Two years ago, when we last checked in on Blu Homes, a prefab specialist based in Waltham, Massachusetts, the company had purchased the assets of architect Michelle Kaufmann’s mkDesigns, which included modular-home designs marketed as Glidehouse, mkLotus, and Sunset Breezehouse.
Glidehouse and Breezehouse are now among the seven Blu Homes models that can be customized via computer program to meet the client’s needs, built in the company’s factory in Springfield, folded up to fit on a semitrailer, and shipped to the site. Setup and finish work take about a week.
A story about the company’s design and manufacturing processes – and the ambitions of Blu Homes’ co-founders, Bill Haney and Maura McCarthy – recently posted to the Forbes magazine website. The story’s author, Todd Woody, also posted a follow-up item, in his Forbes Tech column, elaborating on the vision of the owners and the challenges they face in trying to make their way in the tiny prefab sector.
Invoking an innovator
Haney and McCarthy say they aim to take an “Apple approach” to the business by offering compelling designs that clients can customize with the help of CATIA (computer aided three-dimensional interactive application) modeling software. CATIA presents 3D images of suggested modifications, as well as their cost, giving both the client and Blu relatively tight control over the process and confidence in the eventual outcome.
The company seems to have enough backing, including about $25 million raised from investors, to keep operating in this difficult market, and is even forging ahead with plans to open a factory north of San Francisco.
Haney and McCarthy told Forbes that the company has sold 28 homes so far, has orders for 42, and would be in the black if the annual pace of orders and production reaches 50 – a goal the company should hit in 2013, according to McCarthy. At least one observer told Forbes prefab in general is a long way from economic stability, the sector is thinly populated with companies such as Clayton Homes’ i-House and Zeta Communities, both of which are still plugging along.
Blu Homes prices start at $95,000 for a shell of the 18×24-ft. version of company’s Blu | Origin model and go to about $500,000, excluding land, permitting, and siting costs.
The homes’ general specifications include R-38 structural-insulated-panel (SIP) roofs, exterior walls insulated to R-28, and floors insulated to R-32. Roofs are topped with standing-seam metal roofing. (Click here for a pdf of the specification guide.) The company offers a variety of HVAC options, depending on the model, including hydronic heating and minisplit heat pumps, although all models feature a Venmar heat-recovery ventilator (HRV).
Airtightness ranges from 6.0 to 4.0 air changes per hour at 50 pascals pressure difference, says Colleen Barry, Blu Homes’ director of marketing, who adds that the overall energy efficiency of the company’s homes is twice that of a comparable structure built to code. Blu Homes does not currently offer an air-sealing upgrade, Barry says, but it is an option the company is considering as its product line evolves.
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i am struggling with the congruency of blower door tests you'd expect to see on existing buildings and 'energy efficiency'. this seems like it should be a relatively easy fix - especially given that it's prefabricated. is this a design flaw or just a simple oversight?
because i just don't see how this quote, 'overall energy efficiency of the company's homes is twice that of a comparable structure built to code', squares with those numbers. especially as it wouldn't meet WA state energy code w/ a 6.0ACH50 blower door test...
Volume vs. value
I agree with you, Mike.
I notice a parallel between information found in this post and the experience of growing our firm.
We offer pre fab homes that can be modern in style. For prices that are similar to those offered by Blu, one can buy a truly super-energy-efficient home; a home that is designed and constructed to meet the Passive House standard. Such a home will be dramatically more air tight, with an air sealing measure of 0.6 ACH50 – one tenth of the leakage being discussed in this post.
The parallel experience that I mention is this: I am often counseled by business contacts to borrow money and refine our production processes, so that we are ready to produce a relatively large number of homes in an efficient manner. Maybe that is good advice for the long term. But this posting supports my internal response. It is quite possible to make a profit at current, modest production levels. By minimizing investment in factory assets, much overhead is avoided. As such, building fewer homes a year will keep us “in the black.”
The irony of investing heavily to meet future production goals is that it seems to result in reducing the value of actual homes being built today.
Thank you for the comments. The code I was referring to is the International Residential Code, which is 10. As you know, code varies from state to state. Therefore, not all states abide by the same code from IRC.
Martin posted an
Martin posted an article in June that stated the 2009 IRC blower door test was max 7.0ACH50 (or visual inspection path...). I assume this to be correct, I've only dealt with WA and OR energy codes for the last 6 years - slightly stricter, but still too weak in my opinion.
Regardless, I think addressing airsealing should be a priority for a project attempting to sell itself as 'energy efficient' - claims to the contrary could appear to be greenwashing.
I had a chance to tour a Clayton i-house last week and was impressed with the price and features. (Truly $75k to start)
Once Blu gets down to that price, they may have a category-killer. Until then, 90% of potential customers will opt for stick-built.
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