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”.

Is Modular Right for You?

Here is our team Owner, Quinn Beversluis, talking about Modular Homes.

Is a Modular Home Right for You?

by Joanne DiMaggio

The phrase “modular home” is one of the most misunderstood phrases in the housing industry. That’s because terms bandied about such as “mobile home,” “doublewides,” “pre-fab,” “panelized,” and “pre-cut” have the public scratching their heads wondering, which is which? While some believe they are all one and the same, Quinn Beversluis, a REALTOR® working with I&J Home Builders in Troy, says these various terms do not necessarily describe the same type of structure.

“There are many terms out there that people get confused with and they are very different indeed,” he explained. “’Mobile,’ ‘doublewides,’ ‘manufactured,’ all refer to homes built on a frame. There are even some companies now that are calling their homes ‘on frame modulars.’ To get away from all the confusion, I&J and its partners are going toward the term ‘systems-built homes,’ again since the term ‘modular’ has been blurred by so many over the years.”

John Quale, Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, LEED AP, and Project Director of ecoMOD, a research and design/build/evaluate project that is creating a series of ecological, modular, and affordable housing units (see sidebar), says the word “modular” has several meanings, even within the world of prefabricated construction.

“In the broadest sense, modular refers to standardized units, so it can generally refer to anything with repetitive dimensions – from small components to wall or roof panels,” he explained. “However, modular also has a very specific technical meaning within the prefab world: a volume (i.e. box or module) prefabricated off-site in a factory, and transported to the site on a trailer.”

Quale said that in concept, modular homes are somewhat similar to manufactured housing (also known as trailers or mobile homes) but they are actually quite different.

“Manufactured housing/trailers/mobile homes are not considered permanent buildings,” he said. “They have a steel chassis integrated into their floor structure so they can be moved at any time. Because of the temporary nature, manufactured homes are more difficult to finance in a conventional way, and they depreciate in value like a car. Modular homes are placed on permanent foundations and are essentially the same as site-built homes. Many of them are superior to spec homes.”

Beversluis admits there are stigmas associated with modular homes, all of which are unfounded.

“One of the greatest misconceptions is that they are inferior,” he says. “Many people equate modular homes with manufactured or mobile homes, and there is an assumption that there are limited choices regarding the design of the house. The ability to fully customize the house is one of the distinctions between modular and manufactured housing. At the start of the industry, modular designs were basic. Today, they can be built to any specification, from a single-story ranch house to a two-story with walk-in attic; the choices are virtually unlimited.”

Quale agrees. “Many people think modular homes are poor-quality construction. This is not necessarily the case. Most modular homes are comparable to a home built by a developer on site – and in fact, it is almost impossible to distinguish a modular home from a site-built home without a detailed inspection of the framing of the home.”

Another misconception is that modular homes are expensive and attract higher insurance costs.

“Comparatively, modular homes are less expensive than site-built homes and insurance costs are the same as that of an on-site home,” said Beversluis. “In many instances, the appraisals come in considerably higher than the purchase price and the buyers have the benefit of a lower loan-to-value ratio, which in essence is money in their pocket.”

Beversluis says modular homes are generally 20-30% less expensive than “stick-built” homes. In Central Virginia, the average building cost for a traditionally built home ranges from $115 to $125 per square foot. The modular homes I&J sells average $80 – $85, with some as low as $69 per square foot, and that is with I&J standards of 2’ x 6’ exterior walls and appliances included. In addition, Beversluis says modular homes undergo the same building inspections as traditionally built homes.

“A modular home conforms to the building codes that are required at the specific location it will be delivered to, and in many cases construction exceeds the required codes,” he explained. “Modular homes are built using the highest quality materials in a controlled and enclosed environment. They undergo more thorough and stringent inspections, which are carried out by a third party.”

But What Do They Look Like?

One of the biggest misconceptions about modular homes is that they aren’t as attractive as traditionally built homes. In truth, modular homes look just like traditional custom-built homes. The big difference is that they are pre-built at an off-site, climate-controlled factory while the site preparation work is being done, thus saving time and money. The sections are assembled on-site, using the same methods as stick-built homes. Local builders apply the finishing touches to produce homes that match the quality and appearance of traditionally built homes.

Beversluis added that consistent quality control is maintained throughout, as each employee is a specialist in his craft. “You wouldn’t have your roofer doing your finished trim work at the factory,” he said.

In addition, on average a modular home uses approximately 25% more lumber, producing a more energy-efficient home. What’s more, modular homes appreciate in value the same as site-built homes.

