Eco-friendly house-in-a-box


I guess good things don’t always come in small packages.

It’s all the rage these days and it comes in – and out – of a box, delivered neatly to your doorstep. Well, technically, it gets delivered to your plot of land since you wouldn’t have a door yet. I’m talking about prefabricated houses, specifically the subspecies designed to use energy and space wisely.

This video from Blu Homes, a Massachusetts-based company that builds green prefab homes and ships them nationwide, shows the unfolding process of one of their prefabs (sped up just a tad):

Blu Homes video

It’s fascinating to see the unfolding process in action, but the math is also impressive. According to the US Energy Information Administration, residential consumption is responsible for more than 20% of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion — a major chunk of our overall footprint. Retrofits can be expensive as well as resource-intensive (replace your single-pane windows and you’ve improved your efficiency but you’ve also necessitated the manufacture and distribution of a duplicate set of windows for your house), but greening from the start can be considerably more cost-effective.

Blu Homes claims that its homes can save homeowners 50-70% in energy costs compared to an average, similarly-sized home. Some of these savings derive from the company’s choice of materials, but some of it also comes from the ability to orient the house on a building site so as to maximize passive heating and cooling benefits. This is sensible and clever and not at all common practice for mass-production housing tracts. I suspect even custom homes are rarely oriented specifically for their energy efficiency potential.

So what’s the catch?

Well, first and foremost you have to have open land upon which to place your prefab home. This alone puts them out of practical reach of many people. Indeed, a common marketing bent for prefab eco-homes is to use them as an addition to an existing home, a vacation home, or a guest cottage – all creating a larger personal footprint instead of a smaller one. Also, as Grist reports, pre-fab eco-homes aren’t necessarily inexpensive and they aren’t necessarily compact. For $109,000 though, this place looks pretty spectacular to me.

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  1. Mike O'Brien

    It’s always great to see innovators thinking hard about rationalizing the home design and construction process, although I really wonder if detached single-family houses have much of a future. Maybe we ought to be thinking about highly replicable 4-unit and up buildings, and shared dwellings that reduce costs by providing common facilities that enable small groups to live together.
    My guess is that the $109K quoted is only for the house and did not include the raw land or the site infrastructure costs for driveway or garage; electric, water and sewer connections, and permits. I’d be surprised if the total cost was all that much of a bargain, compared to a similar-size site-built house. The company’s web site says this houses starts at $295K, so something was left out of the $109K quote.
    Personally I would like to see interchangeable components that could be assembled using mechanical fasteners so a house could be built and later disassembled and all the parts would be completely reusable. The one-off house that ends up in a landfill at the end of its service life is a big waste of resources and labor.

  2. LunaLady

    Great idea, beautiful homes, but they’re for the RICH……check out the Cal-Earth or Earthship homes for more affordable living. When are we going to develop homes for the poorer people in this country, which now includes most of us????

  3. Maureen

    Having an entire HOME shipped across country instead of having a new set of windows shipped (to upgrade an existing house) does not sound very eco-friendly to me. Terrapass, you are losing your credibility with me. You are appearing more and more to simply be a marketing vehicle for your big business clients.

  4. Julia

    Maureen, I disagree with your comparison because first, it’s not just about shipping. I’m neither a homeowner nor an expert on prefab homes, but I think there’s a strong argument to be made about the fact that homes built off-site result in far less waste than building on-site. Prefab allows for constructing mass quantities of sections of a house in a controlled factory environment with sophisticated computer technology – to me, it makes logical sense that this would be far less wasteful of a process (isn’t that the beauty of economies of scale?). You certainly don’t have to take my word on it; read what the EPA has to say.
    Second, my understanding is that the kinds of retrofits that would be needed to make a home LEEDS certified can be extraordinarily expensive (hence why many people don’t do them today). So, I don’t think a “new set of windows” is comparable to building a new home from scratch with building efficiencies in mind (but I could be wrong! And if so, then I’d be saving a lot of money.)
    It’d be great to see a full analysis of the carbon footprint involved here. But main point, there are a lot more things to consider than just the shipping aspect here.
    Finally, I’m not sure your “marketing vehicle” point is fair or has any basis here. None of the companies mentioned in this blog post or in the links supplied are TerraPass clients (or we would have specifically said so).