Prefab Green Homes Are The Eco Friendly Answer For Chic Modern Living

by Nicola Temple on October 25, 2011

I own a little property, just under an acre, on a little island in the Pacific Northwest. It’s only accessible by water and there is no building on it…yet. The dream is that it will one day be my writing retreat or a family vacation home…and for that I will need a building. I’ve done some research, and I’m giving prefab green homes some serious consideration.  Here’s what I’ve learned…

What is a prefab green home?

Prefab is short for prefabricated, meaning they are constructed in a factory off-site.  Prefab home designers usually offer several tried-and -true preconfigured models, but most will also do custom designs.

The homes are constructed and transported in a number of modules or pieces that can be quickly assembled on-site.

Prefab green homes differentiate themselves from other prefabs in that they seek to reduce the ecological footprint of the building. The designs have an environmental ethos that flows through the entire life-span of the building from design, to materials, to operation, through to its final deconstruction. Wherever possible the designs seek to reduce energy and water use and incorporate recycled, sustainable and recyclable materials, all while creating healthy living spaces for the homeowner.

prefab green homes

Prefab green homes don't have to all look like shipping containers pieced together. This is the Kohler LivingHome that was exhibited at the TED conference in Long Beach. CC image courtesy of Bill Holsinger-Robinson on Flickr.

Eight pros for prefab green homes…

  • The site can be prepared while the home is being built off-site. This reduces the overall construction time of the home.
  • There are no delays in building as a result of weather as they are constructed in a factory.
  • Since the building is constructed off-site, there is less disturbance to the actual building site.
  • Some manufacturers claim that because the homes are built to be moved, they have sturdier construction.
  • Prefab homes are generally more affordable due to the factory-style construction, though a custom design would likely be more.
  • This style home can be advantageous in remote areas where access is difficult and labor is in short supply. For instance, the components could be barged into my property and assembled in a day versus the cost of trying to get builders to a remote island to build on-site.
  • There is often less waste associated with prefab homes as the manufacturers have built to specific plans many times and know exactly the amount of material required.
  • Modular homes, in particular, are often more flexible in terms of making future additions, giving the design room to grow.

…and  a couple cons.

  • Be sure to factor in all the costs when budgeting. Transportation and site preparation costs can quickly increase the overall budget of a prefab home, so don’t be lured in by the price tag on the design alone.
  • There seems to be some concern out there that stricter mortgage lending rules make purchasing prefab homes more challenging. However I couldn’t find any evidence of this from a financial institution. Best bet is to check this out with your mortgage broker before going too far.

How do prefab homes reduce their ecological footprint?

Prefab homes work with the same principles as any green home design and construction. They consider sustainability at every stage of the process.

Design: Eco-friendly designs are often smaller than sprawling house plans that can be real energy drains. They take into account the natural landscape, taking advantage of natural lighting, prevailing winds, and drainage. Prefab designs don’t have to be custom designed to take advantage of the natural landscape, many designs have some built-in flexibility for this and positioning on the lot makes a big difference.

The design should not only account for the current needs of the homeowners, but also future needs. Is it easy to expand for a family? Could a portion be sectioned off in future to make a separate in-law or out-law suite (referring to ageing parents and adult kids that won’t leave, respectively)?

Materials: There are many eco-friendly building materials on the market these days: cork and bamboo flooring, recycled glass and porcelain countertops, and reclaimed wood. Green homes recycle as many materials as possible and consider the recyclability of these materials at the end of the life of the home.

Reduced energy and water usage: Green homes are outfitted with water-saving fixtures, such as low-flow faucets and dual-flush toilets. There is usually the option for grey water usage and rain storage. The home should easily hook into solar or wind energy, even if it is something that won’t be added until later on down the road. Energy-saving appliances and energy-efficient lighting would also be standard.

In the video below, Steve Glenn, CEO of Living Homes gives a tour of their LEED platinum certified prefab green home. It is the first residence in the US to ever receive this level of certification from the US Green Building Council. He covers some of the ways they have made this home sustainable.

What’s the cost?

The cost of a prefab green home is highly variable depending on the design you choose, the construction materials selected, and the final finishing fixtures. They seem to range anywhere from $160 to $500 per square foot.

Generally, the manufacturer will be able to provide a very accurate estimate of the cost of the building itself once all decisions have been made about materials and fixtures.  This is the advantage of using a factory design…they’ve done it before and they know exactly how much things cost and how long it will take to build.

The two areas where there will be more unknowns in terms of cost are in the transportation and site costs, which are almost always additional to the cost of the build. Transportation will depend on accessibility of the site and distance from the point of manufacture. For instance, if a crane is needed to get the modules into place, this will cause transportation costs to soar. Preparation of the building site will depend on the ground and the type of foundations that are required.

Where do I start looking?

Here are three prefab green home designers that I felt had informative websites and an established record of award-winning designs: Living HomesMichelle Kaufmann Studios, and Bamboo Living. Obviously there are some high-end products on here. The Kohler LivingHome in the video, for example, starts at a cool half million. However, there are designs to meet tighter budgets. I know I will be looking on the lower end of the scale when the time comes to build on my property. However, in the meantime…it’s nice to dream.

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