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11/14/03: St. Petersburg Times

Yep, it's a manufactured home

Modular nostalgia comes home to roost when a company thinks outside the box.

PLANT CITY - Tony Lucas wants to change the face of manufactured housing. Call it an extreme makeover for frowsy facades. Lucas calls it "architectural blending."

The goal?

"A house that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb," he explains. "A house that has a higher degree of architectural complexity."

Manufactured homes have long been maligned for their woeful lack of aesthetics. Low-pitched roofs, drab aluminum siding and plain-faced exteriors make some look more like triple-wide trailers than dream houses.

Now Lucas dreams of creating attractive, affordable homes with wide appeal for middle class buyers.

One of them, the Florida bungalow, is a charming yellow and blue-accented cottage with a touch of sweetly decorative trim, a front porch and scissor-truss gable.

His homes look like some in historic neighborhoods, although building codes govern their use. In some areas, manufactured homes must simply comply with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines; in others, they must meet stricter rules, including construction of stem-wall foundations.

Lucas, an MBA-wielding lawyer who pursues the study of architecture with passion (he applied to law and architecture school at the same time), has worked in the manufactured home industry since the 1970s.

His homes line neighborhoods in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Chicago.

But little compares to his current designs.

In the past, he says, "I was limited because I couldn't go all the way and (create) the more sensitive architectural features."

Lucas, who lives in Indiana, was hired in April by Palm Harbor Homes, a national manufactured housing company with a production facility in Plant City. The company builds homes in all price ranges but typically caters to buyers at higher income levels, offering upscale homes outfitted with custom interiors, according to an October 2000 article in Professional Builder magazine.

Palm Harbor will soon roll out to the public Lucas' Discovery Series, a line of nostalgic bungalows with exteriors reminiscent of those in Hyde Park, Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights.

The line will include everything from a craftsman-inspired bungalow to the Florida bungalow, a structure that blends Key West, Savannah and Cracker-style architecture.

Prices vary significantly depending on features and embellishments a consumer chooses. Average cost for one of these 1,400- to 1,500-square-foot bungalows ranges from $70,000 to $120,000, not including the lot, says Michael Wnek, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Palm Harbor Homes.

"To expand our market we knew we didn't just have to be acceptable in the eyes of the home buyer," Wnek says, "but also in the eyes of the neighbors."

Breakthroughs in the manufacturing process have made the new look in manufactured housing possible, Wnek explains. Aluminum siding has been replaced by a waterproof, resin-based wood product much like marine wood. It's impervious to termites and weather, but more significantly, it can be painted, allowing for an array of interesting colors.

Steeply pitched rooflines are now possible because a hinge system allows roofs to be folded for transport beneath highway overpasses.

Like most manufactured homes, the finished product is usually in place within 60 to 90 days - a turnaround three to six months faster than traditional on-site construction, Wnek says.

Lawyer and developer Jim Cusack was inspired by the idea. He partnered with Chuck Madison, a retired vice president for Healthplan Services who now teaches math at Franklin Middle School.

"We could change the look of a neighborhood that is rundown within a matter of days," Madison says.

The two are purchasing lots in east and west Tampa on which they hope to erect some of the new four-bedroom, two-bath modular homes for Section 8 housing.

They're also amid talks with the Tampa Housing Authority, which first has to approve the team as landlords, Cusack says.

They are also hoping to sell the homes to young professionals in entry-level jobs who might not otherwise be able to afford a new home, particularly in a pricey housing market.

On a tour of a similar home at Palm Harbor's superstore in Plant City, Cusack shows off the garden tubs, Moen faucets, kitchen islands, ceramic tile floors and walk-in closets that would be included in his proposed Section 8 homes.

City of Tampa officials will tour some of the new designs in a few weeks.

Bob Harrell, director of housing and business development for the city, says he is pleased to look at affordable housing draws from Florida- and Tampa-sensitive designs. But he's noncommittal about the use of manufactured homes.

"We have an interest in creating affordable housing," he said. "At the same time, we have an interest in not creating the slums of tomorrow."

According to the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, one of every five new homes sold in Florida is a manufactured home.

All manufactured homes built since 1976 must meet performance standards set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, regulations comparable to the standard building code for site-built homes. Manufactured homes must be designed to withstand hurricane-force winds.

Meanwhile, Lucas visits Tampa frequently and spends a lot of time running with his camera through Hyde Park.

He takes lots of pictures and notes and then goes back to his drawing board, trying to capture the essence of what he has seen.

He's especially fond of the prewar bungalows that populate Tampa's historic neighborhoods.

Lucas has also been influenced by the designs of the California firm of Green and Green, Sears Roebuck catalog houses from the early 1900s, and the affordable, mass-produced Usonian homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.