Friday, March 12, 2010

Attacking the Modular Look

As we drew plans and sections and elevations of our proposed modular house, we'd step back from them and think, "Looks good: no one will think it's a modular." But a gnawing fear ground away at my stomach: lines on the paper can mislead if not lie. As I looked at a very expensive local modular house, which I did not realize was a modular house until the owner told me so, well then it really jumped out at me that you can spot certain details that tip the hand a bit. We were shocked when we submitted our drawings to the factory, and they were redrawn by them, and when they returned to us, our house looked like a modular house. We had to get busy and get on top of the details.

People typically want 3 things when building: they want it cheap, quick and good. Peter Forbes, a superb architect I used to work for, used to tell clients, "Pick two." But we would go for all three. The modular process offers some real advantages to consider. First, know that 120 workers will build your house in 5 days. They will be indoors, as will the building materials, so things that oughtn't get wet don't. Most components are cut with computer settings, so, for example, all the studs in our walls were cut precisely to 9', as we wanted. This was particularly evident when we found that all the rafter tails lined up with unusual precision as we installed the fascia and gutters. The house will be scheduled, and it will arrive at it's appointed hour or there will be penalties: this tends to ensure the prep work for it is completed on schedule as well. The house will arrive at various stages of completion. For some, it is virtually complete: floors are in, walls are plastered and painted, doors are hung, roofing and siding are buttoned up, plumbing fixtures are set, the kitchen awaits your dishes. For us, it would arrive a shell: in our attempt to "attack the modular," we pulled all that stuff out and decided to source and install our own.

Modular factories offer standard floor-plans. At their base, these are really assemblages of big boxes, proportioned not unlike shoe boxes, sized to fit on the backs of tractor trailers. In that we wanted essentially a loft-like space, and we had site restrictions, we decided to go with four shoe boxes, sized 12' x 60' x 9' tall. This size hauls easily on the road without the necessity for expensive police escorts and middle of the night dashes. They can go to 16' wide, but that's when the money starts to flow for hauling. We planned to set 2 boxes side by side, then put the 2 others on top of them. Given the snows we get here in the Northwest corner of Connecticut, we went with a pitched roof in spite of our flat-roof modern sensibilities. This roof would ride flat on the 2 upper boxes, and would hinge up in place. An advantage to this roof system is that it can easily accommodate a cathedral ceiling upstairs, so we did so in the master bedroom and bath.

The real trick for our downstairs design would be to figure a way to eliminate the structure the modules need to run down their center line. We didn't want a bunch of columns breaking up the space, nor a beam hanging down the center of the room like a spine. We settled on hiding a flitch plate, or, very thin beam, in the ceiling between the boxes. We placed a mammoth fireplace 24' in from the gable end wall, and in that we'd hide some columns to catch the hidden beam. Problem solved. I squint my eyes, and now I'm in a Soho loft.

As I mentioned, we stripped everything off to attack the modular. No vinyl or cedar siding - we were to do horizontal shiplap for a smooth look like the really old houses. No asphalt roof - we want a standing seam metal roof to match the silos and our old barn that we saved. It also reminds me of the Tidewater Virginia farms of my youth. No doors - we will make them. Same thing for the kitchen. No factory windows please - we want a black metal multi-lite outswing casement. Not only does this let us throw open the windows like some Parisian washer woman, it lets us put the screens on the inside of the house. This is huge. Screens over windows rob houses of their life: they put a gray pall over the exterior. And they get dirty. We'll do our own floors please - no honey colored oak strips for us. And while we will lay out every light and switch and outlet in advance, we will provide the lights themselves. And the plumbing fixtures - just give us the pipes to plug into. And we want some glass - some big glass - no little 6' wide sliding unit. Real flat glass to bring the outdoors in. We don't want the standard overhangs of our roof eaves - we want them high and tight. And we want to set the house on stone, not concrete, so we'll run a line of granite curbstone around the base to give the house some soul. And, and.....

And so we roll up our sleeves, break out our pencils, pick up the phone, and start calling our people who can help us pull this thing together.


  1. AMAZING!!!!! i love that we are going to see it built and i'm DYing of curiosity!! so cool!!!!

  2. Thanks - every day there is a new treat to see when I wander out there!