What is actually a house? The question has been asked before in the philosophical sense about a home, but what exactly is the definition of a house? Webster’s says it is a “building that serves as living quarters for one or more families; a shelter or refuge.” So, basically, anyplace where we can lay our heads to rest at night. A house can be a mansion or a shoebox, a cave or a castle. There are many ways to build a house from traditional, stick-built technique to pre-made houses that just plop down on a foundation. There are even stories of people remodeling sections of trains and airplanes into houses. Taste, budget, time-frame, needs, and climate can all dictate the “how” of construction.
This traditional style of building a home involves building it “in situ”, or right there in the place where you intend to live in it. Once the foundation is poured, the construction begins from the ground up. The labor-intensive process can take months, sometimes years, to finish. Actually, the name “stick-built” is sort of a misnomer; perhaps in days passed they used actually sticks. A better, more appropriate, term is site-built, meaning the house is built right there, on the site. A site-built house is expected to conform to all local and state building codes, of course, and will last for many years.
Interesting Side Note: The largest site built home in America is the Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilt family home in North Carolina. It is a mind-blowing 175,000 square feet and took over six years to build.
The Kit House
A kit house is essentially a site-built house that arrives in one big puzzle box. All the pieces, from the shingles to the nails for the deck, are counted out, numbered, boxed up and shipped to you. It is your job (or your contractor’s) to unpack all the bits and pieces and put them together. The concept of a kit house was actually the brainchild of the Sears and Roebuck catalog company. At the turn of the century, many parts of the country still had little access to building materials and supplies. It’s not like there was a Lowe’s or a Home Depot on the corner. There was nothing. Nothing except a train depot. The marketing geniuses at Sears knew they could sell more product if they bundled everything together. And, they did. In fact, the concept of having your house delivered was very popular and the surviving structures are valued today for their place in architectural history.
A pre-fab, or pre-fabricated, house is one that is constructed in pieces in a factory and then shipped to the building site. You may think that this a newer process, but it has existed since the rapidly-expanding housing needs of post-WWII America. When the soldiers returned, they needed a place for their growing families to live. Houses were being built as fast as possible, but alternatives were actively sought. One solution was the Lustron house.
Carl Strandlund came up with the idea for the Lustron house using steel that was coated with porcelain enamel. The houses were considered to be maintenance-free and three-times stronger than a site-built home. In fact, the advertising touts that they are “rodent proof, lightening proof, rust proof and fire proof”. Strandlund set up shop in a former airplane hangar, where his team pre-built sections of the houses and then shipped them across the country. The sections of roofs and walls were assembled on site for a cost-effective and speedy solution to the nation’s housing shortage.
The idea of sections of a house being prefabricated in a factory has continued to grow. In fact, a new breed of young architects is devoted to bringing these modular homes to the masses via the very same construction techniques that Standlund pioneered. The houses still comply with local and state codes, of course, and should have the same longevity as its stick-built cousin. Modular homes may or may not be less expensive than a stick-built home. It really all depends on the finishing touches, which is a personal decision. The timeline for construction, however, is dramatically improved. Without weather to impede their progress, workers can produce modular sections all year long.
A manufactured house is another construction method meant to streamline the process and reduce costs. Like pre-fabs, manufactured houses start their life in a factory. Full sections of house are pre-assembled in a climate-controlled factory and shipped on truckbeds to the site. With the help of cranes and heavy equipment the two halves, or three sections, are joined together by professionals on a foundation of the homeowner’s choosing. The mechanical systems are all pre-installed and just need to be hooked up on site, which also speeds up the construction process and, in turn, reduces labor costs. Like all the other construction methods, manufactured homes conform to all state and local building codes. Sometimes this style of construction is called a mobile home, but, typically, they only move once.
The Truly Mobile
Last, but not least, are the truly mobile homes – the oversized Class A motorhomes and bus conversions. Once reserved for touring rock stars, this house has changed dramatically in recent years. More and more people are retiring and deciding to take life on the road. The lure of being able to pick up and drive south when the weather gets chilly is appealing as is the sense of adventure as they explore North America. Gone are the days of touring with a tiny teardrop trailer pulled behind your car. These homes on wheels are equipped with everything from luxury appointments, full-sized bathtubs, built-in bunk beds for the kids and state-of-the-art navigational systems.
All this luxury comes at a price of course, but the construction process itself is streamlined once again using techniques culled from Strandlund’s Lustron homes and others. The vehicle’s chassis is usually purchased from another manufacturer and brought into a giant warehouse where workers add all the components to make this Class A or the larger bus conversions into an enjoyable and habitable home. The warehouse makes construction possible year-round, however, many models still have up to a year-long wait list.
There is no right or wrong construction method to choose. All can meet state and local building codes and, at the conclusion of the construction process, all give you a shelter. You need to find one that works for your family’s needs and your budget. If you are looking for a hands-on project, a kit home may be the right choice for you. If time is of the essence a factory option like pre-fab or manufactured may be a better option. Research your choices, find the space and floor plan that works and ask questions. Lots of questions. An informed homebuyer always makes better choices.