Even supporters of modular construction will tell you that in South Carolina, there’s a negative perception attached to homes that arrive on a truck.
Lee Cave, the town of Mount Pleasant’s top building official, said he gets phone calls from concerned neighbors whenever one arrives at a site.
“People see the pieces come in on a truck and my phone starts ringing,” he said. “I think there’s kind of a stigma to them. People associate them with mobile homes.”
No mystery there. South Carolina has the nation’s highest percentage of mobile homes, about 18 percent of all homes in the state, so people tend to picture mobile homes when they think of a house built in a factory.
But with factory-built homes popping up in high-end subdivisions and neighborhoods across the greater Charleston area, sometimes priced at more than $300,000, it’s clear that they are gaining acceptance here.
These are homes that arrive in factory-built sections and are assembled on site, on foundations. Examples can be found at Folly Beach, in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village and I’On development, in downtown Charleston and in North Charleston.
Now if only people could agree on what to call them. Manufactured? Modular? Prefabricated?
At the Hunley Waters development in North Charleston, the area’s largest subdivision is comprised entirely of modular homes, they call them “custom built.”
“It wouldn’t have been on the top of my list to look at one, but I don’t think I’d look at anything else, now,” said Boeing employee Joe McKillip, who moved from Indianapolis to a house in Hunley Waters in June.
McKillip said he was impressed by the thoughtful use of space in the two-story house, which he did not realize was modular construction the first time he saw it.
“They went overboard on insulation, hurricane straps, and bolts attaching roof to frame,” he said.
Those who build, sell and buy modular homes often say they are as good or better than homes stick-built on site. They’re often more energy-efficient and wind-resistant because they are better insulated. Also, they are built using more wood, and are foam-sealed in the factory, measures taken partially to keep them sound while being transported to the home site.
Local builder Lee Moulton of Old Man Construction said the first time a client asked his firm to handle a modular home project several years ago, “I told him, I don’t build trailers.”
But Moulton has become a convert and today promotes and completes the construction of modular homes for Nationwide Homes, which builds them in Virginia.
On Aug. 9, Moulton was at Hunley Waters handling the arrival and set-up of the latest house there, as guests including North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor looked on.
That house, a two-story unit on piers not far from the gated marshfront development’s kayak dock, will list for about $219,000. It arrived in two pieces, and by mid-morning had been lifted into place by a large crane.
“We are projecting that in the next 20 years, 40 percent of home construction will be modular,” Moulton said. “If you look at the fact that we can build you a home in a factory in three months or less ... it’s the wave of the future.”
For now, though, it’s a house here and a house there. Cave said Mount Pleasant sees maybe four or five modular homes in a year.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on more because it’s a lot less expensive to build that way,” he said. “If you stick-build a house on site, think of all the (building) trades that have to come through there.”
Costs are lower because the homes are assembled in factory conditions. They typically arrive on-site with everything down to the flooring and kitchen cabinets already in place and take a few weeks to finish.
“You couldn’t buy a Ford Mustang for $30,000 if they built them one at a time,” said Moulton.