality control. "Let's say that Keiser Homes, whom I represent, has 125 employees on the floor. Each person is only responsible for 1/125 of the house, so the guy who's installing the decking, that's all he does," Hamlin says. "They do not have the broad expertise of the site builders, because they don't have to have it. That's also why they pay less, of course."
Indeed, the economic impact of the modular home boom represents a unique problem for Maine. Of the 1,190 modular homes built here in 2006, 426 of them came from Canada, with just 352 originating in the Pine Tree State (the rest come from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and elsewhere in New England). Where the construction dollars from a stick-built house would trickle down into the pockets of plumbers, electricians, and countless other subcontractors, the majority of the modular budget goes to the retailer and then to the factory.
Modular homebuilders make no apologies for saving their customers money. "It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and it's a global market," responds Scott Stone, managing partner of Schiavi Home Builders in Oxford, which builds about a hundred modulars a year using units constructed in New Brunswick. "I have to look at the money that I'm saving for my customer."
Building a home off-site is nothing new in Maine, of course. Even before the Civil War, kit houses were cropping up Down East in places like Cherryfield and Dennysville, explains Christi Mitchell, a historic preservationist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. In the early twentieth century, people in such already exclusive communities as Camden were buying mail-order homes from Montgomery Ward and Sears; today the oak trim in many of these kit homes remains as straight and impressive as when the houses were new. And premanufactured houses did not only come into the Pine Tree State; in 1886 the pieces of Thomas Edison's summer home were built here and loaded onto four schooners for the voyage to Fort Myers, Florida, where they were assembled. Today they serve as a tourist attraction and the nation's first prefab home.
Finally, in the past few decades the number of premanufactured houses took a huge leap in Maine as people discovered that mobile homes represented a low-cost source of ready-made housing. (Unfortunately, this short-term solution has proven to have long-term impacts; this year the Maine State Housing Authority will kick off a program to replace all pre-1976 mobile homes with modern ones, because the older units have poor insulation, do not meet proper construction standards, and end up costing the state more money through heating-oil assistance and other welfare programs.)
In recent years, modular houses have been especially popular with speculators, as the speed with which a home could be assembled allowed entrepreneurs the chance to turn a quick buck. "When the market was hotter, there was such demand, and builders saw the potential where they could get a frame, finish it out, and turn around and sell it," Cohen says. "A lot of modulars flooded the market when the price was up, and a lot of them that I see today were spec homes at one point."
These days, however, modular units are often not used as a final product but rather as very large building blocks that are then customized on-site. "Our company uses modular technology to our customer's advantage, but we don't stop there," remarks Schiavi Home Builders' Scott Stone. "We use it to the point that it makes sense, but we stop there and then complement it with stick-built technology." Stone says that while ten years ago modular houses represented about 30 percent of his business, today they're about 80 percent. Much of this growth, he says, has been in more expensive retirement and vacation homes that feature stone foundations, cedar siding, and custom architectural features contributed by Salmon Falls Architecture in Biddeford. "We made a conscious decision three or four years ago to attack the upper end of the market, the three hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand dollar end, to where we're competing with a traditional builder," Stone explains. He says he can complete such a home in three to four months, compared to eighteen or more for a conventional builder, and believes modular technology saves his clients up to 15 percent over a stick-built home.
But real estate agents caution that builders like Stone need to be careful not to destroy the value of modular technology by overdoing the amenities. "The whole selling point for a consumer is the value of a modular home, so you potentially run a risk if you create a more sophisticated home and therefore a more costly home by pushing the envelope," Cohen says. "Also, just like with any property, there's that fine line of the neighborhood and not tipping the balance and overbuilding and putting too much into a house that you might not get back." But for some buyers he says modulars are a good fit. "There are different buyer criteria, different tastes. There are some buyers looking for older homes with an older feel or flavor, but there is another set of buyers who want windows that close and insulation in the walls and the sense that the house won't need a lot of maintenance. For those people, modulars are a perfect match."
Perhaps the best indication of just how accepted modular technology has become is in the many ways it has become ingrained into many aspects of conventional construction. Rob Whitten points out that for many years, kitchens have been sold in modules, with each base cabinet coming in three-inch increments and each sink-base available in a handful of standard heights and sizes. Today an increasing number of roof truss systems and floor systems are being built off-site and trucked to the construction site of a stick-built home. Even whole wall systems are now available that allow stick builders to essentially assemble the home in large sections, rather than frame by frame.
Developments like these indicate that modular technology will only become even more a part of the Maine way of life in the future. Going forward it will be up to builders and homebuyers to ensure that whatever technology they use continues to produce a distinctly Maine home. "We don't get to be the arbiter of taste," remarks Christi Mitchell, of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. "Our real concern is to have people become educated about our historical housing stock so that they can understand what it is that makes Maine houses special."