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Manufactured housing. Moving into a new era of colorful, innovative design

``I can't believe this is a factory-built house!'' That was the response of many of the people visiting the NEST '85 demonstration model at the recent National Association of Home Builders exhibition and conference in Houston.

Indeed, the house -- finished inside and out in Southwest hues of copper, ash gray, adobe beige, and aqua -- demonstrated a colorful, innovative approach to today's continuing demand for detached single-family houses.

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And it proved that factory-built (the current term that replaces ``prefabricated'') housing can have real design excitement and be livable, attractive, and affordable.

The house, designed by architect Barry Berkus of Santa Barbara, Calif., is small, just 1,785 square feet, but it looks, feels, and ``lives'' larger. It has open sight lines, vaulted ll-foot ceilings, and clerestories, and it incorporates the indoor-outdoor living advantages of three greenhouse additions and three outdoor decks.

The house was planned, the architect says, to accommodate a two-income professional couple with a teen-age son still living at home, and to provide adequate space for privacy and the family's entertainment needs, as well as places to put exercise and sports gear, an at-home office, and room for guests.

``My aim,'' says Mr. Berkus, ``was to design and produce a prototype house that could be manufactured on a production line, using the technology that is available today. I wanted to overcome the usual spatial limitations of modular housing and to create a design and a production system that incorporated flexibility, soaring vertical space, and horizontal visual excitement.''

He did that by designing four basic modules which can be combined in numerous ways, and by adding the optional decks and greenhouse spaces that help produce an integrated environment. The 12-foot-wide host module contains the living room, dining room, and den with fireplace. Another module contains the kitchen and master bedroom suite. Secondary bedrooms are in another module, and the guest room/den in another.

NEST, by the way, doesn't just mean a cozy, nest-like dwelling. It is also an acronym for New Expanding Shelter Technology, a consortium consisting of the Barry Berkus Group of architects in Santa Barbara, Calif.; the Childs/Dreyfus Group of interior designers in Chicago; Info-Source, the project coordinator; Mill-Craft Building Systems, the manufacturer; and other professionals. A number of manufacturers also contributed to the deluxe prototype NEST house shown in Houston.

One secret of the house plan's success, says Mr. Berkus, is that it has absolutely no wasted space: every inch is utilized and practically every room is multifunctional. Food can be served at the kitchen bar, dining-room table, in the tropics room (one of the greenhouses), or on the deck adjacent to the kitchen.

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The den doubles as a media room as well as a guest room. One secondary bedroom, with pull-down wall bed, can double as a home office, another as an exercise room. Built-in furniture helps save space, and the use of glass walls and reflective interior surfaces aid in visually expanding it.

``I feel that the whole field of manufactured housing is ready for such new concepts,'' says Mr. Berkus.

The builders of the prototype house, Mill-Craft Systems in Waupaca, Wis., will also be one of the producers of the house, chiefly serving the area within a 350-mile radius of the factory.

Dan Kabat, a company vice-president, praises the NEST house for both concept and design.

``It represents the direction this business has got to go to be effective and competitive,'' he says. ``This system could revolutionize the modular housing industry by allowing us to apply basic manufacturing technology and management to housing production.''

Each module can be manufactured in production runs and inventoried for the combinations needed for specific housing types and markets.

Although the super-deluxe version, with stucco-like exterior, copper roof, and top-of-the-line appliances and furnishings, shown in Houston could cost almost $100 per square foot to reproduce in exact kind, according to Mr. Kabat, the more modest ``economy'' model that will be produced will likely cost in the $30 to $35 per foot range, at the factory site. Delivered and set up, the cost could grow to $50 to $70 per square foot.

``Our rule of thumb for pricing,'' says Mr. Kabat, ``is that if it comes out of the factory costing $30 per square foot, the cost to the retail customer will be about doubled by the time it is transported to the site, the on-site improvements are made, and the margin for overhead and profit of the on-site builder is allowed.''

The manufactured housing industry produces pre-cut homes, where all dimensional lumber is pre-cut at the factory and shipped to the site; panelized homes, which involve the shipping of complete wall panels; and modular or sectional homes (such as the NEST house) which leave the factory 95 percent complete.

According to Jay Shackford at the National Housing Center in Washington, D.C., about 20 percent of the housing starts during 1984 were one of these types of manufactured housing.

Jim Birdsong, executive director of the Home Manufacturing Council of the National Association of Home Builders, also headquartered in Washington, D.C., estimates that all types of manufactured housing (including log and dome homes but not mobile homes) are over 30 percent of the market.

``Manufactured housing has always promised to be the wave of the future,'' says Mr. Birdsong, ``but I think we are getting closer to that realization. A lot of early stigma from the years just after World War II has had to be overcome. But a recent study made by the Office of Technology Assessment, a research group of the Congress, in surveying the next 20 years in the housing industry, lists manufactured housing as one of the important trends.''

In addition to Mill-Craft Building Systems, companies producing modular systems include the Salt Lake City modular division of US Homes, Cardinal Industries in Sanford, Fla., and the Ryland Group in Columbia, Md.

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