Thoughts on Clayton's I-House

ihouse rendering image
Migrated Image

image via the Clayton i-house blog

When Warren Buffet bought Clayton Homes in 2003 I was still working in the prefab biz; Punching well above my weight, I sent him an email about the business case for a mobile home manufacturer doing well designed green housing. I don't know if he got it; I never got an answer. While I was munching on my response to Preston's post on Clayton's new i-house, Brian posted about it on TreeHugger; I will try and add some impressions about its implications.

ihouse plan image

image via the Clayton i-house blog
1) Clayton is the biggest mobile home builder in the world. This is great news for green design. If they really buy into it and go for green quality as well as green looks, and insulate the walls and double glaze the windows, this will mean a dramatic improvement in the efficiency and quality of mobile homes. If they are just superficially going for the image and pasting some rainwater collection and solar panels on the roof, it will do nobody any good. We need a build quality and a material selection that matches the design; that will mean thicker walls, less vinyl, no formaldehyde and a slower production line- you can't mix this in with your normal production and get the quality you need to be green.


Michelle Kaufmann's entry in the park model lottery: MK Lotus
2) Mobile homes go into mobile home parks. They do not go into urban lots, they go into places that normally do not attract a typically green audience. When faced with the choice between a 100K green design and a more traditional one at half the price, they do not choose green. If Clayton is offering a green 100K mobile home, then they think that the mobile home park market is ready to expand beyond its traditionally blue collar base.

showhouse photo

Jennifer Siegel's Showhouse, which I am certain was a model for her Takehome series.
3) Clayton doesn't sell to the public, it sells to dealers. And dealers are very traditional and resistant to change; they know their market. To sell high end, green mobile homes will probably mean establishing a new dealer network, much like Toyota did with Lexus, to differentiate the product. This is no small investment, and is a far harder nut to crack than just designing a unit.


Christopher Deam's Perfect Cottage from Breckinridge, their attempt at the modern green trailer, via Mocoloco
4) Clayton is either spectacularly well-timed or will spectacularly fail with this. There is a huge cohort of young people who can no longer get mortgages for traditional housing; the trailer park model of owning your home while renting your land works in that milieu. There is a reason trailer parks worked for people without assets or big incomes: the cost of entry is significantly lower.


Sustain minihome 12-wide on TreeHugger

On the other hand, when I was in the biz and tried to show an expensive green trailer design to people who were used to the trailer park world, they thought I was nuts. When I tried to show people who understood green design and really wanted to live in it and tried to explain the virtues of the trailer park model of land tenure, they thought I was nuts. In the end there was a serious disconnect between those who understood the building and those who understood the ownership model that was insurmountable. That is why I write for TreeHugger instead of selling modern prefab trailers and mobile homes.

But there are lots of architects and developers trying to build upscale green trailer parks now, and perhaps when a company with the resources of Clayton jumps in it will finally happen. As Warren Buffet noted earlier this year, people buy mobile homes for shelter, not speculation, and are less likely to walk away just because the market has dropped.

"If people purchased a house with the idea that it would appreciate substantially in the next few years, they may elect not to make their payment," Buffett wrote. "Since our borrowers did not come in with those expectations, they will quit making payments only when they can't make the payment."

It may just be show bait, something to bring in the crowds and give the media something to talk about. Or they may actually be offering a sustainable, efficient and comfortable machine for green living. If they are, Good luck and Godspeed.