Modular homes get chic, green makeover

A woman exits a prototype of a prefab

A woman exits a prototype of a prefab one-room “shotgun house” designed for flood-ravaged New Orleans, as part of an exhibit on the prefab movement called “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. (Credit: AP, 2008)

Early snow was no problem for Vanja and Milli Josifovski -- or their new South Lake Tahoe, Calif., prefab home.

With their three children, the couple relish the extra slope time.

"My husband was born on skis," Milli Josifovski said. "Our three kids are on the Heavenly (youth) ski team."

Instead of waiting for their house to be finished, they can spend that time having fun.

"After our house was delivered, it took 15 days for them to be completely done (with interior detailing)," she said. "It was incredibly fast."

Built by Blu Homes, their new four-bedroom house came with all the energy efficiency and chic "green" design they desired -- in a fraction of the time. Helping to keep the family warm in winter are radiant-heated bamboo floors and double-thick insulated walls.

"We custom-built our home in Los Gatos," Josifovski said. "It was three years of hell with constant overruns and overtime. I became so convinced that (modular homes) are the right thing, I joined the company after they installed our home."

As part of Blu Homes' fledgling California operation, Josifovski is spreading the green-prefab gospel. With a factory on Mare Island near Vacaville, the company has sold 35 homes in two years in Northern California.

Amid the state's slumping housing industry, the popularity of green modular homes is growing. Among their selling points: Energy (and money) savings come built in.

"We're the busiest we've ever been," said Steve Glenn, founder of LivingHomes.

His Santa Monica, Calif.-based company specializes in sustainable modular homes; 12 have been LEED Platinum-certified.

"Our typical customer is really interested in the environment," Glenn said. "(They're) people who really care about design, health and sustainability. They shop at Whole Foods and Ikea, but they couldn't find a home that respected their goals and ideals. That's why I started this company."

LivingHomes installed a 2,200-square-foot home in Newport Beach, Calif., that's typical of its earth-friendly ethos.

LEED Platinum-certified, the house features automatic ventilation, low-flow faucets and shower heads, dual-flush toilets and gray-water-ready plumbing, recycled composite decks, biocomposite wood siding, recycled glass tile, recycled steel, wheat-core doors, Greenguard quartz countertops, solar panels, high-performance windows, a tankless water heater, Energy Star-rated appliances and LED lighting. The paint and finishes are environmentally friendly.

All of those options were installed at the factory. Situated on a tiny lot, the house was delivered in four big pieces and assembled in five hours.

"Think of the modules like big Legos," Glenn said. "But they have to comply (with) all local building codes.

"Because the homes are built in a factory, there's less construction waste," he added. "There's also more quality control."

Green technology tends to cost more. But by factory-installing those options, the final price tag comes down. And as more people become interested, these sustainable options become more affordable.

"These are high-end homes," said Glenn, noting that LivingHomes' houses start at $139,000 and about $135 per square foot. "But the new development in our industry is that sustainability is more affordable."

Prefab homes have been looking good for a while.

"These kinds of homes started out very simple," explained author Sheri Koones, who has written four books devoted to prefabs including the new "Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid" (Abrams, $24.95, 240 pages). "About 10 to 12 years ago, they started getting really, really beautiful. The new thing that we're beginning to see is more energy efficiency as people are becoming more energy-conscious.

"If I was building a home today, I would never do it on site," she said. "(Modular homes) are one of the best-kept secrets in America."

Koones featured both the Josifovski house and the LivingHomes' Newport Beach home in her new book. But there also are Craftsman-style cottages, beach houses and mountain hideaways that look all custom, not modular, and operate with maximum energy efficiency.

"The economy is so poor, it makes everybody more conscious of financial issues," she said. "They don't want to be spending money on maintenance and heating and cooling. These features are a way to reduce energy use. People want to know they can be more energy independent."

The largest market for modular homes may be baby boomers who are looking for a modern easy-care but sustainable home for retirement.

"We've seen lots of clients in their 60s or early 70s," said Josifovski. "They certainly appreciate the time savings. They may have remodeled a house or built a home before. They want to move into an ultra-modern, high-tech home, and they can make it as high-tech as they want. It can be prewired with full-home automation. You can turn the heat on and off with your iPhone."

The speed of installation grabs many customers. Homes can be completed in the factory in a few months. Meanwhile, the home site is prepared and construction permits finalized. Then, installation seems almost instantaneous.

"There's an alien-spaceship appeal to things," said Isaac Lassiter, CEO of Cutting Edge Homes, which builds its modular units in a Woodland, Calif., factory. "When we deliver them, often people don't even realize there's a job site. Then, one day -- bam! A house appears."

In Aptos, Calif., Cutting Edge put up a dozen homes in one day, Lassiter said. Many of the company's homes are priced at $80 to $90 a square foot.

"People love the speed," he added. "You get a semi-custom built home with all energy-efficient extras, but cut way down on the build time. The people who buy our homes want a nice house, they want it green and to work in a real economy -- and they want it fast."

(Contact Debbie Arrington at darrington@sacbee.com)

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