Katrina Sparks a Revolution in Green Modular Housing

A few years ago modular, or prefabricated, housing was the stepchild of the homebuilding industry, just a cut above mobile homes or manufactured housing.

Now, with the offering of higher quality, green modular housing in the marketplace, consumers are beginning to view it in a fresh light.

The reason? Hurricane Katrina.

Organizations concerned with rebuilding New Orleans green aligned architects with modular housing. This, in turn, accelerated the acceptance of modular housing in the new home market, suggests New York architect Frederic Schwartz, who designed several New Orleans projects.

Modular housing was the only viable solution in the post-Katrina housing shortage because there was nowhere for temporary construction workers to live, Schwartz notes. The units are built offsite in a factory and assembled on location by semiskilled labor in just two to eight weeks, compared with eight to 12 months for conventional construction.

The homes can also be manufactured to any codes, standards or specifications, including green criteria and high-performance building standards for hurricane-prone zones, and the factory environment offers quality control and eliminates exposure to moisture associated with building defects.

Santa Monica-based Green Global USA, in collaboration with actor Brad Pitt, helped to generate architect interest in designing modular housing by launching the $1 million Global Green Competition for the best green modular housing design.

The winning design, GreeN.O.LA by New York architects Andrew Kotchen and Matthew Berman of Workshop/APD, is a collection of single-family homes and two-story multifamily product built around a central common green space. The complex includes 5 single-family homes, an 18-unit apartment building, and a community center/sustainable design and climate action center in the Holy Cross Neighborhood in the city's Lower 9th Ward, which was completely wiped out by flooding.

The GreeN.O.LA homes integrate the newest sustainable technologies with wisdom of the past to create energy efficiency to get to carbon neutral, including structural insulated panels (SIPs) and off-the-shelf renewable building materials and products, such as bamboo flooring, Energy Star appliances, solar panels, green roofs and gray water collection. The complex includes a transit stop, small business center for homeworkers, daycare and community garden with a compost heap to provide the community fresh produce and reduce waste.

SIPs are factory-built, modular components composed of rigid foam insulation sandwiched between oriented-stand boards, which can be used to construct wall, floor and roof components. The lightweight panels' insulation is fire retardant, reduce noise and conserves energy.

Not all of the modular housing built in New Orleans is high quality or green, and architects warn buyers to do their homework. But much of it is thanks to the high-profile Global Green project and many forward-thinking organizations that hired highly acclaimed urban architects, such as Marianne Cusato and Andrés Duany, to design sustainable housing and schools throughout the city.

The New Orleans modular experience has led architects nationwide to consider modular building platforms to fill a variety of needs. EcoMOD, an education project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville College of Architecture, for example, created a modular building system that is adaptable to various site shapes and situations.

"We're trying to make modular urban infill friendly," says John Quale, ecoMOD project director.

He notes that the project's goal is to create environmentally friendly housing strategies for the region's affordable housing providers. ecoMOD's newest design is so flexible it was used to build a two-story affordable condominium project, rehab and add space to a historic home and build a separate studio cottage to provide the family rental income.

The Southeast Wisconsin AIA demonstrated how modular housing could be used to reweave the fabric of deteriorating neighborhoods and create dignified inner-city housing. The regional demonstration project built one dwelling in communities suffering from financial disinvestment in Milwaukee, Racine and Waukesha, Wis., to serve as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization.

The home prototypes, designed for the AIA by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture, are designed to live bigger than their actual size of 1,500 square feet, as well as encourage social interaction and revival of community, with large front porches and inviting facades, says John Holz, AIA Southwest Wisconsin vice president who headed the program.

"The architects are endorsing modular because they can get their projects done quicker and at higher quality," says Kevin Flaherty, vice president of Sales and Marketing for modular home manufacturer, Genesis Homes. "Now the serious challenge is to look for new ways to build."

Flaherty explains that the pool of skilled craftsman is shrinking due to both young people's lack of interest in entering the trades and a crackdown on illegal immigrants, who represent an estimated 40% of the construction workforce.

While modular housing offers an opportunity to create value, low price is not the primary motivation for rising modular sales. The industry is more architecturally focused than in the past, Flaherty says, rolling out high quality, high performance, sexy housing products in all categories.

Modular building technology includes both prefabricated and packaged home kits, or "flat-pack" products. Prefab buildings are delivered in sections 70% to 90% complete. Components are bolted together onsite, systems hooked up, and the home is ready for occupancy in just a few weeks.

Los Angeles architect Leo Marmol is designing and manufacturing upscale, ultramodern sustainable, steel-frame prefab homes priced at $250 to $300 per square foot. He contends that his home product, which is the type delivered in sections, would fetch $500 to $600 per square foot if built on site.

Marmol's homes are designed to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. Module use SIP building technology and structures are made from recycled steel. These homes are built with healthy, green materials, including FSC-certified wood, low VOC Green Seal paint, solar panels, and renewable products. Floor-to-ceiling windows capture natural light, while expansive decks provide shade for passive cooling and promote the best of indoor/outdoor living.

"The fact that it's made in a factory is irrelevant," Marmol says. "It's how it feels, the high quality of life it provides."

Home kits consist of pre-cut, pre-drilled parts needed to build a specific home design. The E-Space homebuilding system, for example, is a modular package of sustainable building components customized to an architect's design for under $200 per square foot. It includes sustainable products and technologies, with selections based on ecological, health and quality criteria, including: renewable, recyclable, durable, nontoxic, regional availability, and high performance.

Its SIP technology eliminates 2 X 4 construction, which allows heat gain and loss, to create a tightly sealed interior with no heat gain and loss on the ground floor. A rooftop ventilation system, borrowed from horse-barn architecture, eliminates the need for air conditioning by allowing second-story hot air to escape through the roof.

In a lot of ways, building technology hadn't changed in 200 years, says New York architect James Dart, who designed modular housing for a 150-unit, sustainable New Orleans neighborhood, developed by affordable housing developer ACORN Housing Corp. "It's high time for a change."

 

Photos: Global Green USA

See also:

Deconstruct Instead of Demolish: A Green Job Opportunity

Incentivizing the Green Build Up

Video: The Economic Wisdom of a Green Recovery

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