Zeta Communities: Net Zero Energy Urban Prefabs That May Actually Work


Credit: Zeta Communities

It is a tough time to be in the prefab biz; your costs are pretty much fixed, while the conventional stickbuilding trades will work for food these days. It is tougher still to sell prefab wholesale to developers; they are not used to giving away any of the profits and can almost always do it cheaper by building it themselves.

But that isn't stopping Marc Porat and Zeta Communities from trying.
Zeta module in factory

Porat is also chairman of TreeHugger favourite Serious Windows, where they have been shopping for bankrupt vinyl window companies, upgrading the products to achieve greater energy efficiency, tossing in great public relations and positioning themselves for the economic recovery. It looks like they are applying the same strategy here.

The designs and construction technologies aren't revolutionary, but they all add up to serious energy savings, enough so that when they toss solar panels onto the roof they can achieve net zero energy, pumping into the grid as much as they take from it.

The San Francisco Chronicle did the drawing above, and describes the systems:

Energy-saving features include extra-thick windows, dense insulation, efficient appliances and a monitoring system that manages temperature and ventilation and tracks electricity use. Warmth in the house is used to heat incoming air, and recovered hot wastewater helps warm shower and sink water. Solar panels generate new energy.

Which is about the most confusing description I have ever read, but interpret to mean it has energy efficient Serious Windows, a lot of insulation, and a heat recovery ventilator.

CEO Naomi Porat was quoted by Michael Kanellos last year:

"We are 20 percent lower in price and take 80 percent less time."

Can this be true? I found this graph prepared by Zeta communities to be interesting; I used to say the same things when I was in the prefab industry. Alas, I found it to be a bit of wishful thinking. For a multi-family housing project I am not certain that you save much in design; architects already factor in repetition and there are additional engineering costs in doing prefab. Carrying costs are less because of the shorter construction times, but the savings vary according to interest rates, which are pretty low these days. The "buttoning up" or on-site finishing and tying the modules together always takes longer than anticipated. And construction costs? Right now, when there is so much unemployment in the construction industry, I really doubt it is cheaper to build in a factory, transport to site and place with a big expensive crane than it is to hire a bunch of guys with skilsaws and nail guns.

But what you do get without question is a better built, better sealed, more efficient unit; better quality control; reduced losses and damage due to theft and vandalism and a consistent product which will get better and cheaper with time and practice. When you factor in an economic turnaround, a need for significantly reduced energy consumption, and the high costs of construction in California, they may then be in the right place at the right time.


interior of unit

Zeta tells us:

Each of the two 1,540 square foot, zero lot line, live/work townhomes provide a ground floor work studio, 2-bedrooms, light-filled great rooms, decks and sustainable landscaping, in addition to one car parking garage. As a participant in the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America Research Program, ZETA is demonstrating an affordable solution to achieving net zero energy and LEED Platinum multifamily housing through advanced building energy systems and energy efficienct technologies.

The history of modern prefab is littered with the remains of companies that were undercapitalized, too advanced technically to be competitive, or too far from the market. These guys are building what appears to be well designed, relatively conventional modular housing with off-the-shelf technologies, with what appears to be the financial backing to make it through this recession and position itself for the recovery. They are avoiding the suburban and exurban market, the normal realm of the modular home and which is probably dead for the foreseeable future. They may be one of the few who actually get all of this right.

More at Zeta Communities

Tags: Architecture | California

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