“They have come a long way from the ’80s and ’90s,” said Beversluis. “Designs are now far more complex than in those earlier days. Virtually anything is possible.”

Lower cost means customers are able to add options they may not have been able to afford with a traditionally built home, such as a basement, multi-levels, extra bedrooms, increased energy-efficiency, and insulation. Far from a cookie-cutter house, modular homes are fast becoming a buyer’s dream home.

Applying Green Standards

While modular home manufacturers are looking at building to greener standards, Quale says the principles of green design are not as common in the modular housing world as they are with custom site-built homes.

“Some conventional modular builders might offer an ‘Energy Star’ model, but that is a pretty low threshold of sustainability,” Quale says. “Some of the higher end, contemporary modular home options are pushing green design somewhat. Like so many things in green design today, there is a lot more hype than reality. It’s only a matter of time before we start hearing that modular homes are inherently more sustainable than something built on-site. I’m a major supporter of modular homes and prefabricated construction in general, but I’d be suspicious of people that take these claims too far. While modular companies do not waste a single stick of lumber (unlike the wasteful practices of many homebuilders), they also use more lumber per house (to ensure the structure is sturdy enough to be craned onto a trailer and travel 60 miles per hour). There are many possible advantages of off-site versus on-site construction, but there isn’t any proof of these yet.”

Nonetheless, Beversluis said that modular homebuyers are being offered environmentally friendly options from lighting, flooring, and paint to countertops, lumber, solar heating, etc.

Beversluis cited studies that support Quale’s statement that there is less waste during the construction of a modular home, primarily due to the recycling of lumber and greater accuracy in cuts.

“Waste materials are minimized, and the waste generated is much more easily reused and recycled in a factory environment,” he stated. “Homes are built in controlled facilities, where tolerances are tighter and structures have less air infiltration, resulting in more energy-efficient homes. During construction, materials are stored in these facilities, which result in less waste from weather damage and theft. The efficiency of the modular manufacturing process reduces CO2 output compared to traditional site construction. Off-site construction also reduces on-site noise, dust, debris, and traffic with less bother to neighbors.”

Modular homes offer a number of other advantages—they can be built faster (usually within three weeks), weather delays are never an issue, and budgets are more easily controlled and dependable.

“Being built off-site in a controlled environment dramatically reduces reliance on subcontractors, which also results in tighter project control,” Beversluis said.

“Manufacturers have engineers working for them so designs can be accommodated, whereas stick-built companies would need to get engineers to change these plans. Factories all carry an extended warranty on the house as opposed to traditional builds, which carry a one-year warranty. On-site built homes are subject to weather exposure that can lead to future water damage problems and mold issues. Modular homes are often structurally stronger than traditional site-built homes due to the fact that additional framing and structural support is built into the module designs so they can withstand transportation load factors.”

While Quale agrees that modular homes are very similar in quality to traditionally built homes, he says that claim only goes so far. “Some modular builders claim they are superior quality because there are built in climate controlled conditions, and have additional structure for transportation. That additional structure might make the home a bit stronger, but does nothing to improve the thermal performance.”

According to industry statistics, modular construction projects have more than doubled in the last 10 years. Beversluis says his business has “grown tremendously” over the last decade, and credits the increase in popularity of modular homes is due in part to the efficiency of building with the modular process. “It just makes sense—the purchasing power in volume, and the use of efficient factory procedures, combined with the technology of today.”

Questions To Ask

As with any major project, consumers interested in purchasing a modular home should do their homework and ask questions. Beversluis says customers should be aware of the builder they choose and the specs of the exact home they are purchasing. “You want to compare apples to apples when dealing with price,” he advises. “Many builders require their customers to be the general contractor, obtain permits, carry insurance, etc. This can be a daunting task for the average homebuyer. Also, utilize the companies that provide computerized design with virtual tours so you can see exactly what you are building.”

Many modular home companies, such as I&J, are one-stop shopping operations, meaning they will locate and buy land on a client’s behalf; provide a construction loan; and do all the title work, survey, perk testing, building permits, inspections, site work, etc.

If you choose not to work with a “one-stop shop,” Quale advises it is best to hire a local builder to install the foundation and utilities and select someone that has worked with a modular company before. “The modular home companies typically only provide the modules, and depend on local builders to complete the last 5-10% of work on the modules (finish work where the modules come together) and the foundation and site work.”

Beversluis said I&J is happy to work with REALTORS®. “In fact we encourage them to bring us clients that they cannot find the right home for,” he said. “It is sometimes easier and cheaper to start with a new design than to find the perfect existing property. ”