The promise of prefab was healthy, cost-effective, energy efficient homes designed by talented architects. Is it finally here?
Only a small percentage of homes in North America are designed by architects. It's expensive and time-consuming hiring someone to reinvent the wheel every time. That's why, before I worked for TreeHugger, I worked in the prefab housing industry, trying to promote the idea of making really good designs by talented architects available to everyone. It turned out that I was a better writer than a prefab salesman, so here I am today.Écohabitation is offering six designs "in order to combine smart design, high environmental performance and affordability into 'plug and play' option for homeowners or builders."
Kits Écohabitation gives access to homes designed by renowned local architecture firms. Each kit is reproduced multiple times, allowing a lower selling price. And the concept ensures the architects are properly compensated for their designs. The result: a variety of houses designed for our climate. The Kits Écohabitation are adapted to Québec’s Nordic climate. It brings a breath of fresh air to Québec’s housing sector.
They are not clear if all the houses are built to Passive House standard, but they are all very efficient: "Heating a house for less than $500 per year is a technical challenge. The shell of each of the Kits consume a third of heating needs compared to a comparable house, making extreme energy performance a standard."
The problem for many people is they do not really understand the issues. Even if they hire an architect, there is no guarantee that the architect understands them. Architecture is hard, and sustainable architecture is harder.
Passive house, window/floor ratio, radiant heating, hiring an architect or not? Individuals, and developers solve a thousand of questions in order for their projects to come to light. A real headache for the newbies!
The Kits make the whole process easier: the models are delivered fully sealed and watertight on the construction site and anchored to the foundations. When choosing the turnkey option, buyers can benefit from an affordable interior design with local and healthy (VOC-free) materials, thanks to economies of scale!
Of course, it is never as easy as it sounds. You still need to find land, obtain approvals, install services and foundations. That takes a lot of time and money, which is why going prefab is not about finding a bargain. But at least the buyer knows what they are getting, the design and construction gets better with every iteration, the quality control can be much better. This was always the promise of prefab.
And look who is behind it:
Écohabitation is a non-profit "facilitating the emergence of healthy, affordable, resources and energy efficient and sustainable housing, accessible to all." They have developed a terrific manifesto with 11 measures for sustainable development, google-translated from the French:
1. Perform life-cycle analyses. Enable housing stakeholders and policy makers to measure the environmental impacts of different choices
2. Curb urban sprawl. Reduce urban sprawl and related financial and environmental costs through actions at the provincial and municipal levels.
3. Facilitate development of accessory housing units. Increase the density in existing neighborhoods, facilitate access to property and provide an answer to the needs of Quebecers, including seniors who will be increasing in the coming years.
4. Reduce CRD Waste. Reduce the non-recyclable and non-recoverable waste generated by the Construction Renovation Demolition (CRD) sector over the life cycle of buildings.
5. Fund effective renovation. Provide access to financing for renovations that actually increase energy efficiency and encourage homeowners to complete work with long payback periods.
6. Reduce peak consumption. Reduce electricity consumption during winter peak periods to reduce massive imports of polluting and expensive energy.
7. Establish an energy rating.
8. Aim for a good seal of new homes.
9. Encourage hyper-efficient constructions.
10. Reduce indoor air pollutants in homes.
11. Put in place radon prevention / mitigation measures.
I am not sure if all these kits meet all the points of the manifesto, especially since many are one-off houses in the country and probably contribute to sprawl, but they are all highly efficient. This is an interesting organization, doing what we have needed for a long time: healthy, cost-effective, energy efficient homes.