Modular Homes Section

Modular Homes Interview with Douglas Cutler Modular Architect

Douglas Cutler
Modular Home Architect
March 2008
For more information about Douglas Cutler and his modular architecture firm please visit here.

Modular Today:How did you decide to design modular homes?
Douglas Cutler: First there was a professor at Pratt Institute that introduced the building system to me His name was Steven Winter. Second I was developing land with a partner who I believed was not comfortable building homes on the lots we had from scratch so I looked into modular building systems.

After touring many factories and doing the necessary due diligence I realized I could customize them and stylize the modular home. With my architectural background this was a natural for me. Making contacts as a result of this research I got request to design custom modular homes for customers.

Modular Today:What is the process of designing a modular home?
Douglas Cutler: You must understand the rules of designing with modular building systems. There are some limitations you cannot place walls just anywhere in space. You must respect the rhymes of the marriage seams. These are the lines that separate the modules. There are structural limitations too. You have to make the modules simple enough so a factory can or is willing to build them.

The roof systems can be complex. It is like origami, single shutdown, double shut down, transverse roofs, shipped loose roofs, roof caps etc. You have to balance modular friendliness with design interest.

You have the most flexibility when you can stylize the exterior. This is where your talents can shine. Most factories take the product design to the 75 yard line. There business model put the balance of this design in the builder hands (which we believe is flawed).

Modular Today:Why do you think modular construction is used for affluent neighborhoods?
Douglas Cutler: Modular building is used for affluent neighborhoods for several reasons; first the labor in these neighborhoods is usually the most expensive per hour. The labor rate at the factories is usually much cheaper. The efficiency of the assembly line brings the cost per square down also.

Second, homes in affluent neighborhoods tend to be bigger so the economies of scale are a factor.

Thirdly, the customers have figured out that using an architect can bridge that gap from a not fully designed product from a factory but a finely designed, stylistically correct looking home.

Lastly the affluent like to employ modular building on vacation homes particularly in remote areas either on islands or in the back country mountains. There is less risk and worry the job will get finished. It is water tight within a day after the set.

Modular Today: What is the most unusual situation you have had to deal with?
Douglas Cutler: Building a modular home on an island that had to be moved by a barge then by house moving equipment.

Modular Today: How can modular construction be best used for additions to existing homes?
Douglas Cutler: Well the addition should be big enough to justify the addition. We believe a minimum of 1,000 square feet. Preferably with expensive spaces such as bath rooms and kitchens included. This will realize the biggest savings. If it is just one empty room such as a family room or garage modular does not make sense.

Secondly, if the base house (the portions left to be added to) is in good shape and is not to be gutted then the scale tips in favor of adding on. The other benefits are the customer can usually live in the house while the construction is taking place. It is less disruptive to the family because so much of the work is already done at the factory. In the case of second floor additions, after taking away the roof framing, we often leave in the old ceiling joist insulation and wiring to the first floor ceiling, plate up and set the new modules right over the top of the house.

Modular Today:Is there a difference between designing for a home addition vs. new construction?
Douglas Cutler: Yes the additions sometimes can be far more complex and surgical. We try to incorporate new structure in a non evasive way to receive the loads of the new modulars above. Transferring these loads through the existing building can be challenging. We also need to carefully survey the existing building and then ultimately blend the architecture together in a seamless design. Most factories insist on the licensed professional architect involvement on such projects.

Modular Today:What keeps me up at night? What lessons have you learned in the years dealing with modular construction?
Douglas Cutler: Well they could be the same question. The modular housing industry has been stubborn in changing its business model. Certainly the industry has increased the capabilities at the factory for customization but the "design development" has been a "lost lead" for most manufactures when it comes to custom design. As a result they tend not to put the money in the highest caliber architectural talent. It is not a design driven industry like fashion automotive or many other industries are, it is manufactured driven. When the industry first made double wide homes, design was not the biggest concern for the buyer, price was.

Furthermore the factories usually don't take the design to the 100 yard line. Much of the exterior cosmetics of the architecture are the responsibility of the builder. Unfortunately many don't make the best professional architectural designers.

We try to fill in the design gap but there can be resistance from some manufacturers, & builders. Their tag line is you don't need architects. We have been trying to swim up stream with these remarks the industry makes but the value added we give and the results we give in the finished product are dramatic. Many of our customers simply don't want to risk there biggest investment to there home being designed by a CAD draftsman. Ironically the best designs, the manufacturers show case, were often the ones done by architects but they don't want to admit that. They want to control the customer from the start. They don't want to competitively bid because they then become commoditized.

This flaw in the business model has kept the industry out of 90% of the rest of the housing market, they must compete with stick building which offers a much greater professionally done selection of homes, many designed by architects. You can find many good designs in home plan books.

The cape, ranch & two story stock plans many manufactures offer simply can't compete with the vast selections of richly stylized, professionally designed homes, which include many subtle sub styles such as Georgian Colonial, Federal Style Colonial, Shingle Style Colonial to name a few.

Modular design is truly a hybrid form of building, there is additional site work to be done particularly on the exterior. We design the full scope of the job not just the modular portions. We are there from beginning to end. We are involved in zoning, site planning, foundation, shop drawing review, site inspections & many other tasks to insure the results you see.

We will all soon see how this industry evolves, certainly good design will be playing a greater & more important role in the future and the architects specializing in this will be on the front lines.