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Prefab homes have come a long way in the past century. The former retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold more than 70,000 catalog houses between introducing the concept in 1908 and halting sales in 1942. More than 370 designs, in a range of architectural styles, allowed homeowners to assemble homes that were primarily shipped via railroad boxcars.
Like everything else for the retail behemoth — “Sears, Where America Shops” was its catchphrase in the 1970s — its sales of prefab homes have come and gone. Prefab homes, however, are very much back in style. The materials are better and the construction faster. During the global COVID-19 crisis, the concept gained momentum because prefabs require fewer workers on the job.
Prefab, in the marketing vernacular, is hot.
A recently completed project in New Hampshire demonstrated the benefits of prefab housing, even down to the heating elements. Owl’s Nest Resort, in the state’s scenic White Mountains, constructed 60 rentable units for guests with prefab construction.
The prefab building plan included the construction of 15 mechanical rooms, each of which contains one Ariston Group HTP boiler/indirect. Each boiler provides heat for four of the condos. The decision to construct central spaces for mechanical elements saved time and money, and provided a more efficient way to offer individual temperature control for the condos.
A new nest
The new units at Owl’s Nest Resort are part of an ambitious expansion project. The focal point of the resort is a golf course designed by the firm of the legendary Jack Nicklaus. His golf design firm began renovations in 2015, with the primary objective being to enhance the course’s aesthetics and improve playability for golfers of all skill levels.
Renovations have ramped up in the past few years. Among the new additions: new tennis and paddle tennis courts; a 10-acre man-made lake for boating, swimming, kayaking and ice skating; a nine-hole golf course; and a 10-mile paved loop for running, biking and winter sports. A report in Business New Hampshire Magazine notes the resort generated $4.5 million in revenue in 2020, with expectations to increase to $20 million in the next five years (https://bit.ly/3ytkveB).
Along with the increased amenities, the owners of the resort added housing options; many of them provide lakefront views. The newest housing includes two-bedroom, two-bath units with a kitchen, laundry, washer/dryer and patio.
Owl’s Nest management sees vast year-round potential for the resort and the rentable units. Winter enthusiasts can visit and enjoy brief or longer-term stays in proximity to skiing areas. Weddings and other parties also present an opportunity for short-term guests.
Especially in a post-COVID environment where demand has escalated for outdoor events, the owners see Owl’s Nest as the perfect place to enjoy an assortment of recreational activities.
Quick, efficient construction
The prefab housing model allowed builders to construct areas for mechanical components quickly and efficiently. Manufacturers’ rep firm Emerson Swan provided a prefab mechanical panel that included all components and allowed a quick tie-in to all the baseboard distribution. This provided a smooth, efficient install in the mechanical room.
“We were a one-stop shop of design and allocation," explains Corey Merchant of Emerson Swan. “They were able to get everything through the systematic approach instead of going to different vendors and not having to shop and design the mechanicals one piece at a time.”
Prefab housing provides the perfect opportunity for streamlined mechanical services. Prefab homes arrive in pieces, so all the cutting and construction of walls is not done on the actual jobsite. Contractors put the buildings together according to the instructions of the manufacturer.
Besides faster construction, the process also requires fewer contractors. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, labor has been harder to find. The process also reduces labor costs.
“I think we’re going to see more of this type of construction,’’ Merchant says. “It’s outside-the-box thinking, but there are a lot of benefits. You’re adding the mechanical components in a secure environment. You don’t have to worry about the outdoor elements. It’s the same thing, over and over again, so you know the quality of workmanship will be consistent. You’re taking away the whims of a lot of external forces.”
Bring the heat
The mechanical room used in the Owl’s Nest project is similar to those that are sometimes found in apartment-style buildings. The centrally located boiler rooms that house domestic hot water and HVAC systems operate a quad of condominiums.
The eventual construction included 15 separate mechanical rooms. “There’s a central plant for each condo,’’ Merchant explains. There are four units in each of the buildings; one boiler provides heat for four condos.
Emerson Swan designed around Ariston’s HTP boilers, which have an 11:1 turndown ratio, ideal for matching the BTU of the smaller zones. With the 11:1 ratio, the boiler has more ability to fire at a lower burner rating, which protects the heat exchanger and parts from overfire situations. Eliminating overfire allows for a much more efficient boiler and heating system.
One centralized system allows for redundancy to be put in place to ensure downtime, as well as more timely maintenance. Instead of having to deal with each unit individually, maintenance workers have direct access to one area to take care of issues more promptly.
“The Ariston HTP boilers were a good solution for this project because of the turndown ratio,’’ Merchant says. “Not many boilers have that ratio and can meet those smaller loads. The availability to remotely monitor through Wi-Fi connections was also a good reason to install that particular boiler.”
Prefab homes have another important benefit: energy efficiency. Because they are generally smaller, they require less energy for heating and cooling. The homes are designed with an optimal insulation layout and are more energy-efficient than brick-and-mortar homes. As the world wrestles with climate control, every effort to improve efficiency is celebrated.
“This was a project that was successful in large part to the prefab construction,’’ Merchant adds. “It allowed the building to go up faster and required less manpower. The time frame of the project wasn’t jeopardized. I think we’ll see more and more housing projects completed with prefab construction.”
Thomas Renner writes on building, construction, engineering and other trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States.