Mansions go modular as costs, timeline lure high-end buyers

Modular homes have been around since the first trailers sheltered migrant workers in the 1920s. But the stigma of double-wides and flimsy suburban boxes is being blown away for the money-conscious Lexus set, who can now order their dream homes off the shelf -- such as the 7,200-square-foot French country mansion that recently came together in 32 hours in Bethesda.
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

One day in February, it was an empty, snow-covered lot in Bethesda. In 32 hours, the property held a six-bedroom, six-and-a-half-bath French country mansion with a walkout basement.

The 7,200-square-footer that appeared in Greenwich Forest 14 days ago is not yet a finished house. But it sure looks like one, with its gleaming windows, four sets of patio doors and symmetrical roof dormers. The heat, electricity and sewer went in last week.

A prefabricated, modular mansion, dropped in from the jib of a crane and set in place like a layer cake. For about $2.5 million.

Modular homes have been around since the first trailers sheltered migrant workers in the 1920s. But the stigma of double-wides and flimsy suburban boxes is being blown away for members of the money-conscious Lexus set. Now they can order their dream homes off the shelf with coffered ceilings, geothermal heat pumps and even a shaft for an elevator for at least 15 percent less money and in less than half the time it takes to build a traditional custom house.

To some, this is the future of Washington area home building. To others who have watched in horror as McMansions replace postwar bungalows, it's another blot on the landscape threatening to multiply.

"We're instant-gratification people," said Bob McCarrick, a 39-year-old investment banker, as he and his wife, Kristen, 39, walked the floors and touched the drywall of their insta-mansion the first night.

The McCarricks' house was built in two weeks on an assembly line in State College, Pa. It was trucked 205 miles in 21 boxes stacked on a fleet of semis, past handcrafted English country homes built in the 1930s, to its site on York Lane.

As soon as the first box was set, an e-mail popped up on Kristen's BlackBerry with a photograph from the foreman for Haven Homes, the manufacturer: "One down, 20 to go." At 8 the next morning, she saw her kitchen pantry dangling in the air.

The McCarricks had designed a custom home 18 months ago but backed out when the banking industry melted down. Now, after three months of finish work, they'll move into a place with a distressed stucco exterior, a cedar shake roof, and exercise, media and mud rooms, made to order for them and their three young children.

Compared with the house going up from scratch next door, which is all wood beams and empty window frames three months into construction, the McCarricks' appeared in a femtosecond. And Sandy Spring Classic Homes, which is building both, says the house next door won't be done until late November.

Many choices

Custom modular -- it sounds like an oxymoron. But elite architects who've seen their business drop in the recession are teaming up with manufacturers across the country, designing lines of Georgians, Federals, Mediterraneans and more. Computer-driven drafting is mapping out prefab rooms with the ease of a Lego game.

"Without the recession, nobody would be paying attention," said Russell Versaci, a Middleburg architect specializing in farmhouses for wealthy clients who partnered with Haven in 2008. A custom home built from studs can take 18 months or longer. "When I can cut that in half, that's a thrill for people," Versaci said.

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