Modular on the Merrimack!

July 25, 2013

plum island kayak

My son and I just finished a kayak trip on the Merrimack River from downtown Newburyport to Amesbury. If you’re local,  Plum Island Kayak is the best – I highly recommend them for a well-planned, safe and beautiful trip. The highlight for me was a fantastic view of our project on the river in Amesbury, a new house constructed with factory-built modules.  My experience with modular construction is limited to lots of articles and a visit about 5 years ago to Epoch Modular Homes with my architect pal Hilary Ward. (Modular Homes Field Trip) It was interesting and exciting to see the possibilities of the process, but it wasn’t until this year that I had the opportunity to see one of my own projects go ‘modular’.

We started working with our clients in May of last year. The design process was an amazing one – their clear and concise vision for what they wanted for their home and a stunning site overlooking the Merrimack River were instrumental in our creating a design that as one of them described provided the “desires of (her) heart.”

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GreenBridge’s model of the design

From the start, our clients were interested in modular construction, both for cost savings and for the efficiencies of the process itself. For construction, they contracted with Bernie Christopher of Great Woods Post and Beam Company, who uses New England Homes out of Claremont, New Hampshire for his modular construction projects. Bernie’s role is to coordinate the construction process and to build all pieces of the project that aren’t feasible or practically built by the modular company.  Because of the complexity of the design, there will be more site-built carpentry for this project than a typical modular home.

This is a quick summary of the process with my comments –

  1. Our clients interviewed 2 modular companies and received prices from both based on the GreenBridge design drawings. At this time, the companies were given the opportunity to weigh in on any aspects of the project’s design that would not work for modular. We didn’t get much feedback on the project’s modular constructability at this time, aside from the size of the modules, which affect transportation costs. For this project our clients were comparing the costs of modular to conventional construction, and the savings were considerable. In retrospect, minimal detail in the modular proposals hampered a fair comparison between the two construction types. In many cases, less-expensive materials and details were assumed in the modular pricing.
  2. Our clients chose the contractor and modular company. The modular company was given our design drawings to use in creating their own factory-ready construction drawings.
  3. GreenBridge, our clients and Great Woods Construction reviewed the progress drawings for design consistency and errors. New England Homes revised the drawings as requested. This was an incredibly long, frustrating and drawn-out process! There were many inconsistencies and errors in the progress drawings: most were corrected and some could not be changed because of the requirements of modular construction. During this phase, pricing was reviewed and changes to the scope were reconciled. We are so fortunate that our clients understood the importance of our role in the project during this phase to review the drawings and to make sure the design intent was carried-through.
  4. Once the drawings were approved, the factory constructed the modular pieces. This went quickly – about 6 weeks.
  5. The pieces were installed on site by New England Homes. (The grading and foundation were completed in advance.) It was so fun to visit the site on the day of installation and see walls paint-ready with doors, windows, trims and light-fixtures installed! We were all thrilled to see the amazing views to the river and to walk through the new spaces.
  6. Bernie and Great Woods are now working on completing those items not included in the modular package – siding, decks, stairways, and some interior detailing. The Kitchen cabinetry and other cabinetry are also outside of the modular package. These items are being designed by the wonderful Emilie at Carriagetown Kitchens in Amesbury and will be installed by Great Woods. We’re working on revised landscaping and grading designs and the detailing of the front and rear decks.

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Installation day!  The gable roof in the yard is waiting for installation at the back wing of the house.  The crane’s availability drives the schedule.

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The water-side elevation.  There will be a screened porch left of the garage and a porch across the front of the house.

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Another view of the front – the grade will be built up to decrease the height to the porch level.

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View from the Living Room down the river.  The framing at the ceiling level will be removed to open up the cathedral ceiling.

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The upstairs will be finished at a future date.  The trusses were factory-built and hinged so they could be folded up for their ride to the site.

The process has been a long and in some ways grueling one, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Our clients are thrilled with their new home and can’t wait to move in. I’ve asked for the second floor southwest room, but am not sure if I’m getting it or not…

The modular design and construction process has been difficult and lengthy, but it did save our clients money. It was exciting and even shocking to see the speed of the installation, but we are somewhat relieved that the balance of the project is now in the hands of carpenters on site. It’s going to be a beautiful project – we’re happy to be a part of it.

If you would like to chat about modular construction or summer on the Merrimack feel free to contact us.  Enjoy the rest of the summer!

With best wishes,

Juli MacDonald, GreenBridge Architects

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