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Factory-built homes may be greener

Modular houses are built to higher standards and with less waste, proponents say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2008

Modular homes are transported in discrete sections by road to the site, where they are then assembled.

Joe Sohm/Newscom


Factory-built homes have a PR problem: Too often they conjure up the image of tiny, temporary dwellings that are poorly constructed and potentially dangerous.

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But that hasn’t stopped an intrepid group of architects and builders from pushing new ideas in what they call “modular” housing that they say are the way to a greener future for the building industry.

This summer, two exhibitions of modular houses – at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – are putting a spotlight on how off-site building techniques can shrink the carbon footprint of a new house.

Trailer parks have been associated with a low-cost way for the poor to put a roof over their heads. Last month the “FEMA trailers” distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans three years ago came under fire when high levels of the toxic chemical compound formaldehyde were detected in some of them.

Prefabricated houses have had a “checkered” history over the last 150 years, acknowledges Stephen Kieran, a founding partner of KieranTimberlake Associates in Philadelphia. His architectural firm is displaying its Cellophane House modular home as part of the MoMA exhibition “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” which runs through October.

The idea of housing arriving at the construction site at least partially prebuilt isn’t new. In the first half of the 20th century, Sears & Roebuck sold thousands of do-it-yourself home-building kits to Americans, with the lumber precut and nails included. Because standard components were mass-produced, costs were cut.

Today’s modular homes benefit even more from being built in a factory setting that includes computer-aided design and manufacturing techniques, proponents say. But many Americans still haven’t grasped how today’s product differs from the stereotypical mobile home, these designers say.

In the industry, trailers are referred to as “manufactured” housing. “Modular” homes are usually about 90 percent finished in the factory and shipped in discrete parts (usually limited in size to what can be transported on highways) that are then joined on the site. They can be of nearly any size or cost, from tiny cottages to mansions. They can look very similar to conventional site-built homes or have a distinctive appearance.

“People think that prefab is substandard because we have trailer homes,” says Michelle Kaufmann, founder and chairman of Michelle Kaufmann Designs in Oakland, Calif. Her firm is displaying an energy-efficient modular home as part of the MSI exhibition “Smart Homes” (on display through Jan. 4, 2009).

Factory-built homes make sense today as energy-saving and low environmental impact become more and more important features in a new home, designers say.

“We’re behind other countries that have really been embra­cing the benefits of off-site [building] technologies,” Ms. Kaufmann says. “The way that we’ve been building is so antiquated and so broken in many ways.” Building each home on site, she says, is “like asking for your car to be built in your driveway for you. It just doesn’t make any sense.... The technology is there, we just haven’t embraced it.”