A great article on Tree Hugger last week brought some new light on the Prefab home builder Blu Homes. Blu has a very unique and possibly one of a kind folding modular home building system that solves some of the problems that modular housing faces. Specifically, Blu Homes are designed so that in transport mode they are more compact than typical modular systems from other companies (mostly manufactured home builders), plus they are are also able to squeeze more home into the same module since each unit unfolds into a larger single unit.
Now this company has been around for some time and they are one of the few designer/builders of modular homes that also work with home owners through the install process. This gives them several advantages over more typical arrangements in the modular home field, and makes it possible to improve upon subsequent designs, as feed back from install is direct to the builder/designer.
I’ve been touting Blu as if I’m a big fan of modular, and while my heart is with the concept, I’m not sure that I believe it will solve every problem that the first modular home proponets had dreamed of. As Lloyd Alter, with Tree Hugger wrote in his post,
“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.”
Mr. Alter is spot on here. The goal posts have moved and unfortunately most of the dreamers behind modular housing have missed the target by a mile. If there are any “affordable” modular homes in the market today, it’s likely they’re also called double wides or mobile homes. That’s not to say that there are plenty of well build manufacture homes out there. But the idea of modular homes, in my opinion, should be more than a modern looking Palm Harbor home.
The promise of affordability so often espoused by prefab converts has never been realized. Advocates point to the Katrina Cottage, Clayton I-Homes and the dozens of university competition homes that never reach the market. And that’s the problem, these examples never reach a point of saturation in the market place. Until a home design becomes “popular” with the masses (me included) then the promise of low cost through mechanization and standardization will never occur for modular homes.
The other problem I see, and I’ll give Mr. Alter kudos for pointing this out in other blog posts, is that currently the market for modern and green modular is driven by generally wealthy or at least upper middle class home buyers. This means that what ends up on the market (i.e. the 20+ I Homes that have been built since 2008) are loaded with high cost finishes and features, and provide little promise to the rest of the affordable market.
I’m sure by now I really do sound like a “Debbie Downer” on affordable modular homes, but I do believe in their promise. Maybe what we really need though is less focus on making modular affordable modern looking homes, and more focus on making modular affordable homes that are energy efficient and green.