Can you see a green prefab home from where you live? Probably not, although the unending parade of new companies and designs might lead you to think otherwise. The sad truth is that we’re now in Year Two of the mortgage meltdown, so you probably aren’t seeing much new on your block except perhaps foreclosure signs. That’s part of why prefab hasn’t moved all that far beyond the museum, trade show and exhibit floors where so many designs play such a central role.
But there are other reasons, which are that certain flaws in the prefab business model are starting to come to light. Many companies have struggled to bring compelling designs into mass production. Supposedly short installation timelines are often drawn out by permitting and finish work. And low up-front pricing oftens end up much higher due to multiple factors: fees paid to designers and manufacturers, sitework and foundation construction, crane rental, finish work such as plumbing and electrical, and repair of damage done during shipping. This blog posting from Chad Ludeman on Jetson Greenprovides quite a bit more detail on these challenges.
Some prefab companies are beginning to listen to the critics. One in particular is aiming their business directly at the challenges above – Blu Homes, a relatively new entrant out of Boston. Blu offers attractive modern designs, but where they’re really focusing is on the “pain points” in the prefab process. They’re striving to deliver attractive, liveable green homes at reasonable prices for a completed home, not just for the modules themselves pre-installation. They’re focusing on new tools and techniques so that you know exactly how much your home will save you once you move in via reduced energy and water bills. And, perhaps most important, they’re striving to provide support from concept through permitting all the way through to move-in. They emphasize the process of designing and building a prefab home as much as the product.
I first found out about Blu (then unnamed) at the 2007 version of West Coast Green, where I met one of Blu’s co-founders, Maura McCarthy. I recently spoke to Maura and Blu’s VP of Product Development, Dennis Michaud. They filled me in on the latest with Blu and talked about when you might be able to find one near you.
How Did Blu Come to be? The founders of Blu, Maura McCarthy and Bill Haney, thought there was a major opportunity in the prefab market despite the large number of new entrants. Many design-focused prefab companies created beautiful, modern prefab homes, but they struggled to deliver the cost savings and convenience that are the underlying promise of the prefab model. Before settling on an approach, though, they hoped to understand more about what works and what doesn’t today. They traveled the world visiting with existing prefab companies, meeting with over 20 companies in Asia, Europe, Australia and the US. They then distilled the best elements they had observed into their business plan for Blu.
What Makes Blu Different? Blu has developed modern designs that incorporate the latest in green systems and materials. But where they’re really focusing is on reworking the entire process from design to move-in to keep costs, uncertainty and customer frustration to a minimum. They’re doing this by focusing on key points where things tend to get hung up. One key hangup is the foundation – most prefab homes require a standard foundation and all associated costs plus the extra cost of bringing a crane on-site to lift the modules into place. Together, these two aspects can add tens of thousands to the cost of a home. Blu is working on an innovative pier foundation system that allows home modules to be jacked into place rather than lifted via crane. The system is much faster to build and avoids the expense of cranes but maintains long-term strength and durability. This can cut $15K or more from the total price. And, Blu has designed the interiors of their homes with storage in mind so that some of the storage lost by eliminating a basement are made up in other ways.
Another example is Blu’s focus on securing every possible rebate for your new green home. A green prefab home often qualifies for thousands of dollars of tax incentives and rebates, but they’re offered by many different agencies and have different application processes. Blu builds this in up-front so that it’s all part of the standard process. You can see their large but growing list of available incentives here.
How Are Blu Homes Green? Blu Homes offer the latest in recycled and sustainable building materials and renewable energy systems standard or as options. According to Dennis, the core of Blu’s green approach is energy efficiency. They use different types of spray foam insulation to produce a highly insulated building shell, very high efficiency energy systems throughout, and energy monitoring down to the appliance level. They’ve developed a propietary modeling approach so that customers will know before they build how much a home will cost to operate and how much carbon and energy it’ll save, taking into account local climate, the home’s orientation, and local energy rates. Blu uses their modeling to situate a home to get the most out of local solar and wind resources for passive heating and cooling.
How and Where Can I Get One? Blu is launching their business in geographic clusters. The first two markets will be the Mountain West (focusing on Colorado and Utah) and the Northeast. They already have several homes under construction in these areas, and plan to build ten more in 2009. If you’re interested in a Blu Home, you can read more about the buying process here.