Folding Prefab builder Blu Homes is in the news a lot recently, with a rave in Forbes Magazine written by Todd Woody, who used to write great environmental business news articles for Business 2.0. Many things about Blu Homes are transformational compared to normal modular construction, which is essentially wood frame construction broken up into modules with sizes set by road transport restrictions, and built in a factory instead of on the site.
Blu is different. Their folding technology solves the width and transport problem, and their computers! Oh, their computers. When I was in the modular biz, I would meet with a client, sketch a plan, fill out a finish schedule, grab the big pricing book and figure out a price, give the sketch to a draughtsman who would do working drawings that would be printed and given to carpenters who would build it. Many a mistake was made twixt client and completion, particularly with new modern designs.
At Blu, Todd describes a different process:
Blu architects draw the folding domiciles on a system called CATIA, made by Dassault Systèmes. Boeing uses the same program to design and stress-test airliners. When changes are made the algorithms make engineering adjustments, calculate the cost and send a bill of materials to the factory floor. Blu is rolling out a new interface that allows customers to view models in three dimensions and to preview thousands of options, from the location of the kitchen to the flanges in the Anderson windows.
We used to pitch prefab with the line that "you wouldn't build a car in a driveway, why would you build a house in a field?" But Maura McCarthy carries the idea to the next level, noting that the entire process is more automotive: "It feels much more like building a car than building a stick-built house."
Read the whole article in Forbes
Blu has also introduced a new model, the Lofthouse, that made me smile when I saw it. Again, when I was back in the prefab business and trying to promote smaller modern houses, I could never come even close to competing with the big dumb Southport model, taking four modules built to maximum dimensions and stacking them into a simple box and calling it "Colonial." It was so cheap and simple to build that a house I would design at half the size would cost as much. In the end I would often take this design and change the window proportions, the exterior, make it modern or whatever, because I could never beat the price, it was optimized for the system. At Blu, Maura says in a press release:
"The Lofthouse is a beautiful, precision-built green home that fits the architectural vernacular of traditional and historic communities," said Maura McCarthy, Blu Homes' co-founder and VP, sales and marketing. "The charming exterior of the traditional version of the Lofthouse is reminiscent of a New England barn-style home, complete with Colonial-style windows and shutters. The more modern version does away with shutters and expands the windows to provide an uninterrupted view and a true indoor/outdoor living experience."
Blu has only released renderings, but the website lists the floorplate as being 20'6" by 49'. I would not be surprised if that was pretty close to their most cost-efficient plate, enabling them to put this out the door at $175 per square foot.Those frugal New England Puritans knew exactly what they were doing when they designed those Colonials, getting the maximum square footage for the lowest possible price. Blu does too.
Has Blu "solved the problems of modern prefab"? They have certainly solved some of them. But many, like the economy and the environment, are beyond their control.
Unfortunately, the goalposts have moved in the decade since Allison Arieff wrote the book Prefab. Then, the vision of those working in green modern prefab was to make it affordable and accessible to a large market, to do for housing what IKEA did for furniture. Instead, it is generally being used to build expensive country homes on huge exurban lots for individual homeowners, and in an era of climate crisis, that's not solving a problem but is making it worse. The problem has changed, and it's bigger than Blu.
More on Blu Homes
Blu Homes' New Prefab Release is a Blast from the Past
Blu Homes Unfolds A Reinvention of Modular Housing