What are the views here on buying house plans, or using prefab?

sochiNovember 11, 2012

We recently bought some land and intend to build a small (1300-1400 square foot) home over the next year or so. It is in a wooded area, on a lake and will be used mostly for weekends and summers. DH and I may live there on a more full time basis in 12 to 15 years.

In a perfect world I would sit with an architect and have custom plans drawn up. We may do this, but we are also considering pre fab builders, and or perhaps using a plan found on-line if I find something suitable.

I haven't heard great things about on-line house plans (plans aren't detailed enough, change restrictions, etc. as for pre-fab, most seem far more expensive than regular construction. And most of the pre-fab builders I like are some distance from me.

I love to hear what real world experience you all may have with using plans or pre-fab homes.

I am quite interested in one pre-fab company not far from where we intend to build. They are having an info session in my city in a few weeks. What sort of questions would you put to the company? Certainly I will have many questions about costs, what is included, etc., but I'd appreciate any other suggestions you folks might have.


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I would suggest first giving some serious thought to what level of design you want because both of these approaches place limits on that aspect of the project.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 8:21AM
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We considered Blue Homes. Itwouldnt work because we were looking at a tear down and wanted to use the existing footprint, but we were impressed by the company.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 8:23AM
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We considered Blue Homes. Itwouldnt work because we were looking at a tear down and wanted to use the existing footprint, but we were impressed by the company.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 8:27AM
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Annie Deighnaugh

We looked at prefab construction but didn't go with it as we were too fussy and the limit of the 16' max width on rooms was a real constraint for us. Also we were building with an open and finished basement, so half of the house would have to be stick built anyway.

But we were impressed with the quality and care that they took in building their homes. There wasn't a lot of cost saving in the process as the savings from manufacturing housing went into the added structure required to make the house portable. But there was a huge time savings as, at least at that time, you ordered your house and it arrived 6 weeks later.

Keys to the process that we found were that you had to have excellent foundation guys as the foundation is built separately from the house and when the 2 come together, they have to meet up exactly.

You have to have your design fully formed and set in your mind when you order it. There is no time or space to live in the house to make changes as you go along like there is with stick built. How you order it is how it comes.

Whether you come up with your own plan or not, they will have to re do the plan to make it work for their construction style, meaning they will cut the house up into max 16' wide boxes with the appropriate supports to make it transportable.

The good news is that they typically have plans that, if you are happy with, then you don't need an additional architect or designer....it can be off the shelf so to speak.

Most of the plans we looked at were pretty white bread, but that doesn't mean they can't do more. They can, but it will cost more. Friends of ours have a prefab colonial that is lovely...you'd never know it was prefab if they didn't tell you.

Also as you get into it, make sure you are absolutely clear on what they do and what has to be done on site for everything. You are also buying the materials they put into the thing so make sure you are comfortable with the windows, insulation, etc. And who will be doing the onsite work....will you GC that yourself? Will they recommend trades?

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 9:21AM
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These are three breeds of cat, and one must have a clear understanding of one's personal goals, budgets and schedules, not to mention what may be available in the area where one lives and wishes to build:

--Architect-designed custom home: Ultimate flexibility for personalized, one-of-a-kind (no stock or standard plans) designed home that will be completely based on your situation, budget and schedule. The design will be site and climate-specific, meet code and financing requirements. Bidding and construction administration services are available, based on owner's desires. Consumers are buying a professional service--as with accountants, physicians, attorneies--in this case resulting in a new dwelling. As with any professional service, the professional must be compensated sufficiently to remain in business. Architects almost never re-sell existing custom plans. To maximize one's investment, one needs a builder who prefers working with architect designed houses, which may require more thinking and skill, as opposed to builders who may more enjoy banging studs together with a 20-penny nail gun!

--Buying existing house plan: Wide availability of stock house plans from various sources. Stock plans require consumbers to largely adjust their living needs, site, budget and schedule to the existing plan, although many plan factories offer "drafting" changes at extra cost. The level of design and aesthetic appeal is too often limited to the front elevation of the house. These plans may often be similar in nature, composed of large area spaces, designed to appeal to those with "housing dreams", but may, in turn, result in large, bulky voluminous houses. Consumers are purchasing a low-cost, high volume commodity--existing plans on a shelf--designed for consumers to examine and consider purchasing, just as any other commodity, i.e., bacon, shoes or motor oil. The makers of existing house plans take no responsiblity in the drawings for local site, climatic, code or financing conditions. Owners are simply purchasing some lines and words on paper, and everything thereafter is up to the owner to resolve. Stock plams may be complex or simple to build--it all depends.

