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Green homes going mainstream

Built in a factory with energy efficiency in mind, these sunlit homes challenge the notion that living green means living in a hut. Photos: Building a foundation for green living

What makes a home green? Strategically placed windows, for one thing, says Michelle Kaufmann.

Many energy-consumption problems can be addressed with simple tweaks to conventional house design, according to the founder of eco-friendly home design company Michelle Kaufmann Designs. Windows and sliding glass doors placed on opposite walls, for instance, allow the sun to more evenly wash a room with light and eliminate contrast, which reduces the need for electrical light during the day. Windows also allow for natural air circulation, which reduces demand for heating and air conditioning. Similarly, a glass wall can make a room seem bigger than it is, which cuts down on the need for McMansion-size family rooms and therefore the amount of raw materials required for building the home in the first place.

"Where you get the most bang for your buck are things like (window placement) that save energy but don't cost more," she said.

And let's not forget the countertops. That "stone" surface is actually a hardened and highly polished material made from recycled paper. Want wood floors? Bamboo grows faster than most plants and hence is more ecologically friendly than more commonly used oak or fir.

Green homes appear poised to move from the novelty wing of the housing market to a mainstream product. MKD, which up till now has mostly built one-off homes, is slated to put up around 45 homes in a townhouse development in San Leandro, Calif., and a 40-home project in Las Vegas. Another 42-home subdivision is planned for Denver.

"We need to do a couple of hundred homes" this year, Kaufmann said.

Unlike most homes, which get built atop a foundation, MKD homes are built in a factory, trucked to the building site, then bolted to a foundation. The homes, she says, cost about the same as regular, comparable new homes. The fixtures can cost more, but building the home in a factory neutralizes any premium, even when the trucking costs are factored in.

Photos: From the factory to the neighborhood

Mainstream developers such as Centex Homes, Lennar Corporation and The Grupe Company have also begun to emphasize green features in their homes, particularly as concerns about electricity grow and housing sales stagnate. These companies have said that homes with integrated solar panels have emerged as status symbols and can sell for more, and at a faster clip, than homes without solar technology.

Another company, Living Homes, is also gaining attention and contracts in the modular home business.

Meanwhile, electronics giant Matsushita, which actually has its own construction division, is contemplating a bigger push into clean homes and appliances. In Dubai, an eco-friendly tower condo complex will be built out of modular units developed in a port factory.

Like Toyota and electric carmaker Tesla Motors, Kaufmann and other green builders aren't overtly trying to exploit some sort of overweening sense of guilt among consumers. Instead, they are focusing on comfort, design and aesthetics.

The Sunset Breezehouse, one of the three primary homes built by MKD, takes design cues from Italian villas: the rooms are centered on courtyards.

The mkSolaire, a two-story townhouse design, features lofts and a roof garden. The company's first home design, the Glidehouse, is fashioned after a home owned by an artist in the Pacific Northwest. (MKD also does custom homes.)

In housing developments, the company tries to balance price and aesthetics. Although the homes come from factories and conform to a trio of basic designs, the homes will vary between subdivisions. The homes are also unusual in the U.S. housing market in that they were designed with the active input of architects. Right now, only about 5 percent of U.S. homes are actually built with significant oversight from architects, and these homes tend to be custom-built, expensive residences.

"With a single-family home, it's not easy for consumers to find solutions. People care about the environment, but where are the solutions?" she said. "If we can prepackage green solutions that don't cost more and don't take more time, people will do it."

In the Las Vegas subdivision, for instance, the homes will feature an "outdoor" room made of two outdoor walls and a trellis for a roof. Rain will be captured in a catchment system placed near the front door. The water will irrigate the grounds and the evaporation will help cool the house.

The environmental savings, she adds, are also fairly tremendous. Homes designed with environmental concerns in mind can reduce water consumption by 40 percent and energy use by 30 percent. Building a home in a factory, rather than onsite, can reduce waste by 50 percent to 75 percent.

Homes also probably constitute one of the few markets where going green means building factories. Although builders in the U.K. and Japan build luxury homes in factories, most of the housing factories in the U.S. are associated with trailers.

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Factories, though, are incredibly efficient for building homes, according to Kaufmann. At building sites, the remnants from two-by-fours often get tossed out. By building in a factory, these wood stubs can be saved and used in the next home. Dimensions in the homes, in fact, are selected to maximize the efficient use of building materials.

It also takes less time, because electricians and other contractors can work simultaneously, rather than one after another. In all, it takes about six weeks to build a home in a factory and another four to six weeks to ship it to the foundation, bolt it on and tweak everything. In all, the time to complete a house is cut by 30 percent or more.

Another benefit is that contractors and carpenters don't mysteriously vanish from the job site when a home is around 80 percent complete. They have to come to the factory to work.

Factory construction additionally improves the quality of the home. Wood and other construction materials aren't exposed to wind and mold on the jobsite but are instead locked in a dry factory. Counters, walls, doors and other elements can be precisely fitted together. Interior mold becomes less of a problem.

Rather than conventional insulation, factory homes come with a more efficient spray-in foam insulation called Icynene that better seals up crevices. The homes are built to local building codes.

A bit of history
Kaufmann, who worked for famed architect Frank Gehry for five years, got into green homes out of a pain many in Northern California know. She and her husband, Kevin Cullen, were looking for a home in the Bay Area. They didn't like the homes they saw in new subdivisions and couldn't afford to do a tear-down on an older home and build on the site. Thus, they bought a plot of land and began to design a house. The end result became the Glidehouse, one of the three basic home designs MKD specializes in.

In 2002, she and her husband started the company. Their home has also become a showcase to demonstrate the benefits of factory modular building. Their home took 21 months from concept to final approval to complete. A factory version takes 10 months. Their site-built home cost $363,950 to build. The factory version runs $290,500 with shipping and sales tax.

Although some of the demand for green homes is being sparked in part by energy prices and fears of global warming, the trend won't likely decline if utility bills suddenly decline. Kaufmann suggests there is more to it than energy prices.

"There's an emotional response too. The more time we spend with our computers during the day, I think the more we subconsciously long for something natural," she said.

So far, consumer demand has been extremely high. After MKD got started and began to get publicity for some of its home designs, the company became so flooded with requests for information that it de-listed its phone number and address and eliminated direct e-mail addresses on its Web site. (Biodiesel conversion expert Jonathan Goodwin similarly reports that he too has to softpedal marketing because of high demand.)