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Building inside the box 

A Triangle company is making modular housing hip

"Why is it so hard for these guys to understand? Putting a two-car garage on the front of a house is butt ugly!" As we drove by yet another new development in southern Granville County, I pretended to shiver with disgust. I looked over at my fiancee, but she hadn't even shrugged at my question. We've asked each other this so many times it has ceased to be a question, more of an existential exercise.

We had just finished looking at a turn-of-the-century farmhouse just outside of Creedmoor. It seemed promising until the dogs started in. We were in the backyard and about 30 of them let loose. I felt the disappointment deep in my stomach. What was the point of getting out of town if you had a pound next door? "That explains why this thing is still on the market," I said as we pulled out of the driveway. We took the number off the sign for the kennel as we passed for a little reconnaissance later. Maybe they were going out of business. Maybe all the dogs were going home. A year's worth of fruitless house hunting had reduced us to this--desperate, grasping at straws, covert calls to kennels ("I see ... and how many dogs would you say you have there on an average day?").

Our dilemma was simple: We can't stand flimsy new construction in sterile subdivisions, with cheap Styrofoam-like walls that might as well say "CAN BE USED AS FLOTATION DEVICE," the bizarre American preoccupation with having an enormous garage eclipsing three-quarters of the front, and of course, your choice of exactly three shades of beige for the exterior. The flipside wasn't so rosy either. My adult life has been spent living in structures almost or over 100 years old. Yes, real oak, original glass doorknobs, toilets you reach overhead to flush. Basically I'm a real sucker for what our friendly real estate professionals like to refer to as "charm." But charm has an ugly underbelly: foundations slowly settling into a crooked grave of soft Carolina clay, doors and windows that haven't opened since a Democratic presidential candidate carried the state, uninsulated everything. How safe can you actually feel with an electrical system covered in cloth and quaintly referred to as "knob and tube"?

What we wanted we had never seen: A new home with a classic, smart design. Oh, and the clincher: We had to be able to actually buy it. For us that meant the $150K range. If you are currently laughing at that last line, I am not offended. That, after all, seems to be the standard reaction.

By this point we had both become realtor.com Gold Club members. Most evenings we sat on the couch with our laptops propped in some awkward position, watching home improvement shows and exchanging property leads.

"Hey, did you see this one just outside of Creedmoor?" I asked and swiveled my screen toward her.

"No, is it new?"

"Yep, built last year."

"I was still searching for 75 years and older," she said as she keyed in yet another set of search criteria.

"They're calling it a 'modern farmhouse.' Looks pretty cool, huh? I mean, compared to the rest of the Pleasantville stuff."

Even on a computer screen this house really did stand out. For one thing, it was tall and narrow like an old farmhouse, something I'd never seen in new construction in the Triangle. The siding was a beautiful honey color and appeared to be (gasp) real wood. There were interesting overhangs with metal roofing--something for the charm challenged. The more I stared at the picture the more I was drawn in. I drove out the next afternoon.

As I pulled up the gravel drive I looked at my watch--27 minutes. That was good, because we both work in downtown Durham and agreed on a commute under 30 minutes. I got out of my car and looked at the slender house that appeared golden in the late afternoon light. It seemed a bit self-conscious among its modest neighbors; a few mobile homes and small original farmhouses scattered randomly. I skulked around, peering in windows for a few minutes until I noticed a woman in the yard next door putting laundry on a line. I asked if she knew anything about the house.

"I watched 'em put it together," she said.

"Oh, you saw the builders working on it?" I asked, assuming that is what she meant.

"Yeah, I watched 'em put it together."

On the drive back to Durham I tried to figure out what she was getting at. Was she saying she didn't think it was good construction? A child puts Tinker Toys together--was that the idea? At home I looked over the info sheet I had taken as I pulled out of the drive. In the column labeled "Builder" it listed Foster & Sprout. I did what anyone with a natural aversion to real estate agents would: I Googled them.

My search led me to the BuildSense Web site (www.buildsense.com), and there was the "Foster & Sprout House" with its own page detailing the project. The site listed architect Ellen Cassilly as one of the designers, and since I knew Ellen socially, I gave her a call. Ellen put me in touch with Randall Lanou, who runs BuildSense, the contractors for the house. My fiancee and I met with Randall to see the house and were intrigued but unsure. We hemmed. We hawed. The next time I called Randall about the house, it had been sold. Don't say it. I know.

