In 2008, Seattle-based Unico Properties had an exciting project in the works. After rolling out their “inhabit” design, factory-built modern apartments that could be assembled on-site and arranged to accommodate a variety of features, such as private decks and green roofs, the company was slated to break ground in South Lake Union on a 62-unit complex. Unico put the project on hold when the real estate market tanked.
The prefab-homes niche was devastated by the larger collapse in housing. In the past two years, several West Coast companies filed for bankruptcy, including Bellingham-based Transform LLC.
Now, with the economic recovery gathering steam, there has been renewed interest in using prefabricated manufacturing techniques to make modern, green designs more accessible to home buyers. Several new companies are promoting the approach in Washington, among them GreenPod Intelligent Environments in Port Townsend; Seattle-based Greenfab, which installed a seriously efficient modular home in the Central Area in January (expected to achieve LEED Platinum certification); Method Homes, which has a factory in Ferndale; and Seattle-based Ideabuilder. These ventures offer a portfolio of new, green features, such as gray-water recycling, green roofs and heavy-duty insulation. But there is a great deal of skepticism whether they will be able to survive and offer a truly low-cost alternative to custom site-built homes.
Prefab is by no means a recent discovery. In the world of home building, prefab is an umbrella term that covers many different building methods—from kit homes, with components cut off-site and then assembled on location, to mobile homes and trailer homes, which are not considered real estate since they are designed to be relocated.
“Prefab is the oldest new idea,” says Michelle Kaufmann, a California-based architect widely recognized for her cutting-edge prefab and sustainable home designs. “What’s new is architects taking on this idea of providing the full package of prefab.”
Today, that full package includes energy-efficient homes with green components, such as extra insulation and sustainably harvested woods. Greg Barron, the general manager at GreenPod, which designs and builds custom modular homes with a variety of energy-saving and environmentally friendly features, says that after years of working as an on-site builder, he appreciates the benefits of working in a factory. “There’s lights. It’s warm. It’s safer,” he explains. “The scaffolding can go all around the building, and it’s on concrete, no uneven terrain.”