Mansions go modular as costs, timeline lure high-end buyer

One day in February, it was an empty, snow-covered lot in Bethesda. In 32 hours, the property held a six-bedroom, six-and-a-half-bath French country mansion with a walkout basement.

The 7,200-square-footer that appeared in Greenwich Forest 14 days ago is not yet a finished house. But it sure looks like one, with its gleaming windows, four sets of patio doors and symmetrical roof dormers. The heat, electricity and sewer went in last week.

A prefabricated, modular mansion, dropped in from the jib of a crane and set in place like a layer cake. For about $2.5 million.

Modular homes have been around since the first trailers sheltered migrant workers in the 1920s. But the stigma of double-wides and flimsy suburban boxes is being blown away for members of the money-conscious Lexus set. Now they can order their dream homes off the shelf with coffered ceilings, geothermal heat pumps and even a shaft for an elevator for at least 15 percent less money and in less than half the time it takes to build a traditional custom house.

To some, this is the future of Washington area home building. To others who have watched in horror as McMansions replace postwar bungalows, it’s another blot on the landscape threatening to multiply.

“We’re instant-gratification people,” said Bob McCarrick, a 39-year-old investment banker, as he and his wife, Kristen, 39, walked the floors and touched the drywall of their insta-mansion the first night.

The McCarricks’ house was built in two weeks on an assembly line in State College, Pa. It was trucked 205 miles in 21 boxes stacked on a fleet of semis, past handcrafted English country homes built in the 1930s, to its site on York Lane.

As soon as the first box was set, an e-mail popped up on Kristen’s BlackBerry with a photograph from the foreman for Haven Homes, the manufacturer: “One down, 20 to go.” At 8 the next morning, she saw her kitchen pantry dangling in the air.

The McCarricks had designed a custom home 18 months ago but backed out when the banking industry melted down. Now, after three months of finish work, they’ll move into a place with a distressed stucco exterior, a cedar shake roof, and exercise, media and mud rooms, made to order for them and their three young children.

Compared with the house going up from scratch next door, which is all wood beams and empty window frames three months into construction, the McCarricks’ appeared in a femtosecond. And Sandy Spring Classic Homes, which is building both, says the house next door won’t be done until late November.

Many choices

Custom modular — it sounds like an oxymoron. But elite architects who’ve seen their business drop in the recession are teaming up with manufacturers across the country, designing lines of Georgians, Federals, Mediterraneans and more. Computer-driven drafting is mapping out prefab rooms with the ease of a Lego game.

“Without the recession, nobody would be paying attention,” said Russell Versaci, a Middleburg architect specializing in farmhouses for wealthy clients who partnered with Haven in 2008. A custom home built from studs can take 18 months or longer. “When I can cut that in half, that’s a thrill for people,” Versaci said.

Sixty to 90 percent of the most sophisticated modular homes are built on the assembly line, depending on whether buyers choose a stock design or commission something special. Walls can be moved around, but the options are finite. With so much of the construction in a factory, buyers must make almost every decision up front, which saves money. Finish work, from facades to painting to building staircases, is done on-site. “Green” features are a big selling point: Modular walls are precisely cut and are not exposed during construction to the weather, which can cause mold and mildew, industry experts say.

The modular home market has had a small high end since the mid-1980s. But manufacturers can do a lot more now to satisfy luxury buyers: more-open floor plans, higher-grade windows and doors, better moldings.

Luxury prefabs mean fixed schedules and shorter construction loans with lower carrying costs. Cheaper labor and economies of scale translate into lower costs — almost $400,000 on a house such as the McCarricks’. Modular homes account for just 3 percent of the national home-building market, and the high-end market is a small but growing slice of that. In the past two years, about two dozen $1 million-plus houses-in-a-box have sprung up in Washington and its pricier close-in suburbs, such as Bethesda and Arlington County.

Most have been set by Bethesda-based Sandy Spring, whose pursuit of the tear-down McMansion in Montgomery County has pushed some residents to rise in revolt.

“We’re selling houses in a bad economy,” said Phil Leibovitz, a partner in the company. “The void is there.” Added Jerry Smalley, president of Linthicum-based Haven Homes: “The goal is more volume.”

A new neighbor

Volume is just what worries some of the McCarricks’ neighbors-to-be in Greenwich Forest, who cherished a lush woodland garden around the property’s original house for 70 years. Leibovitz bought the one-acre plot, tore down the house and most of the garden and carved the land into three lots, another of which is also set to hold a modular house.

Leibovitz is “such a rapacious developer,” said Donald Spero, a venture capitalist who lives across the street. Said Spero’s wife, Nancy Chasen: “Why would I want to see a slapped-together [modular] house when what was there was so special?”

Yet Spero couldn’t help but marvel at what he saw. “I hate to say I like anything he’s doing,” he said of Leibovitz as he stopped his car to watch the attic insulation go in. “But I think that’s neat.”

The placement of another modular last fall in neighboring Edgemoor was such a novelty that most homeowners on Mooreland Street gathered to watch. John and Julie Garel, moving with their two children from Virginia Beach, made instant friends. When they moved in Jan. 1, one neighbor brought over a DVD of their house being built as a housewarming present. “She photographed it every step of the way,” Julie Garel said. From the outside, the 4,000-square-foot shingle-style looks just like the “stick-built” one next door.

“Off-the-shelf” was a dirty word, though, when Sandy Spring bought a lot last year for a $2.9 million modular in Phillips Park, an exclusive subdivision of 46 estates under construction on Foxhall Road NW in the District. Other builders putting up custom homes on the 17 acres owned by the late Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri said Leibovitz would bring down the neighborhood. Phillips Park finally agreed to the deal, but “we tried to stay away from calling it a modular building,” said Kelly Gordon, the developer’s property manager. It was marketed as a green home instead. The house, with a curved roof, elevator shaft and portico made in the factory, was placed five days before Christmas. Said Gordon: “I can honestly tell you, I haven’t heard one complaint.”

Maybe not from residents. But Jim Gibson is still fuming. The custom builder’s pebble-dash stucco and brick house two doors down is under contract for $2.8 million, but he has no offers on his $3.8 million European stucco villa across the hill.

“You’re telling me it’s okay for people in this neighborhood to see homes coming in on boxes?” he asked, acknowledging the competitive threat. “I’m still not over it.”

Mark Irion, who owns a public relations and lobbying firm, said the modular gave him pause, too. But now that it’s in, “no one could pick it out of a lineup and say it’s a modular,” said Irion, who built his French country estate in Phillips Park the traditional way.

Another modular is on the way. Lee Alexander and his wife closed on a lot last week and designed a 5,500-square-foot modular with cathedral ceilings and three underground garages for about $2.5 million. They looked at Gibson’s homes. “I asked Jim, ‘You tell me what’s better about your house,’ ” said Alexander, a lawyer. “He said he couldn’t build us a house for that price.”

Over on York Lane, the final structural assembly took place Friday. On Monday, workers were measuring ductwork for air conditioning. It’s impossible to tell where the foyer that arrived in a box starts and ends, where the den next to it was lowered in.

“So, babe, what do you think?” Bob McCarrick asked his wife as he stood in the foyer the night that last box came off the truck. “Babe, so what do you think?” Kristen called back from the kitchen. She pointed out the side door to 6-year-old Dylan. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” her husband replied. “People get this stigma of modular. But we designed our home like we wanted it designed.”

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