Saturday, October 25, 2008

Prefabs Made To Order

Lido couple builds custom-made modular home

By Joseph Kellard

One day in late September, Michael Longworth found his future home spread down his block, Nantwick Street in Lido Beach.

Each of the modular home’s five sections rested on separate trailers lined up along the narrow street in the order that a stationary crane waited to piece them together.

Unlike the construction of standard skeletal homes, modular builders must measure the streets and other potential obstacles before the choreographed construction of their factory-built sections can unfold. And the Lego-like building of Longworth’s boxy, modern-style home became a spectacle for his neighbors.

“They were standing by the crane during the whole process,” he said. “We had a crowd.”

While modular home construction is something different in Lido, Longworth’s modern, custom-made dwelling remains a relatively new, evolving feature in the world of prefabricated homes, since most maintain a certain generic, cookie-cutter style. Even more individualized homes like Longworth’s are constricted by certain prefab parameters, never deviating too radically from the standards of the factories where they are built, and shaped also by local zoning codes.

Enter Paul Coughlin, a prefab architect with the Manhattan-based Resolution: 4 Architecture, who works with homeowners to fulfill their particular needs, from their home’s basic structure to the door hinges or pivots.

“I think what makes this house distinct is that everything in here was designed for Michael and [his wife] Victoria, right down to the sink and faucet and how they want their vanity to work and whether they want a window next to the tub,” Coughlin said. “All those features are what make it unique.”

Coughlin also tries to further distinguish each home by upgrading the quality of its features, including the Longworths’ large, high-end Andersen windows, bamboo flooring, Merillat Masterpiece cabinets and Corian kitchen counters.

The more fundamental challenge is how to build from the foundation. In Longworth’s case, his previous home, a one-story, 1929 bungalow, abutted the flora-thick dunes that blocked his family’s view of the beach and ocean. “For Michael, it was really important to engage the beach,” Coughlin said.

So Coughlin designed the house upside down, in that the bedrooms are on the ground floor and the kitchen, living room and dining room are on the top section, overlooking the ocean, where, along with a roof deck, the Longworths and their two daughters, ages 11 and 9, spend most of their waking hours.

“We obviously wanted the view,” said Longworth, who moved with his wife from Manhattan into their former bungalow in 1997.

Their kids’ bedrooms share the ground floor with the master bedroom and bathroom, and the Longworths wanted and got a dressing room with closets that divide the two areas. The master bathroom features a sauna in addition to the bathtub and a separate shower. A thick door with milky, laminated glass is just one of the home’s many upgrades.

The middle section has a playroom and guest room, and two smaller decks on the north and south sides. The ceilings on one level, however, don’t serve as the floor for the level above — each section has its own ceilings and floors.

“I think that adds to the stability,” said Matt Henry, owner of HKH Construction in Long Beach, who will complete the building.

The home’s five sections are tied together with steel-threaded rods. And while the transport can stress a prefab’s structure, Coughlin argues that modular homes are not the house of cards that has been their stigma, but are actually more stable than stick homes, with potentially just as long a shelf life. “The fact that it’s built in a factory in a dry, controlled environment makes a big difference,” he said.

After Longworth wrestled for two years through bureaucratic red tape for zoning variances and permits, he had the bungalow demolished in late August and, two months later, the house is on its way to being completed by year’s end.

“It went from knock-down to having a structure in less than a month,” said Longworth, who owns a Web site development company. “It saved us a hell of a lot of time.”

The prefab philosophy is that homes are typically constructed much more quickly than standard homes, and can be less costly. Coughlin said it usually takes about 16 months from the time a homeowner signs a contract to when the house is completed.

At first, he had five meetings on design with the Longworths, after which the architect submitted the custom layout to Resolution: 4’s factory in Scranton, Pa. There, the five sections take about two weeks to build, and some three months of prep time.

Once the house is set on site, about four months are allowed to complete two stages: first, tying together the exterior features, including the cedar siding and trim, and then installing the electric, floors, plumbing and roofing. With standard homes, this process usually takes between eight months and a year, Henry said.

“It’s exciting for people to see how fast their home can go up,” he added.

“My wife and kids are completely stoked,” Longworth said about the prospect of moving in around Christmas.

While he declined to reveal the cost of his new home, upgraded prefabs are generally comparable to site-based homes, but usually are less expensive in areas with more open space for transport and construction, and an average of 20 percent can be saved on building costs, Henry said.

Coughlin said that around 80 percent of Resolution: 4’s business is in the New York metropolitan area (including the Catskills), with the majority of the homes raised in Nassau and Suffolk counties. While the company has been building prefabs for some 25 years, from Maine to Hawaii, the Scranton warehouse has turned out more modern and custom homes in the past decade.

Henry said that prefabs are seeing greater exposure now, and their negative image — particularly that they are identical homes with cheap fittings aimed at a mass housing market — is changing for the better. “And the way they used to come together, and the way they looked in the end,” he said, “you most likely could pick out the modular home on the block. Now, I know for sure that people never expected modular could be done like this.”

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