Ever since the early days of the 20th century, when Americans started buying kit bungalows and farmhouses from the Sears Roebuck catalog, the lure of instant housing has been huge. But in recent decades, “prefab” got a bad name, associated with shoddy construction, cookie-cutter design, and cheap, synthetic, environmentally questionable materials.
Now it’s time to forget all that and say hello to the rapidly growing world of prefab and modular green homes, one where you can pick a LEED platinum or zero-energy house off a website and have it installed on your lot of choice in a matter of months. If this sounds appealing, you’re in good company. Market research firm Freedonia reports 15 percent growth in the prefab business, and Global Industry Analysts finds even greater momentum in China, Japan, Europe, and Latin America.
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One reason: Offsite construction has considerable advantages in reduced waste, build speed, and quality control. Then there’s the increasingly important factor of green building codes. Thanks to innovations such as solar energy shingles, spray-in airtight insulation, and energy-efficient windows and doors, many new prefab houses satisfy those requirements out of the box. This spring Australian firm ArchiBlox unveiled a new modular home so efficient that it qualifies as the “world’s first carbon-positive prefab house.”
Here are seven prebuilt über-green modular houses that let you live light on the land without sacrificing classy design, a healthy indoor environment, or all the bells and whistles of a high-end home.
1. Blu Homes
At the luxe end of the spectrum is Blu Homes, darling of the Sunset, Fast Company, and Wired magazine crowd. As displayed at the company’s headquarters in Vallejo, California, and the Silicon Valley Design Center, its signature model, the Breezehouse, lives up to its name with 15-foot ceilings, 16-foot-wide glass doors, wraparound decks, and a wide-open layout.
Watching a Blu Home being set up is quite something. It unfolds before your eyes like an origami box thanks to the company’s proprietary technology, which allows even the largest home to be wheeled down the highway on a standard truck.
All Blu Homes models, which range from 633 to 3,600 feet, are net-zero energy-efficient and built as much as possible with toxin-free materials. Then there are the motion-sensing faucets, electric car chargers, and state-of-the-art air-filtration system to remove allergens. And with their recycled steel frames, Blu Houses are designed to withstand pretty much any disaster-prone weather that climate change can throw at us.
Think of IdeaBox as the Ikea of prefab houses. The company refers to the iconic furnishings company in its mission statement, which makes designing your dream house sound as easy and fun as playing with Legos. Having celebrated its 20th birthday, IdeaBox has been in the prefab eco-box biz longer than most; it started as a tiny-house designer in Salem, Oregon. Today the customizable full-size Confluence line offers three models, including the latest c.3, which has grown to offer three bedrooms and up to three baths. The design options for IdeaBox homes are extensive, but sustainable bamboo flooring, VOC-free paint, and energy-efficient construction are universal.
3. Method Homes
Announced during last year’s Modernism week in Palm Springs, California, Method Homes’ new Paradigm prefab home promises net-zero water and energy use through an extensive array of strategies, from airtight construction and high-efficiency heating and cooling to passive solar. There are three Paradigm models, ranging from a studio at 656 square feet to a roomy three-bedroom at 1,868 square feet, with plenty of design options thanks to the flexibility of the customizable modular block structure. Based in Seattle, Method Homes recently added a New York office and a Pennsylvania manufacturing center to service the East Coast. Method offers net-zero sustainability in many of the company’s other designs as well, and since its founding in 2012 it has won numerous green building accolades, including a 2013 Green Washington award.
4. Hive Modular
If anything, the three lines of modular homes available from Minneapolis-based Hive Modular are even more modern in design than Method’s Paradigm, a grid of sleek rectangles that can be configured to sit neatly on a narrow urban lot or spread across a sprawling suburban plot. Spray-in foam insulation, radiant heat flooring, on-demand water heaters, and a host of other energy-saving solutions make Hive homes über-efficient. Instead of copper pipes, plumbing consists of corrosion-resistant PEX tubing, which can be installed without lead solder and doesn’t lose heat as fast as copper. Hive works with buyers to achieve whatever level of sustainability they desire, including obtaining LEED certification. The company also installs solar, geothermal, and rainwater collection systems on demand.
In April, Los Angeles–based LivingHomes launched its own six-point sustainable home standard, known as Z6, based on the six “Zs”: zero energy, zero emissions, zero carbon, zero water, zero waste, and zero ignorance. The cleverly packaged designation defines the company’s C6 line, which meets the standards for LEED platinum certification as well as the EPA’s Energy Star standard. But that’s just the start of the offerings from LivingHomes, which has more than a dozen models, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet. Two of them are named for the company’s founding designers, noted West Coast architects Ray Kappe and Kieran Timberlake. If the C6 isn’t for you, the company maintains a detailed sustainability scorecard based on the LEED system, allowing you to design your home to meet the LEED silver, gold, or platinum standard.
6. Cabin Fever
This Florida-based small-house company goes a step further than many of the eco-house prefab builders in offering an “off-the-grid” package that includes a rainwater catchment roof and storage cistern, composting toilets, solar electricity and water heating, and even a windmill and housing for a battery bank. While Cabin Fever’s affordable housing options are not built to green specifications, upgrades are available for more efficient insulation, radiant floor heating, and other green options.
7. Nationwide Homes
While most of Nationwide Homes’ Eco-Cottages are sized primarily for short-term getaways or for use as secondary structures, the largest model, the 513-square-foot Osprey, could work as a full-time home, particularly in a warm climate, where the wraparound porch would extend the living space. At 475 feet, several other of the one-bedroom, one-bath Eco-Cottages are popular with tiny-house minimalists. The modular units can also be doubled up to create a larger home. Innovative use of high-tech foam insulation in the walls, floors, and ceilings and Energy Star windows keep Eco-Cottages cool in summer and warm in winter, while the roofs have been designed to be solar-ready for energy self-sufficiency. The homes come prefitted with tankless water heaters, energy-efficient appliances, and low-flow water systems, and the paints and other finishes are VOC-free.