In September 2012—15 years after she bought her 1940s Cape-style home in Manasquan—Rita Gurry made the last mortgage payment. Jubilantly debt-free, Gurry, a nurse, turned her thoughts to retirement. Two months later, Sandy dashed those hopes, flooding the home with two-and-a-half feet of water.
“Every bit of furniture was ruined,” she says. “I really couldn’t comprehend fixing this thing. I made the decision then and there to put up a modular.”
Through friends who had just signed a contract to build a modular home, Gurry knew that the process is simpler, faster and usually less costly than starting from scratch. Her friends put her in touch with their contractor, Anthony Zarrilli of Brick-based Zarrilli Homes, a company experienced in modular as well as from-scratch (or “stick built”) construction.
Zarrilli was facing his own challenges. His office—located on the mainland just west of the Mantoloking Bridge—had been wiped out by Sandy. “We lost every file, every computer, every drawing—everything,” he says. “The first couple of days it was like mourning. But then we realized we had to try to keep people moving forward.”
Zarrilli took Gurry on. “Modulars,” he says, “are built much better” than people unfamiliar with them might think. Put together and weather-sealed inside a factory, their frames and interiors are never subjected to precipitation, and they must pass a rigorous federal inspection before they are delivered to the home site.
Aware of the Shore’s vulnerability to storms, Zarrelli for years has set all his homes on pilings a minimum of two feet higher than required by current code. “After Sandy, we went out and did a site visit to all of our homes,” he says. “We’ve built dozens everywhere from Cape May to Union County, and we did not lose a house.”
Gurry and Zarrelli agreed on a layout giving her the same four bedrooms, two baths and about 2,000 square feet as her ruined house. “I wanted a front porch and a back deck and a master bedroom and bath on the first floor. That was my only wish list,” she says.
Work began on April 15 with the demolition. “That first boom hit the house, it was like someone knocked the wind out of my sails,” she says. “Then reality set in. There was no turning back.” In about an hour, the house was torn apart and loaded into a dumpster.
The next step, undertaken in early May, was driving the pilings into the ground that would support the modular home. “Pile driving used to take forever,” says Richard Trethewey, plumbing and heating expert for This Old House. The old way resembled hammering a heavy nail into hard wood, except on a gargantuan scale.
But Zarrelli was using a relatively new technology—a high-powered apparatus mounted on a backhoe that intensely vibrates the sharp-edged pilings, driving them deep into the ground literally in seconds. For avid This Old House viewers, Trethewey says, “It’s going to be fabulous television.”
June 4, Gurry gaped in wonder as her new house arrived in two sections on flatbed trucks. She watched the whole process. Lifting the sections off the flatbeds with a crane, placing them on the pilings and securing them together took a total of four hours. Finishing touches—connecting plumbing, electricity—took up the next two months. At press time, Gurry was expecting to move in early in September.
The whole project cost her about $310,000—somewhat more than she expected. According to Zarrilli,
“Typically, modulars come out 13 to 18 percent less expensive [than stick built]. And the entire structure is low maintenance.”
Well before Sandy changed everything, FEMA was at work on new flood plain maps for the Shore. These were released on schedule last December, and as expected they came with new rules changing the minimum heights that houses would have to be raised above sea level. But being based on pre-Sandy data, the new rulings were outdated the day they were issued. FEMA went back to work and released updated maps and guidelines in June of this year.
For homeowners and contractors wanting to move forward, the result was months of uncertainty. Zarrilli and Gurry decided not to wait. He installed the pilings so that her new house would likely exceed whatever height requirements FEMA came back with. Her front door now stands 13 feet above sea level. Between the bottom of the house and the ground, says This Old House’s Trethewey, “It’s a crawl space with open ventilation, breakaway walls and storage.”
Visitors have quite a few stairs to climb, but when they cross the threshold, Gurry says, “Everyone who comes in my door now can’t believe this is a modular home.”
“Modular is such a good solution,” says Trethewey. “Quick is one thing, but I now have a completely different perception. It’s solid, solid construction. This house will stay level for years and years.”
“People say it’s a hundred-year storm, but I think it’s going to happen again,” says Gurry. “You get a nosebleed going up into my house now, but I don’t ever want to go through this again.”