Prefab Houses Go Green

SmartMoney Magazine by Alyssa Abkowitz (Author Archive)
Prefab Houses Go Green

On a remote home-building site outside the small town of Charlestown, R.I., Tom Dieterich is up on a roof, ducking beneath a massive slab of wood and steel that hangs from a crane. The craggy-faced crew foreman from Blu Homes has been riding his workers hard to finish this house, since they’re already so close: The bamboo floors are down, the foam-insulated walls are up, even the energy-efficient kitchen appliances have been installed. Now, with dusk approaching, Dieterich is anxious to fix the final segment of the roof into place. After all, he and his crew—and one of our reporters—are putting up the house in a single day.

Actually, not quite a day. But in less time than it takes most men to sprout a patch of chin stubble, this 836-square-foot structure, built and assembled largely in a Massachusetts factory, was lowered onto its foundation and nearly completed. “We’ll lay the other half of the floor and wrap up other minor finish work later,” Dieterich says.

For most people, the idea of factory-made homes conjures images of tacky, vinyl-sided shoeboxes on wheels. But boutique manufacturers like Blu and others are working to erase the lowbrow stigma with a new breed of prefabs that are hipper (hey, Brad Pitt’s nonprofit is building them in New Orleans!), more high-end (prices can run up to $3 million) and, above all, aggressively green.

The premier modular project by California firm LivingHomes was the first American residential structure to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification, the highest eco-badge offered by the U.S. Green Building Council. Even the nation’s biggest factory-home stalwarts, All American Homes [COHM] and Warren Buffett’s Clayton Homes, now tout their sustainable options like solar panels and nontoxic paints. “Everyone is so interested in green,” says Roberta Feldman, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That might remove the stigma itself.”

To be sure, not many Americans will watch their houses appear in a single day, and modular homes still represent a small percentage of new-residential construction. But experts say the segment is just the latest sign of renewed interest in modestly scaled living. Traditional builders like KB Home and Pulte Homes say the square-footage gold-rush days are on the wane, as their buyers seek smaller abodes; according to the National Association of Home Builders, the average square footage of new homes dropped 5.3 percent from 2007 to 2009. Certainly, much of the downsizing impulse comes from crash-sobered homebuyers nursing McMansion hangovers. But experts say the call for less-cavernous living spaces has also been driven by demographic trends like falling birth rates and a rise in unmarried homeowners. According to the National Association of Realtors, the number of single homebuyers in the U.S. jumped 41 percent between 2001 and 2009.

Then, of course, there’s the growing slow-economy drumbeat for all things energy-efficient. In a recent survey by McGraw-Hill Construction, 70 percent of future home-buyers said they’d be inclined to buy a green house in a down market. And when it comes to prefab, the budgetary appeal goes beyond long-term energy savings: Green modular designs generally sell for $150 to $300 a square foot, while custom-built green homes can cost up to 20 percent more. Some prefab builders say their manufacturing efficiencies can minimize the usual eco-friendly price premium, allowing homeowners to reap immediate savings. “Green and affordable don’t normally go together,” says Lorraine Day, owner of the new Charlestown modular. “Here, they do.”

Contrary to its sometimes downscale image, prefab housing has historically been a vehicle for progressive ideas. Just over a century ago, Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s mail-order catalog began offering factory-made “kit” houses that offered many buyers their first taste of modern conveniences like central heating and indoor plumbing. On the eve of the Great Depression, visionary American architect Buckminster Fuller chose the Chicago department store Marshall Field’s as the venue for unveiling his prototype for one of prefab’s most futuristic designs: a round, aluminum-clad, spaceship-like house, which Fuller hoped to someday outfit with yet-to-be-invented amenities like television, dishwashers and motion-triggered doors.

These days, prefab builders hope to usher in a new era—of earth-friendly living—with standard features like bamboo flooring, nontoxic paints and energy-efficient appliances. Some of the green perks, like photovoltaic panels and real-time energy-use monitors, can feel quite progressive and high-tech; ironically, others (think rainwater harvesting) recall more primitive times.

