Will the Gulf rebuilding raise
the image of modular housing or drive it deeper into the
A national emergency. Thousands displaced. A government plan to
house people in sprawling trailer parks.
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma may be the latest crises to
spur plans for emergency housing in mobile homes. But the first
crisis occurred more than a half century ago, when World War II
created a huge demand for munitions-plant workers. The plants were
built in rural, unpopulated areas to protect them from bombers.
Government officials solved the problem by buying 45,000 trailers,
packing them into cities such as Richmond, Calif., then home to
four shipyards and 50 defense industries.
For the nascent trailer industry, the effects were profound. The
war changed "the popular perception of trailers from vehicles for
vacation travel to mobile homes for year-round residence," write
John Fraser Hart, Michelle J. Rhodes, and John T. Morgan, authors
of 2002's The Unknown World of the Mobile Home.
In the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes, insiders in the mobile
home industry wondered if they were in for another transformative
moment. There were obvious opportunities, and not just in filling
government orders for emergency housing. The Gulf Coast faces
massive rebuilding, shortages of skilled labor and materials, and a
need for fast solutions — conditions that play to the
advantages of mobiles and their more upscale cousins, modular
homes. But manufacturers fear that government, seeking
stripped-down single-wides, would reinforce what they say are
"You want to do what you can to assist in this emergency situation,
but at the same time it could exacerbate the image issue," notes
Bruce Savage, spokesman for the Virginia-based Manufactured Housing
Or, as Allan Wallis, a historian of the mobile home industry, puts
it, "I think there is a real opportunity for affordable housing,
but I think there is a tension in the industry. My sense is that
the industry does not want to present itself as this great
affordable housing initiative."
FEMA is providing temporary emergency housing like these travel
trailers in Biloxi, Miss., but given the extent of the Gulf
rebuilding effort, some experts worry that these may become
As the latest in a list of industry-preferred names suggests,
manufactured homes have suffered from an image problem almost since
their origin as small trailers toted to national parks by pre-War
campers. The early versions earned their reputation for cheap
materials and lousy workmanship. That rap stuck, despite passage in
1976 of a federal mobile home building code requiring minimum
standards for safety and durability. It didn't help that devastated
mobile home parks were a prominent legacy of Hurricane Andrew
— though, in later hurricanes, performance improved for newer
mobile homes built to withstand stronger winds and secured with
Modular homes, assembled from factory-built sections and built on
block foundations, must conform to state and local building codes.
But modulars also "get stereotyped a lot," notes Dennis Jones,
president of the National Modular Housing Council and C.E.O. of
R-Anell Homes, a North Carolina-based modular home
Katrina struck just as the mobile home industry was pulling out of
a six-year slump, Savage explains. Although a debate about the
Federal Emergency Management Agency's reliance on mobile homes
raged in late fall, there was no question but that they would be
part of the response: By mid-October, FEMA had purchased or placed
orders with manufacturers totaling 19,000 homes, Savage
He and others argue the mobile and modular home industries are
uniquely qualified to contribute to permanent replacement housing
for the hundreds of thousands of homes lost to Katrina and Rita.
They point out that most manufacturers are not located in the
hurricane zones, meaning they were neither slowed by the storm's
aftermath nor suffered from a shortage of manufacturing labor. Not
only that, but mobile and modular homes offer quick, comparatively
inexpensive housing, both otherwise a rare commodity.
Craig Savage (no relation to Bruce), of Building Media Inc., a
construction industry marketing company, is currently working with
well-known Not So Big House designer Sarah Susanka to showcase a
Susanka-designed modular home. He calls government orders for cheap
mobile homes "tragic," saying "my fear is FEMA is going to push
hundreds of thousands of the absolute cheapest HUD-code homes down
there and we'll end up with even worse neighborhoods than we had
Indeed, while mobility has its advantages, it also carries risks.
Following the '04 hurricanes, FEMA built a 550-home mobile home
park in a remote part of Florida's hard-hit Charlotte County.
Crime, domestic violence, and joblessness have been constant
problems at the featureless park, where 480 homes were still
occupied more than a year later, reports Bob Hebert, county
Once again, FEMA has begun work on several mammoth parks in
Katrina's wake. Bruce Savage worries the outcome will reinforce
people's jaundiced view of mobile homes. He and Hebert say the
agency should rethink its plans — if nothing else, for the
The parks "have to be smaller, they have to be 100 or less. Closer
to 50 would be better," Hebert explains, adding that FEMA should
locate people near their destroyed homes "so they can re-establish
roots and be part of the recovery of their own neighborhoods."
