Pre-fab houses are better, greener than ever

May 14, 2009 4:56:29 PM PDT
What Henry Ford did for the auto industry, an Oakland architect is trying to do for the housing industry.

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Houses made on assembly lines are turning up all over the Bay Area and they are smaller - and much greener - than the average new home.

The days of McMansions appear to be over. The average size of new homes under construction is down.

Consumers want more from less - smaller houses that feel big - and are easy on the environment.

Bay Area architect Michelle Kaufmann says that is a perfect recipe for pre-fab houses.

"A home that's actually made in a factory, as a series of modules, shipped to a site, attached to a permanent foundation, and it allows people to have a green home with a lot less waste, with a lot more quality control, and a lot less time," Kaufmann said.

Kaufmann is an emerging star in the new world of pre-fab homes. Her houses are a far cry from the ones people might find in a mobile home park.

One of the big advantages to this kind of house is it cuts down on waste dumped in the landfill.

"Through building in a factory, we can actually achieve 50 to 75 percent less waste by having the precision cutting, by having the storage capacity and reusing materials," Kaufmann said.

Almost 20 percent of California's waste comes from construction, making that a big savings.

Kaufmann has built close to 20 modular homes in the Bay Area.

Kay Wilson just bought a single-module home for her lot in St. Helena.

"I love how it showed up and we unwrapped it and it was beautiful, and we didn't have construction going on for days and days and months, years," Wilson said.

The house is about 760 square feet, but it feels larger because of all the windows and clever design features.

The home comes filled with environmentally-friendly features. All the wood is from sustainable sources; a bathroom sink is made of concrete with recycled porcelain from old sinks and shower tiles are made of recycled glass.

Wilson first saw a model of the home a couple of years ago, when it was trucked in for display in front of San Francisco City Hall during a green building conference.

"I saw this house and I walked in, and just like, my knees went weak," Wilson said.

The homes arrive with most of the fixtures and appliances already installed.

There are solar panels on the roof. The house is so efficient, Wilson has no electricity bill.

Kaufmann and her husband still live in the first pre-fab house she created five years ago. It is made of two modules joined together; 1,300 square feet for the main house with another module added to create an office.

The home has two bedrooms and two baths. Kaufmann says one key to making a small space feel large is eliminating clutter.

"We designed this storage bar where we have all of our objects behind it, and we can use it during the day, but when we want a visually quiet moment, or when people come over, we close it and voila, we've cleaned house," Kaufmann said.

The house is in Novato and there is no air conditioning, but it still stays cool. The fan is powered by solar energy and windows near the ceiling let hot air escape. Sliding wooden panels create shade, but still allow the breeze to circulate.

The pre-fab homes can be fitted with a range of energy and water saving fixtures. Kaufmann's house uses only one-third the water of the average home in Novato.

She believes her modular homes will encourage people to live green because someone else has done all the homework.

"It can't take any more time than a non-green home, it can't cost any more than a non-green home, and it needs to be easy," Kaufmann said.

Not including the site, the pre-fab homes average about $160 per square foot, about the same as a traditional home of similar quality.

Related Link:
More information about Michelle Kaufmann's Prefab homes

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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