Totally modular

A fresh take on new construction

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Local architect Tom Bassett-Dilley is known for his innovative design practice, which emphasizes green techniques in home construction. While making a name for himself in energy-efficient – also known as passive -- construction, he has continued to explore new techniques in green building. 

When clients Deb DelSignore and Nate Aydelott approached him about constructing a home in Oak Park within a budget, he jumped at the chance to try something new. The resulting house at 624 N. Taylor Ave., is constructed of factory-fabricated modular units, which fit together to create a first-of-its-kind design for the village.

When Chicago residents DelSignore and Aydelott were looking for a suburban home for their family of four, Oak Park seemed like a good fit. They had lots of friends from the area and found a house on Taylor Avenue that seemed ripe for renovation.

"We wanted to live in a small home, and we bought the house thinking we'd keep it and put on a modern addition back," DelSignore said. 

After hearing from a professional that their renovation plan would cost as much as building a new home, they turned to Bassett-Dilley to help them create a new house. They loved his passive house designs and wondered if he would be able to work with their budget constraints. 

"He was interested in making passive houses accessible to people who aren't millionaires, and he said 'If you're willing to be guinea pigs, I have lots of great ideas,'" DelSignore said.

Bassett-Dilley floated the idea of using pre-fabricated modular units as a way of keeping costs down, and the couple jumped at the chance to build a forward-thinking home in the suburb known for architectural design. 

"We wanted to be responsible," DelSignore said. "Houses in Oak Park are so old and last a long time. We wanted our home to last and be a part of a new wave of housing."

Why pre-fab?

Bassett-Dilley had been frustrated in the past by downstate contractors who were scared off by the rigorous demands of building passive houses and had been mulling over using pre-fabricated housing as a way of incorporating green technologies in areas where passive houses are unusual. For the DelSignore-Aydelott home, he worked with Hi-Tech Housing out of Indiana. 

Hi-Tech Housing's manager, Doug Mills, said the company has been building pre-fabricated modular housing for 29 years, and it produces far more sophisticated housing than the trailers people associate with modular homes. The company can custom create any style of home. 

"We're considered a custom factory-built company," Mills said. "We work with architects a lot."

Mills said that one of the biggest benefits of modular construction is that it can significantly reduce the time it takes to build a home. 

"We can basically build a house in about four weeks," Mills said.

One of the big advantages is that everything is built indoors, in a climate-controlled setting. The units are moved down a series of 18 stations in a production line and can be delivered to the site 90 percent complete, often just requiring finish work and plumbing and electric connections. 

One of the only limitations to the units is their size, which Mills says is dictated by transportation laws. Units can be up to 16 feet wide, 76 feet in length and 12 feet high.

The Taylor Avenue house is composed of six units: three on top and three on bottom. At roughly 2,000 square feet, it provides three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the second floor and an open living and kitchen area on the first floor, along with a flex space that can be used as an office or sealed off to become a first floor bedroom with full bathroom in the future. 

Although Hi-Tech can provide finish work, DelSignore and Aydelott opted to do the finish work onsite, allowing them to visualize details like stain for the maple plywood floors and grout color for the tile.

When the units were delivered to the site in August, they were put together like a series of building blocks. The general contractor on the project, Dave Himelick, also happens to be a drone operator and captured the module setting process on film. The video can be seen along with the online version of this story at OakPark.com. 

Making modules green

For Bassett-Dilley, the modular home lent itself well to his passive building practices, in some ways surprising him by surpassing conventional passive construction methods.  He says that it was a learning process for him. 

"In budgeting the project, we knew that getting to full passive would be tough, but we could have it function like a passive house," Bassett-Dilley said. "The anatomy of the house in terms of insulation, air-tight enclosure and venting is the same."

He says that the Hi-Tech factory process surpassed passive building techniques with the air tightness factor, as confirmed in a preliminary air blower test conducted by Eco Achievers. 

Lindsey Elton of Eco Achievers said the tightness is tested with a fan placed in a doorway and infra-red cameras placed to show how tight the home's envelope is.  

Bassett-Dilley was hoping for good results but was happily surprised with how well the modules performed. 

"The factory air-tightness was very impressive," Bassett-Dilley said. "The transitions from wall to ceiling -- they nailed it."

Bassett-Dilley said the results widen the useful applications of pre-fab modules in his practice and for other green builders. 

"We can take this anywhere," he said. "If someone wants to deliver high-performance anywhere on a budget, we can do it."

The house at 624 N. Taylor Ave. is the first modular home in the village and represented many other firsts for all of the parties involved. 

"We do a lot of firsts in Oak Park: the first passive house, the first SIPS [structurally insulated panels] house, and now the first modular house," Bassett-Dilley said. "Clients come to us looking for this."

Educating village officials, contractors and event mortgage lenders was another key component of the process.

The village of Oak Park had to alter its regular inspection schedule given the finished condition of the modules when they arrived onsite, and subcontractors had to change their bidding process when they realized that the walls would already be set up with plumbing and electrical work installed underneath drywall.

DelSignore says that for mortgage lenders on the finance side, it was necessary to educate about the process before they got on board, but she says all of the explaining has been worth it, and her family is looking forward to moving into the house early in 2018. 

"Hopefully, we're setting a path for people," she said.

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