Prefabbers boast not only of their homes’ lower resource consumption but also of the inherently sustainable nature of the building process. According to the Green Building Council, assembly-line construction wastes far fewer materials than on-site home building. Trucking a wide-load house across state lines can spew less carbon than all of a crew’s daily trips to a traditional site over the course of, say, eight or nine months. Experts point to other factory advantages as well: Materials are protected from vandalism, theft and damaging weather exposure. Parts can be cut and assembled with computer-aided precision. And because homes are built to endure strong vibration and wind shear during transport, they’re often constructed more sturdily.

Such quality may surprise buyers expecting prefab homes to be flimsy tornado magnets. The other unexpected element? That they range in size and style from cozy cottages to sleek, modern villas. Designs by pioneering green-modular architect Michelle Kaufmann, with their warm woods, clean lines and interplay of inside and outside space, draw comparisons to early Frank Lloyd Wright. New World Home, a New York–based eco-prefab outfit, specializes in historical styles like Greek Revival and Dutch Colonial—many complete with stately porches. And North Carolina firm Deltec Homes offers designs for three-story homes up to 7,500 square feet. Trailer park fodder they’re not.

Still, prefab green can have its downsides: That factory home may seem like a bargain until you realize the price doesn’t include big-ticket components like land, site excavation, foundation-building or transport. Experts say owners should expect to deal with—or hire someone to deal with—a much larger share of the nitty-gritty stuff, like utilities hookups and permits.

With the homes themselves, an imprecise factory cut can mean the occasional uneven wall, while poor packing can result in a sagging floor. “Everything in this business,” says Trevor Huffard, Blu’s VP of finance and operations, “comes down to measurements.” Indeed, the green-modular industry is so new, experts say, that today’s buyers should expect learning-curve hiccups. Parts of Day’s home, for instance, needed reframing after the original drawings came in upside down and inside out. “We expect mistakes,” says Blu cofounder Bill Haney. But, says architect Kaufmann, “not everyone is up for being the guinea pig.”

Back in Charlestown, Day doesn’t seem to mind. Just down the road from her sister’s Christmas-tree farm, her cozy, light-filled home has neared completion in a single day, largely because of Blu’s innovative folding technology. Most state trucking laws forbid transported homes to exceed 16 feet in width, but thanks to hinges in the floor and side walls, Blu’s houses can be as wide as 21 feet and fold down to 8.5 feet.

About an hour after Day’s abode is lowered onto the foundation, half the floor and the entire front wall are unfolded like an oversize piece of origami—revealing kitchen appliances, light fixtures and other factory-installed details. Throughout the afternoon, the proud new owner flits around, excitedly snapping pictures and telling anyone who will listen about her hope to ultimately power the whole place with a backyard wind turbine. Later, after the unfolding is completed, a worker yells from the roof, “Does anyone have a bottle of champagne?”

Read more: Prefab Houses Go Green (Page 2 of 2) – Personal Finance – Real Estate –

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(SmartMoney Magazine by Alyssa Abkowitz, May 21, 2010)

It should be noted the “green” advantages in a modular or manufactured home. As illustrated in her article, some noted advantages include the sturdy structure, tight envelope, much less wasted material, protected material during construction, and the inclusion of most any noted green feature.

The article demonstrates a modular’s ability to achieve LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), yet it is also very feasible to achieve EarthCraft, EnergyStar, and other certifications with your home.

From our experience with EarthCraft, we’ve found that our manufactured homes come standard with many of the features outlined for credit with the EarthCraft point system, i.e. a tighter building envelope as demonstrated by a Blower Door test (test result ELR <0.4 cfm50 / square foot of building envelope is roughly our standard envelope, .4 or .5, earning 4 to 6 of EarthCrafts possible 8 points), flashing, drainage, materials re-use/recycle, waste, insulation, roofing all fall into required or point earning categories; in most cases our standard home will meet all the requirements for many of these earned points. It should be mentioned the ease at which standard “zero”energy features can be integrated, such items as solar panels, heat recover, spray foam insulation, R49 roof insulation, no VOC products, low flow plumbing among many other things. Pre-Fab houses certainly are going “green”.