— Aaron Hoover
Common Code Violations
According to a survey of code officials by the International
Code Council, the most common code violations in the construction
of new homes include:
Structural and wood framing problems (30%), including improper
framing techniques, inadequate fastening, improper notching and
boring in load-bearing walls, and problems with fire blocking or
Grading (to ensure proper drainage), foundation, footing, and
concrete problems (24%) were second on the list.
Exit (egress) issues were also noted (11%), especially problems
with stairway handrails.
The most common code violations cited in the remodeling of existing
homes included electrical problems, structural and wood framing
violations, exit problems, and fire safety related issues:
In more than 15% of cases, electrical issues such as shorted or
dead outlets and missing electrical junction box covers are
identified as code violations, according to respondents.
Framing problems are recognized in 14% of code violations
Problems with egress and fire issues are cited in 13% of cases,
most notably handrails and stairways, lack of accessibility to
windows, and inoperable or improperly installed smoke
Code Option Flies Out the Window
Opening protection takes precedence over the "partially
A confluence of building code changes and damaging hurricanes is
poised to make shutters or hardened windows all but standard in
East and Gulf Coast beach homes.
Most states follow the International Residential Code, which in
2006 will drop a provision allowing builders to avoid using
shutters or impact-resistant glass by structurally reinforcing
homes to withstand hurricane-force winds. Not only that, but the
extensive damage from the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes has prompted a
public shift in favor of so-called "opening protection," weakening
longtime opposition by builders.
"New York State has impact requirements, and a lot of other states
will follow suit this year," says Dave Olmstead, spokesman for PGT
Industries, a Florida-based window and door manufacturer. "When you
look at the publicity of the Florida hurricanes and this past fall,
obviously, the awareness has gone up tenfold."
Hurricane-force winds can literally blow apart a home once they
breach a window or door. To guard against this threat, the 2003
International Residential Code allowed either opening protection or
structural enhancements. Added roofing tie-downs and strengthened
exterior walls will keep the home's walls and roof intact —
even if wind and rain ruin the interior.
This so-called "partially enclosed" option is the cheapest and most
common. On the west coast of Florida, the nation's most
hurricane-prone state, at least 80% of homes built before the '04
storms have no shutters or impact-resistant glass, Olmstead says.
On the east coast, Olmstead guesses the percentage is closer to
50-50. "It's because they build higher-end custom homes over
there," he explains.
The "partially enclosed" option, which allowed for
strengthening a home to resist high winds by beefing up the
framing, has been dropped from the 2006 International Residential
Code. Currently, opening protection using shutters or
impact-resistant windows is mandatory practice in high-wind
Builders have a track record of opposing opening protection, citing
added cost. But although they protested it at first, home-builders
associations did not publicly oppose the final versions of the 2006
IRC, Olmstead says. And Florida home builders are not fighting the
state's adoption of the IRC effective in its revised code in
"We take the position to support the international code as a basis
for the Florida Building Code, and if the IRC does away with that
provision, we'll endorse it," says Jack Glenn, technical services
director for the Florida Homebuilders Association.
Olmstead estimates that shutters increase the cost of an average
2,000-square-foot home by about $1,000. Impact-resistant windows,
three to four times more expensive than standard windows, would
elevate the total cost considerably. Glenn maintains that shutters
are the cheapest option in the highest wind zones, while structural
reinforcement is less expensive in lower zones. That's because the
bracing and other hardware to keep a home standing in 130-mph-plus
zones actually costs more than shutters, he notes.
But Jeff Burton, building codes manager for the Institute for
Business & Home Safety, a Florida-based advocacy group, points
out cost doesn't have to be a major issue.
Florida's building code allows builders to meet opening protection
standards simply by precutting and drilling plywood sheets and
leaving them with fasteners for homeowners to install when storms
are approaching, he says. "Florida was looking out for the
affordable housing market by doing that," he says. —
With a total of 26 named storms, the 2005 Atlantic storm season
became the most active (and costliest) season on record.