How to Stylize the Manufactured Home

The manufactured home has been plagued with the stigma that the design quality is poor, or at a minimum non-descript. This reaction is not without merit however the potential for good design has always existed and has always been technically achievable. It has been the business model or approach to design that has been perhaps flawed. For decades the business model for design has been based on a rather limited design offering of the cape, ranch and two story models of home. Residential design is far more varied and expansive than what the typical manufactured home companies offer.


So what are the expanded styles of architecture many professional architects design to? Some broad style categories are Colonials, Contemporary’s, Mediterranean’s, Victorians, Tudor, French provincial to name some familiar ones. However there are sub categories; for example in the broad category of Colonials alone, there are the, Georgian Colonial, Federal Style Colonial, Shingle Style Colonial, Dutch Colonial, Salt Box Style, Farmhouse Style Colonial, etc. Each have distinct features in the detailing, massing, proportioning and even window arrangements for each style.


Decorating the home with details common to each style helps give the manufactured home product more appeal and a look all customers can relate to. The building decoration alone, however, is not enough. As architects we take control of the massing and floor plan layout of the building design. If we don’t have this control, designing becomes too restrained. For instance in Victorian design, a projecting wing of the building is quite typical in this vernacular, so moving one module forward or juxtaposing a module to another would be key to shaping this particular style of architecture. The same stylistic decisions are applicable to all architectural styles.


In the case of designing within limits of modular building systems, this can be a challenge. Striking a balance between a distinct design and modular friendliness is important.  Staying within the rules modular building systems, i.e. shipping dimensions, roof systems, layered along with all the building codes and zoning, takes experience and talent to do it successfully. Having the customer take the lead or even an inexperienced builder is not always advisable.


It is important for the architect or designer to determine what is typically going to be built in the factory by the manufacturer and what is going to be built on site by the builder. These capabilities can vary some, depending on the manufacture selected and the builder selected. The use of shipped loose dormers porches; portico decks are all additional elements that can be used to enhance the overall look of the architecture and reinforce the style of architecture going after. Many manufactures today are building the dormers at the factory and shipping them loose. They are often set in place the same day as the main house and one can see the design take shape so quickly.


The selection and proportioning of the “site built” elements are also important to the designs appeal. Detailed drawings of these elements and how they fit with the base house are also critical for good results.


Developing symmetries within the design is also important for effective design. Some styles require symmetries within an overall asymmetrical design; this can be achieved by simply grouping windows together along with the use of a dormer. Another option is to create a wing to the plan by the placement of additional modules.


Sadly, you will see some modular designs with rows of windows evenly spaced, looking like an institutional building or prison. Anyone can build boxes but building a manufactured home that most want to live in and buy, requires a talented staff to design them. Resources need to be allocated for such a team. Presently the manufactures design most homes “in house”. Their effort is often a loss for the manufacturer, however. The work required to develop a custom design costs the manufactures more than what is paid for by the builder. The factories treat this “loss-lead” like a sales expense, but simultaneously must limit the time spent developing a design. Modular manufactures make their money from selling boxes, not designing them.


Further more, most home manufactures leave much of the exterior detailing and stylizing to the builder. Builders are not always the best suited for this design role, we believe what they do best is, well, build. Stapling vinyl siding over the boxes just does not work well for the middle or upper end of the market either. If done poorly the building design doesn’t do much for the builder or the manufacturer to attract new customers. A building on the street corner is a big billboard for everyone to see, and it stays for a very long time.


Good design is critical for the success and growth of the manufactured home industry. Too often the manufacturers are too focused on building technology and not as much on the finished design. The finished design is ultimately what the customer cares about and less about how it was built. The expression “can’t tell the forest from the trees” applies here well.


Whether the design is “outsourced” or “in house” the potential for good design has always existed for manufactured housing. How seriously the manufactured home industry treats the design process remains to be seen looking into the future.




Douglas Cutler R.A.