Out of a Box
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The stone mansion, set atop Juniper Hill like a king’s jewel-encrusted crown, looks as though it has ruled its verdant four-acre kingdom of Greenwich for more than a century. A lacy wedding-cake-white widow’s walk, classic columned porches and numerous gables prove that the three-story, 9,000-square-foot mansion is, indeed, to the manor born.
But its most striking — and most telling — feature is the unseen one that merges the past with the present so seamlessly that sometimes even its owners, Michael and Rebecca Grunberg, forget that their dream house has its foundation stone laid firmly in the here and now.
For it is a modular mansion, one of several newly constructed grand estates in Greenwich that take the idea of box construction right out of the box. In this case, it’s not one box but ten that define this home’s fabulous footprint.
“My house is a labor of love,” says Michael Grunberg, adding that he designed it to display his extensive collection of antiques. “Each time I see it, it’s still a sight to behold.”
Greenwich homeowners like the Grunbergs increasingly are turning to modular construction to save time and money and to erect magnificent homes that are built to last for centuries.
“Greenwich was a pioneer in high-end modular homes,” says Dave Wrocklage, director of sales and marketing for Epoch Homes, the Pembroke, New Hampshire, manufacturer of high-end custom modular houses. “The first modular mansion went up in Greenwich in 1995, and the biggest modular home ever done by anyone — 16,000 square feet — is in Greenwich.”
The Grunberg mansion, with all its period-style details, including high-pitched roof, oversized arched doors and wide-mullioned windows, pushes the envelope on modular design and illustrates in stone and mortar just how far this type of prefab construction has come since its debut in the 1960s. At that time, modular meant cheap, and cheap translated into low-end, double-wide trailers. Indeed, so detailed was the Grunberg design that it took two trips to transport all the pieces and two weeks to set it all up. “These details can’t be replicated,” Michael Grunberg says. “It took everything the factory had done before and then some.”
If the Grunbergs’ grand plan raised the bar, it was only because it was poised to go higher than high end.
“In the last five to ten years, modular companies have seen that custom is the niche to fill,” says Sheri Koones, author of the recently published book Modular Mansions. “More and more homes are being built this way. In 1990 there were 20,000 in the country, and by 2003 there were 38,000. They are not the trailer homes we think of when we hear the term modular. More often than not, they are like the Grunberg home. Some of them are architect designed, and they come in all styles — everything from Arts and Crafts to cutting-edge contemporary. People are amazed by the depth and beauty of the houses that can be done with modular.”
Unlike traditional stick construction, which is done on site, modular homes are built in climate-controlled factories where tradesmen put them together in assembly-line fashion, going from house to house to do everything from installing windows and plugging in electrical systems to constructing custom bathrooms. The modular boxes are assembled like children’s building blocks, transported to the site by flatbed truck, lifted onto their foundations by cranes and, with a few finishing touches on site, are ready for the family and pets to take up residence. Some homeowners opt for virtually everything to be done in the factory; others hire local tradesmen to complete large projects like custom kitchens and bathrooms.
The bottom line? They are finished in only three to eight months, half the time it takes to build a home by conventional methods.
In areas like Greenwich, where labor is expensive, homeowners can save from 10 to 20 percent and use that extra money to add luxuries like gourmet kitchens and wine cellars to their upscale homes.
The idea of modular construction is capturing the imagination of the American home buyer for three reasons, according to Dave Wrocklage: speed, quality and price. “You wouldn’t build a boat in water or a car in your driveway,” he remarks, “so why would you build a home in your front yard?”
Nearly two dozen modular mansions have been built in Greenwich, fueling the market for even bigger, better homes. “Buyers are definitely becoming more aware of the pluses of modular,” says real estate agent Carolyn Anderson, president of Anderson Associates, who got in on the ground floor of the trend in 2001 by working on one of the first modular sales in Greenwich. “And realtors have come aboard. As far as resale prices, it doesn’t matter, but it can be used as a marketing tool in selling.”
Douglas Cutler, an architect who specializes in designing modular homes and who built an avant-garde modular contemporary home for himself and his family in Wilton, is an advocate of modular construction. “It is superior to stick construction,” he says. “And it doesn’t have to be bland.”
The Nantucket shingle-style modular home in Greenwich he designed for Robert and Cathy Carangelo more than proves his point. The 4,400-square-foot, five-bedroom home, which has a tower, a Colonial-style columned front porch with stone supports, an enormous roof deck and more than sixty windows, is every bit as charming as a conventionally built house.
“We wanted the house to withstand the test of time,” Robert Carangelo says. “It’s very well built. Because it came on a truck, it had to be sturdy enough to make the trip from the factory. We’ve had high winds and rain, and we don’t even hear them.”
The three-story house, which came in ten pieces, attracted a lot of attention when it was pulled into the site. “People were fascinated by it, and they all came to watch,” Carangelo says, adding that his children, Maggie, Bobby and Billy, thought it was “cool” the way it was put together right before their eyes and “moments later they were able to walk through their new home.”
The Carangelos, however, did not set out to build a modular home. It was Cathy who had seen an upscale modular in Greenwich, so when they decided to level their house and rebuild, modular came to mind. “Before that, I had had a negative perception of what modular was,” Cathy says. “I thought they were boxy houses with only a couple of windows and that they were aesthetically unappealing.”