The costs and benefits of going prefab

By Stephen Baldwin | 22 Feb 2013
Bunkie

Whether you’ve found your dream property or are looking to expand your family getaway for future generations, prefab cottages, bunkies, and houses continue to be a more common fixture in cottage country—and cost and convenience are no longer the only incentives.

Today’s most popular Canadian builders create unique modern designs—using local materials—that are both functional and environmentally sound. They also have a reputation for reliability, as they are commonly built indoors and thus don’t risk the damages (weather, insects, vandalism, etc.) that an ordinary build might face.

For those who are unfamiliar, prefabricated (better known as “prefab,” but also called “modular” and “systems-built”) structures are homes, cottages, or bunkies that are built in factories and delivered to the buyer’s property. In most Canadian jurisdictions they require the same permits and certifications as any other home, including compliance with CSA standards and the jurisdiction’s building codes.

According to Sustain Design Studio’s Graham Smith, prefab structures can work for almost any property, provided it has the necessary access to move the modules onto the land.  

“The modules are very manoeuvrable, and since we don’t require cranes we can get them onto most sites,” he says. “Islands and remote sites are ideal because of the cost of moving labour and materials to and from the site during a conventional site build.” Other companies that use cranes, including Calgary-based Karoleena Inc., also boast versatile shipping, depending on the location.

Sustain, a branch of Altius Architecture Inc., is Toronto-based design firm founded in 2002 that both David Suzuki and O (the Oprah magazine) have recognized for its “contemporary design and ecological vision.” They are one of several Canadian builders who have had incredible foresight in the future of prefab homes, and of sustainable building in general.

Buying a prefab home is environmentally responsible for a number of reasons, including:

1. Construction: Because the structure is built in a factory, there are no waste materials or chemicals left on the site.

2. Transportation: Particularly for remote locations, construction of a cottage requires months of driving (or boating) to and from a site in gathering materials and workers. Less of this back-and-forth means less stress on the environment, and less wasted time.

3. Materials: This can vary from company to company, but firms like Sustain and Calgary-based Karoleena pride themselves in using the most energy-efficient and eco-friendly technologies and materials available. Sustain’s green roof system, for instance, promises superior insulation of heat, evaporative cooling, and a reduced-heat island effect. They also conserve heat through add-ons like a wood stove. Greener companies also offer more self-sufficient models that include solar panels.

Bunkie

Photo courtesy of Sustain Design Studio

 

Reduced overall costs are attributed to the concentration of labour (multi-faceted groups of builders who aren’t moving from site to site to check on different projects or hiring outside workers and subcontractors), fewer architectural costs and, typically, in-house CSA certification for compliance with local building codes.

Convinced yet? Hold that thought.

While there are substantial benefits to prefab cottages, there are also a few costs, depending on the company, that may go unnoticed until it’s too late.

1.Transportation: For all the labour costs you’re saving by having your cottage or bunkie completed in-factory, its journey to your house will be long and laborious. Some companies will include this cost from the outset, while others will provide an estimate, but either way there will likely be ancillary fees. Trees need to be cut down, ground needs to be levelled, and special conveyances for transport across water or other unstable terrain will cost extra. Other costs will fall under the category of s*** happens.

2. Site prep: A prefab cottage or bunkie may require some consulting with an outside contractor. Foundation requirements vary from property to property and structure to structure. Concrete piers are often sufficient, but could again add an extra cost that you haven’t considered if the company doesn’t get involved in this aspect.

3. Utilities: Buyers of modular cottages and bunkies are usually required to independently arrange water/wastewater and power supply arrangements. This is often just a matter of connecting to the same sources as other cottages on the grid, the price of which will depend on the location and structure. Things can get trickier, and more expensive, for off-grid options.

4. Extras: Chosen models may look particularly appealing with a wraparound deck or front porch, but these are often add-ons not included in the original price. Things like lighting and electrical outlets usually aren’t sufficiently considered until later on in this process, and these combined costs can add up. Most companies are transparent in this respect, but it’s something to be aware of.

Prefab homes are becoming an increasingly realistic choice whether you’re looking for an escape from the grid, a uniquely designed cottage, a greener lifestyle, or a practical add-on to your cottage/home. If you are well prepared, ask a lot of questions, and are very specific with your requirements, you may find yourself in your dream cottage or home much sooner than you would with a regular build. “The client never gets to have a love/hate relationship with the general contractor,” Smith says, “because we’re not around long enough!”