Pre-Fab Houses: Myths and Realities

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A Q&A session at last Sunday’s Operation Recovery meeting featuring three LA area prefab housing builders. In the rear, on the left, is Gail Block, organizer of the event.

In a standing-room-only presentation at the Malibu Library Sunday, local residents and fire victims flocked to hear presentations from three LA-area pre-fab home builders. Prefabricated homes are built in sections in large warehouse-like facilities, eliminating weather damage or delays, then moved to the site and assembled. They’ve come a long way from the “manufactured homes” of yesteryear and the industry has evolved to the point where their homes look the same as homes built on-site.

The “prefab” or “modular” option is apparently being looked at seriously by a number of Malibu’s fire burnouts, not only as primary residences, but as temporary residences and accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or “granny flats,” as they’re sometimes called. Some of the biggest reasons for their appeal are that prefabs cost less and are faster to build than an on-site construction, but have comparable quality.

The industry representatives who spoke were Jared Levy, co-founder of Connect-Homes based in LA with a factory in San Bernardino; Steve Glenn, head of Plant Prefab in Rialto (the Inland Empire); and Jennifer Siegal with OMD Design, Inc. in Venice.

The industry reps say that one of the first steps someone should take when considering a prefab is to request a site survey to make sure the property and the road leading up to it will facilitate the structure. The modules built by some companies are 16 feet wide and would need a road at least that wide to be transported to the property. Other companies make housing modules only eight feet wide. 

The installation of the finished modules at the property site requires the use of a crane, so the site also has to be evaluated for steep grades and winding roads. “If a Mayflower moving truck can’t get to your house, then prefab probably isn’t feasible,” one said. 

All of the companies make units small enough to fit City of Malibu rules for the size of a temporary residence and/or ADU. They can even put a temporary residence on a temporary “jack and pier” foundation that can later be easily converted to a permanent foundation. The temporary unit can then become permanent and become part of the main house or used as a stand-alone ADU. They’re designed so that one wall is easily removed when the time comes. 

The prefab companies all maintain that their building materials and designs are as fireproof as possible. “We use steel frames and bolts, metal siding, roof sprinklers and a continuous membrane across the roof,” one said, “as well as roof designs without eves or overhangs that could let embers in.” 

“Any new homes, including ours, are going to be a thousand times more fire resistant than anything built in the 1940s or 50s,” one added, “just because of all the new regulations.”

In addition, they say their homes have to meet California seismic standards for earthquakes, and that “being quake-proof also means they’re wind-proof.”

In response to questions about cost, some give a ballpark price of about $250/square foot, and costs are quoted up front. Most companies will allow buyers to tour their factories and see their homes being built. Some are willing to competitively bid the pre-delivery site work. 

Connect-Homes say it takes them two to four months to design a home and six to eight months to build one—which they claim is half the time of a fully custom home. The wild card is how long the City of Malibu approval and permitting process will take. Most companies have standard house designs, which can get someone into a house even faster than if they have to customize it. 

Most of the companies say they will modify their designs to accommodate people’s preferences—up to three stories high, up to 18-foot ceilings and a variety of interior finishes.

Most of the companies are offering specials to fire rebuilds.

Plant Prefab has done platinum LEED-certified prefabs, and most companies seem dedicated to building green homes using sustainable, nontoxic materials.

When asked if there are any disadvantages to prefab, the answer was that it’s difficult to make changes once the construction process has started. 

Examples of prefab home designs can be seen on the companies’ websites.

Operation Recovery is an all-volunteer group based in Malibu that’s educating fire victims on what they need to know to recover. Last Sunday’s event was organized by Gail Block and moderated by Amanda Dameron, who is affiliated with Dwell.