More Modulars? - Decumanus Green
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More Modulars?

Modular Homes are Hip!

Coming this fall, we will be breaking ground on another NZE home and once again we are choosing a modular form of construction.  This is our second modular home, and we were so pleased with collaborative relationship we built with the designers of the home (BrightBuilt Homes of Portland, Maine) and the manufactures of the modular boxes (New England Homes of Dover, New Hampshire) that we have chosen to collaborate with these same partners again.  I firmly believe in the benefits of modular construction, but the industry faces an uphill battle to win over the marketplace.

This point came home to me during a recent conversation with a friend who has gone through a number of renovations and has a good deal of building experience from the client’s side.  When he heard that we were going to build a modular, he immediately dismissed them as glorified double-wides: deficient in quality, limited in configuration and better suited for the trailer park than a bucolic country lot.  “You can always tell a modular home,” he quipped.  Talk about a teachable moment!  I took the opportunity to share with my friend the remarkable developments that have elevated modular housing out of the low end of the market. Today’s modular houses can be extremely well-designed, well-made and indistinguishable from their site-built counterparts.  Modular homes are hip!

So, if they are just as good as site-built homes, what makes them the more choice-worthy option?  The answer lies not in the product, not in the homes themselves but rather in their production. 

Modular Homes are Green!

In a typical modular house, somewhere between 50-75% of the construction is done in a factory-like setting.  This not only tightens the construction schedule; it has also proven to be a far more environmentally friendly method of construction.  A large production facility can make much more efficient use of materials than your typical job site.  Factories are much better at matching inventory to production needs.  Crews on job sites always over order materials, both in quantity and lengths.  This is because boards can’t be stretched and running out of lumber can cause costly slowdowns.  Sometimes the extra material is returned, but oftentimes it is wasted in one way or another.  Industry wide, these efficiencies lead to a 22- 52% reduction in waste for modular construction over traditional site-built homes.  The environmental impact of these waste savings is significant given that upwards of 40% of the material going in landfills comes from the construction industry.

But the most significant environmental benefit of modular construction comes from a surprising place.  Several construction companies that belong to NESEA’s Bottom Lines program tracked the carbon footprint of their operations over a year’s time.  One company published their results and they are revealing.1  The breakdown of their company’s operational carbon footprint looks like this:

  • Employee Transportation: 60%
  • Transportation of goods to jobsite: 21%
  • Job site electrical use: 11%
  • Office utilities: 8%
  • Miscellaneous: 3%

What the report makes clear is that an astonishing 81% of the company’s carbon footprint can be attributed to transportation of materials and people to the job site.  Eighty-one percent!  

Now let’s be clear, people and goods need to get to factory to build modular as well.  But the factories tend to be in areas of higher population where workers live closer to their place of work.  Moreover, materials at factories are delivered in high-volume bulk, often using rail or shipping, which are a far more efficient means of transport than a carpenter’s F-150.  The company referenced above reports that a year-long construction project (a typical timeline for a site-built custom home) contributes a total of 86 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.  In contrast, one modular company measured a total of 10.6 tons of CO2 emissions for the construction and 60-year operation of one of their houses.2  That’s an 88% decrease in CO2 emissions!

Today’s modular construction is perfectly capable of delivering a product that rivals in style, quality, energy efficiency and versatility the best of custom homes.  But it can do so with a construction-produced carbon footprint that is cat paw-like in comparison to the elephant stomp of a site-built home.  That is both green and hip.


1For the full report go to:  southmountain.com/documents

2For full report go to ecohome.net/guides/3549/zero-carbon-homes-s1600-prefab-eco-home-gets-close/