Timi Starkweather's summer job when she was 15 was as office manager for an East Coast home builder. At 16, she watched as a modular home...

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Timi Starkweather’s summer job when she was 15 was as office manager for an East Coast home builder. At 16, she watched as a modular home was assembled.

Through many years of raising five children and following her husband as he pursued a Coast Guard career, Starkweather never forgot the thrill of watching buildings erected.

Today, having parlayed that interest into a series of building careers, Starkweather finds herself standing on a street in Cle Elum, in the eastern foothills of the Cascades, watching her own company erect one of the largest modular buildings constructed around here.

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Some 12,000 square feet, Victoria Town Center is coming together from 28 modules that, when stacked and arranged, will be 10 apartments atop 12 office and retail spaces.

The modules, finished right down to kitchen cabinets and carpeting, were built in a factory in Penticton, B.C., and trucked to the site.

Stacking the modules took a little more than a week. The project is expected to be completed in February.

“This is where modular shines,” said Starkweather, the founder of Construction Resource Group, a 6-year-old Redmond company that designs and builds modular structures. “Think about Legos. If you put them together, all of a sudden you have a creation. Modular is the same.”

What is so clear in Starkweather’s mind still puzzles the general public, but she’s committed to clearing up the confusion.

Indeed, examples of the company’s work are all over the area, although people probably don’t realize they’re looking at buildings that began in the indoor factories of one of six modular builders the company works with.

About 80 percent of its projects are residential, and 20 percent commercial. About 25 are in the works now.

Among the firm’s completed projects are a 70,000 square-foot portion of the Quinault Beach Resort in Ocean Shores, a coffee-roasting house on the Fort Lewis Army base, banks in Lynnwood, single-family houses in Kirkland and Sunset magazine’s innovative “Glidehouse” and “Breezehouse.”(More information on these two homes is available at www.mkd-arc.com.)

The Breezehouse, with its distinctive V-shaped roof, clerestory windows, courtyards and mix of metal and wood looks nothing like what Starkweather said most people consider modular.

“If you said ‘modular,’ people would glaze over,” she said. “People think two boxes with a low roof pitch and no architectural detail. Very unappealing.”

Compounding that is confusion between modular and mobile homes. The latter are built to standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Modular homes conform instead to the same local building codes as site-built houses, and employ the same building techniques as site-built houses. However, “they’re engineered to a higher standard because of the transportation issue,” Starkweather said.

“Design criteria is never an issue — unless you want total window walls,” she said.

Modular buildings aren’t necessarily less expensive than site-built ones, but they are more time-efficient, Starkweather said. She says it takes roughly half the time to complete a modular building as it does one built on site.

“The true benefit of building modular is you’re building in a closed environment,” she said, “and in this climate that’s huge, because the building doesn’t get wet and it doesn’t mold.”

Despite the benefits, modular continues to be slow to catch on, said Michael Carliner, with the National Association of Home Builders.

“Modular was the wave of the future 35 years ago,” Carliner said. “It’s probably the wave of the future now, and it will still be the wave of the future in the future.”

The challenge of moving buildings, combined with the ease of getting completed building systems like roof trusses and prehung doors, has kept modular from becoming big, Carliner said.

Today, modular construction makes up about 3 percent of all home building, U.S. census figures show. That percentage has remained constant for years.

Carliner doesn’t know how much modular has caught on in other types of buildings, but he thinks that in mixed-use projects, like the one going up in Cle Elum, is probably very unusual.

That didn’t stop the Cle Elum officials from approving Victoria Town Center. Being built on the town’s main street, East First Street, it’s just outside Cle Elum’s historic district. Still, Starkweather was committed to having it complement the older architecture. It has such touches as Victorian turrets.

“I think it will be a nice complement to the existing downtown,” said Gregg Hall, Cle Elum’s city administrator and former planner.

He’s watched parts of the new building come in on trucks. “It’s a different way of doing a building. But they’ve gone through the same requirements as any other building as far as the foundation,” Hall said.

Starkweather is used to having bystanders marvel at the sight of a big modular building coming together in a week or less. She hopes this will spur more people to consider this type of construction. At the same time, she’s realistic.

“Once the building is up, we’re our own worst advertising, because it looks like any other building,” she said.

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com