Even with the house off my buying radar, I now found myself captivated by what this tiny development company calling itself Foster & Sprout (of which Lanou is a member) were up to--making custom designed houses using modular units. That's right: They're building modular homes. I arranged to meet Foster & Sprout, all three of them, at Fowler's in Durham.

Foster & Sprout are Randall Lanou, Ellen Cassilly and Chris Chinchar. They all have their hands in various pots (Cassilly runs Ellen Cassilly Architect; she actually was the original designer of Fowler's, and Lanou runs BuildSense) but they have banded together under the name Foster & Sprout with the common goal of creating custom designed hybrid modular homes. Besides being in business together, the three are friends.

"We have Christmas parties, we play shuffleboard together at the Green Room," says Cassilly.

I like the name Foster & Sprout. Where does it come from?

"We were sitting around and shouting out words that we thought were akin to our building and design philosophy," explains Chinchar. "A development company doesn't really describe us very well. We were looking for a place to combine our energies and produce an affordable house. Our offices are on Foster Street. Sprout signifies a new beginning and our respect for the land and sustainability."

It has an air of instant legitimacy. Chinchar laughs: "Yeah, it sounds like two men in bowler hats." Chinchar came to Lanou's company BuildSense after finishing her studies at the N.C. State School of Architecture. Foster & Sprout have strong yet informal connections to NCSU. Both Lanou and Cassilly teach studio classes there, and they draw upon up-and-comers in the program when hiring interns and new employees.

"N.C. State is a good mix of 'theory architects' and builders like Randy that are actually working on projects," says Cassilly.

I learn that the Modern Farmhouse I was so taken with was Foster & Sprout's first completed hybrid modular home--a prototype. It is constructed from three modular sections made to order in a factory and trucked to the site. The main part of the house is two sections--the bottom one is 13 feet 9 inches by 52 feet, the top is 10 feet shorter in length--stacked on top of each other, and a third section forms the "L" that is the living room. They site-build the sweet details that you can't get from the factory: overhangs with metal roofing, extended eaves, porches, the carport. Now I finally understand what the next-door neighbor meant by "I watched 'em put it together."

So I ask them: What is it about this house that makes it stand out so boldly from all the other new construction I've seen in the Triangle? Lanou answers by explaining what he thinks is wrong with most modern construction.

"I think it's a lack of genuine materials," he says for starters, such as replacing wood with vinyl siding. It's also, he says, a disregard for the site and solar orientation and designs that come out of the marketing department. It's clear he could go on for a while, but I have to stop him. Genuine materials? Am I missing something? What's more disingenuous than a house you pull off the back of a flatbed?

"Most modern, site-built houses and modular houses share the same building system; the only difference is whether it was put together in a factory or on the site. Our Modern Farmhouse is still a stick-built house. All houses today to some extent are made in factories. You'll never see a carpenter on site sitting there making a window unit. It would have been common 80 years ago, but it's not going to happen now."

So do these terms (stick-built, modular, prefab, site-built) even mean anything anymore? I called a contractor friend of mine, Randy Voller, for some clarification. Voller's Chatham Forest development in Pittsboro will have over 200 homes when it's completed. His homes are all custom built on site, and he offers about 50 different house plans ranging from $199,000 to $499,000. To my mind, these homes are a good representation of what most of us think of as traditional construction.

Voller acknowledges that the terms used in modern construction are becoming blurred, but he's adamant about how his homes differ from the huge builders like Centex and Pulte and other local builders who use modular components in some or all of their homes.

"Those are component-built homes. The limiting factor is the size of the components at the manufacturing plant. Centex, Pulte and all the big builders do 'panelization' to some extent. You get a lot of square footage for the dollar, because everything is so standardized. The difference in what we are doing is the level of customization; that's what you are paying for. You get a custom home exactly how you want it. A lot of these modular companies will try to sell you on the quality of their construction, saying they have more wood in them. You know why they have more wood? Because the thing would fall apart on the highway if they didn't add more wood."

I tell Voller about Foster & Sprout's hybrid modular homes and ask what he thinks about the idea.

"The myth about modular is that they are cheaper. Only the up-front costs are cheaper. You come out paying about the same after you do all the site work. The main thing is the limitations of the components."

He sites the example of building a house with a lot located up a steep mountain drive: "How do you haul a 34-foot rectangle up a mountain? You can't."

Voller has built some homes using modular components and says there are always issues, like getting the units to fit together properly, that you just don't have to deal with when building site-built homes like his.

