Blu Homes Unfolds A Reinvention of Modular Housing
I just can't stop watching this video.
I first heard of Blu Homes when they purchased the intellectual assets of Michelle Kaufmann back at the end of September. There was not a lot of information about them at the time, and having been in the modular home business and I had a lot of questions. I recently interviewed Maura McCarthy, co-founder and VP of Sales and Marketing, and got a lot of answers.
The Limitations of Modular
Modular homes are built out of boxes that cannot exceed approved dimensions for transport on public roads, usually up to 16' wide x 62' long. This creates real design limitations. Transporting such a big box is very expensive; one needs special permits and escort vehicles, often even police escort. Once on site, the modules are place on a foundation and "stitched" together- finishing the flooring, wiring them to the panels, patching the drywall between modules. This can take up to two weeks per module.
To reduce shipping costs, manufacturers sometimes do panellized versions, where instead of shipping so much air, they build the house as panels and put them together on site. This requires most of the drywalling to be done on site, and takes a lot longer to finish on site.
Because of the costs of shipping the big boxes and the time it took to finish, modular housing developed as a local business, with most manufacturers never going further than a five hundred mile radius from the factory; it just cost too much money. Green modern design is a small niche in the housing market, so you have to be able to travel; there are too few people in the usual range to make it a viable business.
Modular Goes Origami
Blu Homes are a very clever hybrid between modular homes and panellized homes, a partial box with folding panels that beat the problems that plague the traditional industry.
The idea of the folding, easy-to-transport home isn't new; Carl Koch designed the first Acorn home to fold up, back in 1947. But they gave up on the idea because they couldn't work around the building code problems. Blu Homes has, by using conventional materials and assemblies. There are some real advantages:
1) They fold. This is the single biggest advance in the industry in years. Get down to 8'-6 wide and transport is as cheap as hauling a transport trailer, meaning the homes can go anywhere in the country. Getting up to 20' wide inside changes opens up the opportunities for design.
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This plan has a 22'x20' open plan living, dining and kitchen. In a traditional modular home it would be made from two pieces with a double truss between the two. And the ability to get two bedrooms of reasonable size at one end of one module- never been done before, period.
2) They have steel frames. Most modular homes are built of simple wood frame construction and are stitched together on site by carpenters, who have to spend a lot of time levering them into exact alignment and nailing them together. Blu Homes' frames are predrilled and bolted together for perfect (and fast) alignment.
The steel frames are also designed for point loading, so that instead of continuous foundations, Blu Homes is using a TreeHugger favourite: helical piles, which are just screwed into the ground and can just as easily be screwed out.
3) They are finished much faster. Because of ability to fold and unfold the house, the house is fully assembled, then dissassembled; traditional modular homes are never put together until they reach the site. So if a piece of drywall is going to cover a joint, they don't send a sheet of the stuff, but cut everything exactly to size before it goes. This means that you don't need crews hanging around for weeks, but can use your own forces, get in and get out quickly. Controlling subcontractors from another part of the country is not easy.
Although their early drawings here are a bit sketchuppy, they are now working with Catia, used for cars and airplanes, CAD-Cam software where they build the whole house in the computer before they build the real thing.
Combine this with high-efficiency R45 walls, low VOC finishes, heat recovery, gray water collection and generally green materials, and it is a very different product from your typical modular home.
The plans are straightforward and modern, two offset boxes in this plan; the elevations are not quite there yet. But that's why they have Michelle Kaufmann on board, and I have no doubt that she will tweak them into shape.
Just to shortcut the comments, we all know that a single family house in the country is not the greenest way to live. And no, these do not cost fifty bucks a square foot that everyone thinks prefab should (I will be showing that tomorrow.)
But building it in a factory still reduces waste, saves a huge amount of energy during construction, less disruption of the landscape during site construction (especially on helical piles) and makes good architectural design affordable for the single family home. Blu Homes really has advanced the art.
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