Prefab homes sprout green designs, improve affordability

in Green Initiatives

Michelle Kaufmann couldn’t find an affordable, eco-friendly home in the San Francisco area in 2003, so she built her own.

Construction took 14 months.

“This needs to be easier,” the architect recalls thinking.

To make green homes more accessible, she says, she “stalked” factories until she found some that agreed to build her modern designs.

She built dozens of prefabricated homes, including several identical to her own, each taking four months at 15 percent less cost.

She won an innovation award this month from the National Association of Home Builders and became a sort of rock star of sustainability.

Last week, however, she began closing her firm.

“We have tons of work,” she says, but her clients can’t get financing, and two factory partners went out of business.

She will continue her work as a consultant.

Kaufmann is one of a growing cadre of architects and builders who, with varying luck, have turned to factories to build green.

The homes range from simple cottages, available for less than $100,000, to high-end showpieces at $1 million or more.

These are not mobile homes, known as “manufactured” housing, but rather “modular” homes built to local codes and set on permanent foundations.

They often consist of several customized modules that are placed together at the property.

“It’s the future,” says David Johnston, Colorado-based author of Green From the Ground Up. In the past year, Johnston has held green-building workshops at factories in several states.

Despite Kaufmann’s experience, other companies report widespread interest from customers and expect orders to pick up once the economy recovers.

“We’re already seeing the boom,” says Maura McCarthy, co-founder of Blu Homes in Waltham, Mass. The green modular builder, which has its own factory plus partners in three other states, launched its Web site in July.

It has four homes nearing completion and a dozen more in the pipeline. Elsewhere:

All American Homes, one of the nation’s largest modular builders, began last fall to offer super-insulated, passive-solar homes. The homes, available in 36 states, generally cost less than $150 a square foot.LivingHomes, a California-based green builder, will begin to make its modular homes available nationwide next month, says CEO Steve Glenn. The modern homes, some with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, range from $200 to $325 a square foot.

Building in a factory is “inherently greener” than building on-site, says Nate Kredich of the U.S. Green building Council. He says there’s less construction waste and greater efficiency, and because materials aren’t exposed to bad weather, better quality.

There’s no national data on the number of modular homes certified as green. Dozens of certification programs exist nationwide, many of which award points for factory-built modules and panels.

Modular building may be catching the green wave, but it’s hardly new.

In 1908, Sears Roebuck & Co. began selling kit homes through its catalog.

The new green homes vary widely in style and cost, says Sheri Koones, author of Prefabulous, a book about factory-built houses.

For an upcoming book, she profiled 25 eco-friendly homes nationwide that were partly or entirely prefabricated.

“Most of the houses do not have geothermal power or solar panels,” she says.

Rather, they rely on well-insulated walls and windows and site orientation to maximize sunlight, as well as efficient appliances, dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets.

“You can build green without going to great expense,” Koones says. “That’s important for people to realize.”

McCarthy says her Blu Homes, which use spray-foam insulation and a high-efficiency HVAC system, cost a total of $135 to $175 a square foot.

Kaufmann’s stylish homes cost at least $250 a square foot. “It really takes the biggest developers” to make the homes affordable, says Kaufmann, who plans to sell her designs.

She says developers are interested in green modular because the homes are finished quickly and offer consumers lower energy bills.

Kaufmann says she and her husband have a zero energy bill for their three-bedroom, 1,560-square-foot home near Oakland, which has solar rooftop panels.

“We use one-third the water, sometimes less, than the average household,” she says. “We produce twice as much energy as we use.”

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