"You have to have a 'marriage wall' between the two units and it's like a bad comb-over. They're always off a little bit."

Was Foster & Sprout's first hybrid modular the housing equivalent of a bad comb-over? I decided to drive out and meet the couple who had purchased the Modern Farmhouse to find out.

Jack and Sheila were living in Southern California and searching for houses in North Carolina on realtor.com when they came across the listing for the Foster & Sprout house. Having lived in California myself before moving to the Triangle, we traded horror stories about the impossibility of buying a house in California.

"A 1,200-square-foot house on a busy corner would be $425,000," Sheila says, shaking her head.

I ask them to tell me the story of their search for a home, and find that it's almost identical to my own. After being completely turned off by all the new construction they'd seen, they put an offer in on a turn-of-the-century farmhouse outside of Creedmoor--yep, the one next to the kennel. After the inspection showed the house to be basically sliding off its foundation and needing $20,000-$30,000 in work, they walked away from the deal.

"We didn't really hear the dogs," said Sheila. I tell them they're lucky.

Jack and Sheila set the record straight for me: Far from a comb-over, their house is a shining crown.

"And the light," Sheila exclaims, gesturing to all the windows, "Oh my gosh! I can come down in the morning and I almost don't have to have lights on, there's so much light coming in."

I try to drag a negative comment out of them. Anything about the house that makes them think, "Yes, I'm living in a modular home"?

Nothing. Jack does think there were some slight design flaws, but chalks it up to the fact that the house is a prototype.

Having only seen the house empty, I'm struck by how warm and homey it now feels with the fireplace lit, their cat, Spot, next to it on his bed, and their comfy furniture as if it had always been there. What about the narrowness of the home due to the size limitations of the modular units? I ask.

"We love it. Feels fine," they both agree. Jack laughs, remembering a story.

"I was sitting on the porch one day and these two kids walked by, and one said, 'Man, that's a skinny-ass house!'" We all laugh and I finish my Pepsi and thank them, realizing I'm getting just a little too comfortable in the house I could have bought.

With two happy customers under their belt, Foster & Sprout are eager to start a new project. In the meantime, Lanou and BuildSense have begun work on a more ambitious 2,200-square-foot hybrid modular home. Taking everything they learned from the Modern Farmhouse, they're building bigger and wider this time. For this home, they've made two stacks of 13-foot-9-inch by 34-foot modular units and are connecting them with an 18- by 24-foot custom built space in the middle.

"The middle area allows the house to have tall ceilings, a lot of glass ... all the things that are not possible with the modules alone," says Chinchar. It is being built for a couple in Durham on a 1.5-acre lot.

I admit I think it looks great and have to stop myself from asking them for a quote for myself. Come to find out, this one would be out of my range, coming in at around $250,000 when all is said and done. This gives me a good lead-in to a question I've wanted to ask for a while: Is this affordable housing?

"Yes," says Chinchar. "The reason why we went to the factory model was to make certain things efficient, not just in the use of materials but efficient cost-wise. And if we can produce a basic volume for a low cost per square foot, then we can afford to come in after the fact and add the final details, which raise the overall cost per square foot but also raise the quality. In the long term it would cut down on the cost."

"There's affordable housing and there is affordable housing. There's affordable housing for folks on Section 8, and then there is affordable housing for folks like you," Cassilly says. It sounds harsh at first, but I get what she's saying: A new home with a custom design is simply out of reach for most middle-income buyers. The idea that someone like me could actually afford something like Foster & Sprout's Modern Farmhouse does start to look like "affordable housing" on some level.

And what about overcoming the bad reputation of the "mobile home"? How far away is that?

"There's a stigma associated with factory-built houses right now that is exactly the same as it used to be with Japanese products. Then Sony came along and turned that around," says Lanou.

So is Foster & Sprout going to be the Sony of hybrid modular housing in the Triangle?

"I'd love to be Sony," says Lanou. "We change it from the worst crap on the planet to the standard by which everything else is measured."

To learn more...
Resources to help you think inside the box:

  • www.buildsense.com: The company that's putting it all together

  • www.ellencassillyarchitect.com: The group's architect

  • www.fabprefab.com: An update on prefabricated housing

  • www.livemodern.com: A look at modern housing around the country

  • www.dwellmag.com: Dwell magazine online

  • Prefab Modern by Jill Herbers

  • Prefab by Bryan Burkhart, Allison Arieff
    • A Triangle company is making modular housing hip

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