The Low Down On Green Living
September 24th, 2007
Prefabricated, or modular, home construction is enjoying a renaissance in the booming green building market. Some people may think that prefab or modular building connotes cold uniformity, but in this newsletter we’ll introduce you to companies that are making this new breed of green prefab homes beautiful, comfortable, and most importantly very light on the planet! (when you’re done reading, visit this new article with more information about the latest prefab trends and products)
What is Prefab?
The basic principle of prefab construction is that sections of a home, or modules, are built in a controlled factory environment, transported to a project site upon completion, and then connected and placed onto a foundation. Depending on the complexity of the home, designers can employ anywhere from two to 50 structurally connected pieces.
Most often prefab is associated with highly modern design. Modern design is typically characterized by clean lines, strong forms, use of materials in their natural state, and little to no added decoration. Modular building allows modern design to be brought to mainstream markets because it generally reduces construction and design costs significantly when compared to a similar custom-built home. Recently, a much broader range of prefab home options has emerged, especially some of those designed using “green” building principles.
Why is Prefab Green?
The primary goal of building a green home is to reduce its environmental impact while also creating a healthy environment for occupants. Architects and builders do this by emphasizing energy efficiency, reducing fresh water use, selecting materials that are healthy and sustainable, and choosing sites that minimize environmental disturbance.
Prefab design & construction offers a number of unique opportunities to accomplish these goals. First, the control available in a factory environment allows the designer / builder to be very precise with material planning and use – there is very little waste left over when compared to standard construction techniques. Second, hard-to-find green materials can be bought in bulk and used over many projects, minimizing delays and ensuring that no “short cuts” are taken due to unavailable materials. Third, this bulk purchasing and the delivery of a small number of completed modules to the home site dramatically reduce pollution from transportation to and from the site. And finally, the disturbance of the home construction site can be minimized because there is no need to stage and store large amounts of material onsite for extended periods. A good prefab contractor might clear only the house footprint itself and enough room to deliver the completed modules.
In addition to being green, these elements also help to keep costs down and shorten the overall project timeline. Materials can be bought in bulk at attractive prices. Skilled craftsmen can be fully employed and can work on modules for many prefab homes at a time. And, the indoor construction process eliminates delays and damage due to weather conditions.
So, What Do Green Prefab Homes Look Like?
Green prefab homes come in all shapes and sizes. Smaller is better for the Wee House by Alchemy Architects. Alchemy offers a wide selection of green materials, technologies and styles in their prefab house line. They come in small “solitaire” units or in multi-module larger “companions” if you need more space. While Wee Homes arrive on site nearly ready to live in, the homeowner needs to get a contractor to complete the foundation, utility hookups and cabinetry. You’ll save time, money and dramatically lower your environmental impact with a dwelling like the Wee House.
Another beautiful example of the modern-style prefab home is Michelle Kaufmann Design’s (MKD) Sunset Breezehouse (pictured at the top of this article). Designed through a partnership between MKD and Sunset Magazine, the Breezehouse has a “BreezeSpace” at the center which is situated under a distinctive butterfly-shaped roof. This breezeway or porch allows you to “let the green in” to your main living and dining areas, blurring the boundary between interior and exterior and increasing your functional living space without building more walls and ceilings. The home is Energy Star certified and highly efficient, relying on open cell foam insulation and thorough caulking to eliminate air leakage. The Breezehouse also features water-saving plumbing fixtures, on-demand water heaters, and a mechanical ventilation system that is 30% more efficient than typical forced-air systems. It’s efficient and gorgeous.
Another innovative prefab design is the Solaleya Home. Solaleya homes actually rotate to track the sun in order to use passive solar energy for heating. This rotation is highly energy efficient, provides a constant change of scenery, and brings warming natural light into the living space. The structure is made of a central pillar and arches, giving the home excellent hurricane and earthquake resistance. It is also Energy Star rated and is truly the house of choice for anyone who follows the sun all year round.
One last example for those looking for a slightly less modern approach is the house pictured here from Bamboo Technologies in Hawaii. These green prefab homes are made almost entirely out of bamboo, one of the most sustainable of building materials. You can customize versions for any climate zone, so fear not if you don’t happen to live in the tropics! And, these homes are incredibly strong and stand up to both earthquakes and hurricanes. Although these homes are built far away, they are transported by ship, which is one of the less carbon-intensive methods of moving materials. The other environmental benefits of a bamboo structure certainly counter this one drawback.
How Can I Get A Prefab Home?
The easiest way to get a green prefab home is to call a design firm that specializes in prefab such as one of the ones mentioned above. Here are some of the other options in green prefab design:
- pieceHomes (Los Angeles, CA)
- Blu Homes (Boston, MA)
- Eco Structures (Maidsville, WV)
- Eco-Infill (Denver, CO)
- kitHAUS (CA)
- Hive Modular (Minneapolis, MN)
- Modular Homes, Inc. (Edison, NJ)
- h-haus (Santa Fe, NM)
To find more companies that create and build prefab homes, please visit our green prefab housing directory.
What If I’m Already Building a Home?
Some of us might want to have it both ways – the individuality of a custom home or the benefit of working with a trusted architect / builder, combined with the cost and environmental benefits of prefab approaches. If this is you, don’t fret – you can now find green prefab elements to employ in more customized designs. Some of these include:
- Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). SIPs are preconstructed wall and roof elements that combine insulation, structural elements and often channels for wiring & plumbing in one piece. They are much easier to assemble than typical walls, are very strong, and are incredibly energy efficient. Premier Building Systems is one of the leaders in this area, with over twenty years of experience.
- Precast, predesigned foundations. Check out the Oasis Foundation Wall System. Foundation, insulation, and interior walls combined into one piece, and installed in one day. And, you achieve indoor air quality and material efficiency savings too.
- Precast or prefabricated countertops. Several companies produce integrated counter and sink elements out of sustainable materials. Lithistone produces beautiful sink and countertop units out of materials that contain recycled content and require low energy use to make when compared to traditional cement-based products.
- Pre-packaged solar PV systems. A large portion of the cost of solar PV installations is labor. You can cut that significantly with a pre-packaged solar system from ReadySolar. Their “Solar in a Box” system comes with all of the needed components, ready to install.
And, last but not least, try to check out Modern Cabana’s line of green prefab accessory structures – perfect for that home office, guest suite or relaxation space in the back yard!
To explore some new products and services in the green prefab market, check out this new post.
Looking for something smaller? A prefab office, or a retreat cabin? Check out this post on small prefab (weefab) options.
Read an interview with the co-founders of pieceHomes, Jonathan and Mary Jo Davis.
If you are interested in building a custom green home, find a green builder near you.
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