JAMES DULLEY Cutting Your Utility Bills Many modular-home designs take thinking outside the box

Q. I have always thought of modular houses as little plain boxes, until I recently saw a very attractive large one. Are modular houses good for someone on a tight budget? Are they generally energy-efficient?
A. It is a popular misconception that all modular houses are just cheap, unattractive boxes. There are reasonably priced models available with cathedral ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and unique contemporary styling. Others are as large as 6,000 square feet and cost more than $500,000.
Modular houses can be particularly attractive to someone on a tight budget. You can start with a relatively inexpensive, modest house plan and add on prebuilt sections as your budget allows and as your family grows. Most modular houses are also very energy-efficient, which results in lower utility bills.
Some modular house manufacturers offer "owner completion" programs to further lower the building costs. They deliver all the sections and place them on your foundation. You can do the finishing touches such as the drywall, carpentry, exterior trim, final electrical hook-ups and so forth yourself.
Reasons for efficiency: A key reason modular houses are so efficient is that they use very sturdy construction methods and materials. The sections have to be built very strong so they survive the transportation on a truck to your building site.
Another reason is that they are built in a factory. The building materials are not exposed to the weather during construction. The automated factory environment allows for strict quality control and use of alignment jigs and precise fastening methods.
One of the best modular house designs for efficiency is a contemporary, semipassive solar design. These homes are very attractive with an open floor plan, high ceilings and large glass areas. With the proper design, they also can stay comfortable in the summer with minimal air conditioning.
Although many site-built homes use 2x4 studded walls, most modular houses use stronger 2x6 studded walls, often on 16-inch centers. This provides more wall cavity for extra-thick insulation. Depending on your preference, the exterior walls can be finished with brick, siding, stone or stucco.
Check it out: It is important to check the building specifications for the modular home manufacturers you are considering. Some use efficient, very airtight construction with caulking and gaskets around each electrical wall-outlet box. Most use glue, in addition to nails, to attach the drywall.
Also check the amenities and finishing touches included. Some offer natural oak vanities, lazy susans, angled wall cabinets, six-panel doors and other features.
Q. The wood on our deck is sound, but it looks bad. Using the pressure washer only chewed up some spots and made it look worse. I heard about composite planks that I could put over it. Do they work well?
A. Your problem is not uncommon, and many people make it worse by incorrectly using a pressure washer. They continue to increase the pressure to try to clean the wood, and it literally blasts the wood surface away.
There are many types of synthetic decking materials you can place over a sound deck. Try some of the thinner vinyl decking planks. They snap into place on small clips that are attached to the old decking.
XWrite for Update Bulletin No. 626, a list of 36 manufacturers of modular houses, areas they serve, seven exterior diagrams and floor-plan layouts, and typical materials and construction specifications. Downloads are available at www.dulley.com, or send $3 and a business-size SASE to James Dulley, The Vindicator, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, Ohio 45244.

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