Modular construction popping up in Aspen home market
November 4, 2008
ASPEN ” Modular housing, a term long associated with trailer parks and other low-income neighborhoods, has begun to make increasing inroads into the housing market in Aspen and the upper Roaring Fork Valley, according to local industry experts.
Not only are modular technologies being explored and used more in the valley’s affordable housing market, but they also are being realized in the luxury-home industry.
For example, WeberHaus, a German firm that has specialized in “self-build” or kit houses for nearly half a century, recently came to Aspen to give a presentation to the Studio B architectural group in Aspen.
And some modular home companies, such as Bar Vista or Timber Creek Homes, “can make those [modular houses] look like all the other fancy custom homes in the valley,” and in certain cases they can do it quicker and for less money, according to Steve Bossart, a project manager with the city of Aspen who is familiar with ongoing studies into modular technologies.
Studio B is researching modular building techniques at a home in the East End of Aspen, near the Aspen Club, said architect Ryan Hoffner.
The architect working on the project, Mark Rudolf, recently went to the Bar Vista factory on Colorado’s Front Range with the homebuyers to see how the factory’s specifications and products fit with the homeowners’ intentions.
“They’re very excited,” said Rudolf of his clients, adding their decision to go modular, stick-built or somewhere in between has not yet been finalized.
At this point, the thinking is that the factory would construct a set of customized “boxes” that would be delivered to Aspen and assembled by a local contractor on a foundation already dug and prepped. The contractor also would hook up the utilities and perform any last-minute work to minimize the modular appearance of the building.
“It’s been on the back burner, so to speak, for a long time,” said Hoffner, referring to homes that are constructed in a factory, shipped to a construction site and assembled by a local contractor.
The East End house is to be built by a Denver company “that allows some after-market upgrades” to suit the desires of the homebuyer, Hoffner said. He said the upgrades might include higher-end cabinetry, higher-grade wood flooring and architectural lighting fixtures.
In general, modular homes are designed to cost less than stick-built homes, but Hoffner said that works only to a point in the higher-end housing market. While building a house in a factory reduces the square-footage cost, shipping and customization can both cause the final price to rebound upward, he added.
In terms of pricing, Bar Vista has offered to build the home Rudolf is working on for somewhere in the range of $350 to $450 a square foot, a little below but comparable to the cost of stick-built housing in the Aspen area, which is said to run anywhere from $400 to $600 and up.
Some Colorado manufacturers will build a house ranging from $150 to $300 a square foot, depending on the home buyers’ wishes in terms of custom features, Hoffner said.
By comparison, the more traditional image of very simple modular homes involves costs of approximately $90 a square foot delivered from the factory.
Hoffner pointed to another type of modular home, recently built in the W/J Ranch affordable housing project near Aspen for Paul and Katie Viola, that made use of what Hoffner termed a partially modular style known as “panelized” construction. The exterior walls, floor and ceiling system were all built at a factory and shipped here for assembly, while the interiors were all completed using traditional finish carpentry techniques.
“It was kind of a hybrid,” Hoffner said. The home was recently featured in Aspen Home magazine, where Hoffner noted that the use of modular technology “knocks off 2 to 30 percent of construction time.” The Viola home was built in about seven months.
Another modular-home business that has been involved in projects around the region is Timber Creek Homes in Nebraska, which aims its primary marketing at the upper end of the housing market.
But not all local experts are convinced that modular techniques work well in the luxury market.
John Olson, head of the company that bears his name, said he looked at the idea and walked away because in too many cases he felt the modular part of the design process was brought in retroactively.
He said in too many cases, he had seen builders get a set of design drawings back from review by a building department, turn the plans over to a modular factory, “and ask the guys, how much of this can we modularize?
“When you do it that way, it doesn’t make sense,” Olson said, because any anticipated cost savings are eaten up by trying to meld modular and stick-built building techniques.
So far, the dominant use of modular homes has been part of local government’s efforts to control the rising cost of building housing for the local workforce, and Olson’s company has gotten involved there.
Three area affordable housing projects were built recently using modular, or “off-site” construction methods ” Little Ajax in Aspen, the Rodeo Place project in Snowmass Village, and Keator Grove in Carbondale. The Snowmass project is a hybrid of modular and stick-built methods, and has been through several contractors and has turned into “an ongoing disaster,” according to Olson.
Of the three, Keator Grove and Rodeo Place involved the building of “boxes” at a factory, which were then shipped to the valley and erected. Little Ajax was built using the same “panelized” methods that were used for the Viola home.
City of Aspen officials also are considering using modular construction methods for the proposed expansion of the Burlingame housing project near Aspen, and Olson, who serves on the Construction Experts Group working on the Burlingame plans, supports the idea.
That’s at least partly because, he said, “On the eco side of it, it’s a great thing.” He said that, among other benefits, by using off-site construction, the community avoids having to deal with a significant number of trucks and construction workers on local roads.
Voters, and the current residents of Burlingame, are being asked in the Nov. 4 general election and in a special, subsequent poll of Burlingame residents, whether the city should be permitted to increase the density of the project from its current 236-unit plan to 300 units.
According to Chris Everson, affordable housing project manager for the city, a consulting firm is now studying the city’s conceptual drawings of what Burlingame could look like with an additional 64 multifamily units, to determine whether modular construction would be a good idea in terms of cost savings.