Pre-fabricated construction: This is a somewhat interesting compromise between custom design and stock plans, that uses "factory-built" partial or full assemblies, as opposed to "site-built" stick construction. In the hands of experienced design and construction professionals who are experienced in pre-fab methods, some high caliber and innovative work is possible. In the hands of others, however, the results may be little different than traditional construction. The theory is that higher quality construction can take place in a dry, climate-controlled factory than on a humid, muddy job-site. Plus, on-site erection/installation may be completed in less time, once site-specific issues such as utilities and foundation have been installed. Keep in mind, however, that pre-fab construction does not mean there is no on-site construction. There will be site, utility and foundation work, plus there may be a range of other construction trades required to finish the construction, depending on design. The limitations of pre-fab include the restrictions on size of elements requiring shipping and delivery, plus budget which may not be less than traditional construction methods (it may be more!). Pre-fab really is ideal for relatively simple, repetitive shapes/types of building, in which it may excel.

At the end of the day, these sorts of comparisons need to be investigated with local due dilligence, since everyone's situation, finances, site, governing regulations, etc. may vary. And of course, not everyone will have equal access to all three types of constructio.

Good luck with your project.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 10:01AM
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Our experience with looking at pre-fab was that there were no bargains to be had-- we might save money if the house was indeed delivered when they said it would be, but apparently delivery dates commonly get pushed back weeks if someone orders a floor or counter or something that isn't among the items they kept in-stock in the factory, and so we couldn't rely on those savings. Also, the modular builders that work in the area we plan to build weren't impressive-- one was fine when we spoke, but terrible about follow-through, and the other was just not someone who should run a large project. Construction methods aside, it was easy to decide against working with either of them.

If you are seriously considering going with modular construction, I'd recommend reading "The Modular Home" by Andrew Gianino. He really breaks down how to assess both manufacturers and modular GCs.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 11:04AM
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You might want to call your town's Building Inspector and see what they require. For example, in our town you have to have your plans stamped by an architect licensed in Massachusetts. In my initial research I couldn't find anyone who would modify and stamp a plan we bought. We ended up just paying an architect.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 11:52AM
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Thanks very much everyone.

Renovator8, I have given some thought to design. My tastes are fairly minimalist, which should help I think. But, most online plans i've seen don't allign very closely to my design tastes, but I have found a few.

Mtnrdredux, I've also looked at Blu Homes, they sound great. I sort of like the "balance' model, but at 1700 square feet it is a bit big (well, IMO anyway, DH is all for bigger).

The company I'm considering also uses recycled steel for the structure, like Blu Homes, I really like this. It also allows for 25' expanses, a big bonus over most that can only extend to 16' as AnnieDeighnough notes.

Thanks for the good advice Annie. We won't do the GC work, the company we are considering does recommend trades who have experience with their products. Strictly speaking they aren't prefab I guess, modules and materials are delivered to the site and they are site built in 3 to 5 days.

Virgilcarter, thanks so much, that is a fantastic overview. They are different cats indeed. My design taste leans to simple, almost minimalist type structures. I've always imagined a simple rectangle with a shed roof. My modernist tendencies incline me a bit more to prefab, or rather semi-prefab I think. The Siamese cat of the three maybe? The custom designed home must be the Persian. ;)

Zone4newby, I will definitely look for that book! Good advice too, thanks.

Very good point Chris11895, that is good to keep in mind.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 7:46PM
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Annie Deighnaugh

Not sure how they are getting the 25 feet as my understanding on the 16' limit was due to the width of the roads it must travel....

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 8:47PM
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I'm not sure how it would work with Blu Home, but the ones we are looking at are site built (modular I guess rather than pre-fab?), so the loads on the trucks can be narrow. If you have a chance I asked you a question on the renewable energy forum too... thanks.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 9:24PM
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chris11895, I'm curious what town in MA would require an architect's stamp to get a permit to build a single-family house since it's not a requirement of the MA building code.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 10:04PM
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Reno, I believe in many U.S. jurisdictions there are two levels of regulatory review (at least where both may be practiced):

--Zoning, land use and design approvals;
--Building and occupancy approvals

Not all jurisdications use both levels, of course, but many of the larger, more urbanized jurisdictions do, in my experience.

As to the requirement for a licensed architect or engineer, that usually is derived from the state's professional title or practice act. Many local jurisdictions adopt their state's act "by reference" into local ordinances, just as they do with standardized building codes. The "by reference" approach frees the local jurisdiction from reinventing either the title or practice act, as well as the building code, while also ensuring a degree of consistency and conformity throughout a region or state.

The "by reference" approach allows local jurisdictions to thereafter focus and tailor their own zoning, land-use and design regulations, if any.

At least this has been my experience as a planning commission chair and an architectural review committee chair in two jurisdictions. Hope this helps.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 9:45AM
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Reno - Manchester-by-the-Sea. I would not suggest building in this town. They really, really don't want anyone to and they make things very difficult!

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 10:42AM
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