Factory-Built Homes’ Plug and Play


Manufacturers refine the factory-built home to meet California’s stricter building code.


By Jon Chown

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]mong the stately, traditional homes on Donner Avenue near historic downtown Sonoma rests a far more modern structure: three semi-detached boxes, with slightly pitched roofs, cedar siding and big rectangular windows that start close to the roofline and reach nearly to the ground.

It’s loaded with environmentally friendly features, including cabinets made with sustainable woods, double-pane Andersen windows, Energy Star-rated appliances, dual-flush toilets, eco-friendly countertops and even eco-friendly paint. The home needs only some panels for the solar-ready roof to produce enough energy to power itself.

[quote]“Since I joined three years ago, our sales have grown more than 10 times.” Kaitlin Burek, sales director for Blu Homes Inc.[/quote]

The house was built in the new Vallejo factory of Blu Homes Inc. with a steel frame that allows for a patented folding technique. Workers delivered the prefabricated dwelling to the work site in sections and assembled it in days. Blu Homes’ founders, Maura McCarthy and Bill Haney, conceived the idea while at the Rhode Island School of Design. The result is a home so intriguing that people like Bill and Samantha Johnson, who live in Pismo Beach, drove their Toyota Prius nearly 300 miles to see it.

“It’s fantastic,” the couple said in unison.

The Bay Area is Blu’s biggest market, so it made good sense to move production from the company’s original Massachusetts factory in late 2011. The 250,000-square-foot Vallejo site can produce 500 homes a year.

It seems to be a good time to set up shop in California. After falling to a production low in 2011, the state’s single-family homebuilders are pushing back into action, led primarily by new production in Santa Clara County. Yet the California housing market of today isn’t simply following the sequence established before the Great Recession.

In April 2010, the state adopted the nation’s first green-homebuilding requirements. The new standards went into effect in January 2011, and become more stringent each year. The 2014 standards require 25 percent more efficiency than the 2011 baseline. By 2020, the California Energy Commission wants all new homes in the state built to a zero-energy threshold, meaning every house will produce as much energy as its occupants consume.

The leap is tantamount to moving from a Silver level to a Gold level in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, said Bob Raymer, senior engineer for the California Building Industry Association and an expert on the state building code. “In our analysis, the additional cost [per home] could range from $30,000 to $100,000,” he said.

LEED assigns points based on the sustainability of the site, water efficiency, energy use, indoor environmental quality, materials and resources used. Additional credit can be gained through innovation and design. There are 100 possible points. A score of 40 will certify a project as green; 50 points earns a Silver rating, 60 points a Gold, and 80 or more a Platinum rating. It generally takes a zero-energy home to earn Gold.

To builders, 2020 is right around the corner, Raymer said. As standards increase, the industry is faced with meeting the requirements and understanding how to market the more-expensive homes to the public, including the all-important first-time buyer.

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Photography courtesy of Blu Homes


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