A decade ago, architect designed prefab (preferably modern) was all the buzz, with Allison Arieff and Bryan Burkhart's book Prefab inspiring designers and the Dwell Home by Resolution 4 being seen everywhere. The prefab revolution got a big punch in the gut in the real estate crash; I declared it dead.
It wasn't. Through it all, firms like Anderson Anderson and Resolution 4 kept plugging away at it. Tedd Benson kept refining his systems and launched Unity Homes. Blu Homes exploded out of the gate with their ingenious folding designs. A lot of architects kept trying to change the model of service delivery, away from the expensive custom design that takes forever, to selling plans and prefabs.
Now Kaplan Thompson Architects, our Best of Green 2009 for their Bright Barn, has introduced the BrightBuilt Home, a line of house designs with modular versions built for them by Maine's Keiser Homes. The basic idea is the same: get well-resolved architect's designs without the cost and time of hiring your own; get the speed, quality and firm pricing of a factory built home. The twist here: they are designed to be healthy and net-zero, and there are some very interesting things going on with the designs.
I am not usually a fan of the net-zero concept, as defined by Bright Built Homes:
Net zero is, put simply, the process of end-using – or “netting” – zero fossil fuels. To achieve net zero, a home must have the ability to generate power (typically through photovoltaic solar cells), and must consume the equivalent or less of what it generates.
The problem is that, unlike standards like Passivhaus, it doesn't say anything about how a house is built. You could make a tent net-zero if you had enough photovoltaics to heat it. You have to look beyond the claim, at the specifications, and these are good; R-40 double-stud walls insulated with dense-pack cellulose; R-60 in the roof. It's not going to take a lot to keep this place warm.
They are healthy homes as well, with lots of ventilation, (almost every bedroom has cross-ventilation) low VOC finishes and adhesives, carefully sited to "utilize the advantages of natural day lighting, warmth from the sun and natural ventilation to minimize your reliance on energy-sucking light fixtures and completely eliminate that fossil-fuel gobbling furnace."
They are nice looking too, recognizing that traditional elements like sloping roofs, porches, pergolas, shading and overhangs work, resulting an a mix of modern design with traditional function. The amount of glazing is modest but well-placed. Their market is the Northeastern USA and the houses are designed for that climate; they break away from the convention that you can plunk the same house anywhere in the country.
All the usual green caveats apply. These houses are not cheap, especially since the price doesn't include land or services. They are not necessarily green; location matters and most of these get built on ex-urban lots with a long drive to the milk store.
But they are better, with sensible designs, high performance and a healthy environment at a speed and a price that beats conventional site-built construction. That's a step in the right direction. More at BrightBuilt Home.