Tiny Tuesday: Manufactured vs. Modular

Mobile homes, despite the name, aren’t all that mobile. Though it’s built on a chassis for transport, a mobile home (also known as a manufactured home, which sounds more neutral) almost always has its wheels removed upon arrival at its final destination. The house is jacked up, then set down on piers on a slab or deep foundation. Since the chassis is not designed to bear directly on a base, there’s usually a crawlspace underneath.

A modular home is even less mobile. It’s built in one or more flat-bottomed pieces which are transported by flatbed truck. Once on site the modules are removed from the truck and anchored directly to a slab or deep foundation. Unlike a manufactured home, a modular home has no chassis, and can be placed directly on a base with no airspace between the ground and the underside.

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Manufactured homes cost $35,000 to $55,000 new. Trailer parks make manufactured homes even more affordable – residents typically own their homes but rent the land. Unlike other real estate, manufactured homes tend to depreciate quickly, and this characteristic is a major driver of wealth inequality. Fortunately, homes built more recently hold their value better.

The reason for this is quality. Originally, there was no authority to regulate manufactured home construction in the US. Since the 1980s, HUD has managed codes for manufactured housing specifying everything from materials (no asbestos!) to foundations (making the homes less susceptible to frost and flood damage) to waterproofing (reducing maintenance costs).

Modular homes can be any size, but single modules that resemble manufactured homes (like the ones built by Vermod) start at $100,000. Since they’re not designed to be moved more than once, they are governed by the International Residential Code (IRC), and they appreciate over time consistent with conventional housing. A modular home typically has better insulation and air-sealing than a manufactured home (in part because there’s no airspace underneath), which reduces fuel costs and makes the annualized price competitive with a manufactured home.

But a lack of financing options means a modular home buyer needs to pay much more money up front than a manufactured home buyer. That makes modular housing a nonstarter for many people. Vermod is working with lenders to offer financing that can bring the cost of a modular home within reach.

All this and more was explored in a recent episode of Vermont Edition, which you can listen to here.

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Tiny Tuesday: The Cargominium

We’ve seen shipping containers transformed into single homes, hotels, stores, and farms. How about high-density housing? That’s the premise of the Cargominium, a complex in Columbus, Ohio that when complete will likely be America’s largest shipping container residence.

This Columbus Dispatch article describes the 25-apartment structure, designed by Columbus architect Moody Nolan. It’s three stories tall and consists of 54 8-foot-by-40-foot steel containers. General contractor Chelsi Technologies stacked the modules on-site in one week, over 10 times faster than stick-frame construction would have taken. Each two-bedroom, 640-square-foot unit consists of two containers side by side. Exterior stucco will give the building an appealing facade and hide the containers from view. (Although if that’s the goal, the developer might also consider changing the name.)

Probably the biggest advantage to using shipping containers as structure is the reduction in construction cost. The developer claims the project cost 30% less than a similar-size building built conventionally, mainly thanks to a reduction in labor with the faster installation schedule. Containers also withstand wind loads and earthquakes exceptionally well – they’re built to cross oceans, of course – and have a low embodied energy since very little virgin material is required to make them habitable.

I remain wary of the insulation and airflow systems required for a shipping container interior to provide adequate comfort. But increasing numbers of designers in recent years are making it work, functionally and financially.

The building expects to house people in transition, moving from homeless shelters or rehab facilities. (The purpose is less groundbreaking than the “Housing First” initiative in some cities, but it fills a similar void in that making more housing available to those who need it most.) Thus, it is not just the containers but also the residents who will find a new life for themselves within the Cargominium. There’s something poetic in that.

Tiny Tuesday: Wheel Pad Makes Your House Accessible

By and large, the world is challenging for wheelchairs. In public settings in the US, new construction and renovations must conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which specifies ramps, elevators, and 5-foot turning diameters to make the buildings accessible to everyone. But private homes aren’t bound by the same standards. That means many people faced with mobility impairments come home to entry stairs, tight bathrooms, and other hazards that may cost a fortune to retrofit.

Enter the Wheel Pad. Designed as a temporary extension of an existing house, the Wheel Pad has a bedroom and bathroom with ADA-standard clearances, a Hoyer lift track built into the ceiling, an entry ramp, and a door to connect the unit to an adjacent house. All this comes in an ultramodern 200-square-foot package on wheels. It’s a novel use of the tiny house concept, and in hindsight a pretty obvious one. Why did it take so long for someone to market this?

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Inside the prototype Wheel Pad. Note the Hoyer lift track built into the ceiling.

That “someone” is a group of architecture students and professors at Norwich University. The prototype Wheel Pad went to a southern Vermont woman who recently became paralyzed from the chest down, and future units will be sold for $60,000 or leased for $3000/month. Since a unit is highway legal, it qualifies as an RV for zoning purposes. A septic tank is built in; water and electrical supply come from the existing house.

Physical access to the existing house is unclear, although the Wheel Pad website says illustrations are available for buyers. Can the entire unit be lifted higher or lower to match an existing door, or must a driveway be built to the correct height? (Settlement could make the latter pretty untenable for long-term accommodation.)