Earth-friendly prefab homes

Ever since the early days of the industrial revolution, the human habit of making things in multiples has centred on a few key characteristics: efficiency, standardization and cost management. Whether it’s widgets or Winnebagos, goods produced in factories seemed always to have some serious advantages over one-off or hand-built alternatives, even if early designs were uninspired or the products and byproducts of mass manufacturing proved unkind to the environment. After a brief heyday of kit homes offered by Sears, Roebuck and Co. and other vendors in the early 1900’s, factory-built houses also called prefab or modular homes went cheap and boring. Most were little more than self-contained cartons for shelter, and their humdrum looks involved a lot of plastics, formaldehyde-gassing wood panels and other non-eco-friendly features.

So now that homebuyers want more customized design, and now that “green” materials and sustainability are among the new buzzwords of home construction, prefab homes can die a slow death as architectural dinosaurs, right? Well, not quite.

It turns out that manufacturing efficiencies and standardization don’t necessarily spell cookie-cutter sameness or environmental disasters. In fact, good design decisions are the foundation for a “green” home, and the environmental benefits of doing most of the actual fabrication in a controlled indoor space far outweigh the virtues of on-site construction. That’s a growing consensus among the homebuilding industry, and it’s the subject of a book by architect Michelle Kaufmann. In her book “Prefab Green,” Kaufmann shares some of the professional journey that steered her toward prefab modular construction in pursuit of her own environmentally friendly home.

While there are many variations on the theme of a “green” home, some core tenets always apply. Responsible use of materials and natural resources, low energy consumption, good indoor air quality and good site stewardship (especially soil and water management) comprise a basic consensus of sustainable home design.

It’s important to note that Kaufmann wasn’t aiming for off-site fabrication or any other particular construction methodology, but simply trying to design a home around five key “eco-principles” that she explains in the book:

Smart design: Basically, this is the common sense part. Keep the size modest and plan/allow multiple uses for spaces. Choose a site placement that lets you manage the sunlight, prevailing winds, water issues and so on.

Eco-materials: Of course, renewable or recycled materials score big points here. Consider a product’s complete life cycle where it originated, how it was processed and transported, how durable it is, what maintenance requirements are and what happens to it when it wears out or needs replacement.

Energy efficiency: Since the 1970’s, energy use issues have been front and centre in residential design.

Water conservation: While we often take it for granted, clean healthy water is at the heart of any ecosystem. A home’s design should encourage wise use and re-use, whether through low-flow plumbing fixtures or a system to catch and use rainwater.

Healthy indoor environment: Indoor air that is clean of toxins or carcinogens is another critical component in a healthy home. Avoid the use of paints and solvents containing volatile

After looking in vain to find an affordable home with these features, Kaufmann and her husband opted to design their own, a decision that led to a series of prefab homes they now produce at their own facility and feature in this book. Pairing her five “eco-principles” with prefab methodology and modular design allows Kaufmann to streamline the building process while still creating innovative and appealing homes.