- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Tractor-trailers hauling pieces of modular homes crisscross the area's highways every day, but more flexible ways of building these manufactured homes exist.

Panelized construction eliminates the need for modular construction's "multidimensional" chunks, which can limit the design potential of the home. For example, it would be virtually impossible to deliver a home with cathedral ceilings because delivery trucks wouldn't be able to drive under bridges, wires or branches due to the size of the load.

In panelized housing, homes are pieced together in climate-controlled warehouses while foundation work occurs simultaneously at the home site. Each wall is built separately and stacked flat on a truck for delivery. Even plumbing, electricity, drywall, fixtures and cabinets can be pre-installed on the finished panels.

Once constructed, the panels, which can be up to 62 feet long, are delivered to the site, where a crew can finish the job in a matter of hours. One of the greatest advantages of this type of pre-manufactured housing, industry experts say, is the reduced move-in time from start to finish.

It can take weeks or months to build a house the traditional way, but once the panels are delivered to the home site, a house built with panelized construction can be erected in as little as six hours. Workers at warehouses are continually building the panels needed for each model so they are stockpiled and ready to go.

Panelized construction can reduce the amount of wasted materials because workers can use equipment unavailable at a home site to make the process more precise, and prevent time-consuming job-site error.

For some panelized housing manufacturers, the job is finished once the panels are delivered. Others will put the panels in place with large cranes and help erect the structure. Some manufacturers do the job from start to finish.

Henry Walthery, vice president of Selinsgrove, Pa.-based Forest Homes, is a manufacturer of panelized housing who sometimes deals with builders who prefer to delegate certain aspects of the building process.

"With regard to both panelized and modular systems, in consideration of the tight labor margins in many regions, both [panelized and modular housing] alternatives serve the needs of builders in terms of the physical product as well as the efficiency involved in actually delivering the structure," he says. Forest Homes uses panelized construction because, Mr. Walthery says, "there are virtually no limitations on design and customization."

"Actually, the fact that our homes are built in controlled environments is a positive thing. We are able to use computer technology, framing tables and other equipment that normally would not be accessible on an actual site. The supervision and the professionalism involved with this type of manufacturing results in what we believe to be just as good of a product as a traditional stick-framed house, if not a better one.

"To a large degree, everybody in the building systems industry is in business today due to the fact that they have responded to a need that was already there," Mr. Walthery says. "The decision [of which type of construction to use] is ultimately up to the consumer market."

In the age of Wal-Mart and Price Club, consumers are faced with the same question time after time. Is it better to buy in bulk? Does convenience and time-efficiency always prevail? Local builders and home buyers are establishing their own opinions about manufactured housing systems. While time is of the essence for some, others consider conventional on-site building to be the only way to create a quality product.

In the 1800s, Mark Twain hired a crew to transport his home down the Mississippi River in sections and put it back together at a new location. If the theory of piecing together a home in panels has been around for so long, why has it taken so long for the consumer market to become interested in the building options that it can provide?

Jeffrey Adler of Adler Construction Group Inc. in Silver Spring has his own opinion. For more than 20 years, Mr. Adler has been constructing houses in the Washington metro area. His father also spent his lifetime building homes. Mr. Adler proudly describes his way of building as "holding onto certain old-school values."

"I prefer to build houses the old-fashioned way, stick-built, because I know that ultimately it's better for the consumer," Mr. Adler says. "My way might not be as attractive to some time-sensitive buyers because the process takes longer, but my experience shows that building homes on-site from the ground up makes for a longer-lasting product. I will continue to build them the way I always have and the way my father before me always did."

Many businesses, however, are not opposed to the idea of mass production in the building industry. While Mr. Adler and other builders agree manufactured construction will continue to find its place in the market, they are confident plenty of consumers will continue to want their homes built the old-fashioned way.

Some builders believe damage can occur when the manufactured panels are transported. Some believe the same care and attention is not put into a house when it is built off-site. The decision will ultimately be up to the American consumer, but Mr. Adler believes it comes down to the fact that home buyers purchase their homes not just for cost and time-efficiency reasons.

He says purchasing a home, especially building one from the ground up, is still an emotional experience.

Another local builder, Scott Adashek of Portrait Homes, chuckles as he says, "Custom builders generally are not opposed to modular or panelized building. Some of them just simply choose to believe they don't exist as an option."

Portrait Homes has experience with panelized, modular and stick-built construction, and Mr. Adashek says they all serve their purpose.

"There is no system that is really any worse than the other," Mr. Adashek says. "If people want custom design, they should probably go with stick-built. If they want a price break, but limited features, then modular might be the best way to go.

"Modular is structurally more sound than any other system. A lot of production builders like panelized because they can move fast and get under a roof quickly. It's a nice way to go in the colder months when the weather conditions aren't so ideal… .

"There are so many different ways to go and every builder has [his] own preference. I just like unique projects and have always been open-minded to anything," he says.

"As far as the customer goes, they should talk to a few builders and decide for themselves what they are comfortable with. There are plenty of options out there, and it always sort of depends on the particular situation."

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