Can Blu Homes Fulfill the Promise of Prefab?

A Boston start-up says its method will at last fulfill the promise of cheap manufactured homes. (But can anybody get a mortgage?)

Maybe Barry Bergdoll should have come to the opening of his museum show dressed as the Grim Reaper. In Home Delivery, MoMA's show last summer, Bergdoll recalled more than 100 years of failed efforts to make prefabricated homes a workable proposition. Bergdoll offered no prediction for the much-hyped modernist prefabs of today, but the show by implication cast doubt on their feasibility.

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The dream of shining minimalist prefabs rolling off assembly lines and whisked to their sites on flatbed trucks has soured over the last few years as architects struggled to fulfill the promise of cheap alternatives to conventional housing. By the time installation and finishing work is done, most established prefabs cost $300 to $400 a square foot—no less than a custom home built by a frugal architect and contractor.

The prefab industry received demoralizing news last May when Michelle Kaufmann closed her studio. She had been a darling of design editors, and her prefabs—the Glidehouse, Breezehouse, mkLotus, and mkSolaire—are among the most visible on the market. If she can’t make it, who can?

Now it looks like Kaufmann's designs have a sponsor. Last week, Blu Homes, a start-up homebuilder based outside Boston, bought Kaufman’s designs and will begin manufacturing them next year at their factory.

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Prefab companies normally work one of two ways: they manufacture the largest boxes allowed on a truck or they make walls and ceilings to be assembled on site. Either way, shipping is cumbersome and expensive, and the houses can never be more than, say, 600 miles from the factory.

Blu Homes says it has invented a system that allows for homes of about $150 a square foot delivered anywhere in the country, or even abroad. It already offers a handful of designs developed in collaboration with RISD, including a 1,400-square-foot prefab for $200,000 (shown above). The price includes shipping and foundation work, but not utility hook-ups and permitting costs. Their first home has just been finished (the company has also completed nearly a dozen commercial buildings).

The crux of Blu Homes’ innovation: Instead of loading the bulk of a home onto a truck, the company trucks a series of flat-packed wood and metal sheets, in widths of up to 22 feet, which unfold on site. The folded components reduce shipping costs and assembly time, according to the company. “They basically pop-up,” said Michele Perry, a Blue Homes spokesperson. “The old-fashioned way of doing it was like a gingerbread house. The Blu Homes way is more like an erector set. We think our method is the future of factory built homes.”

The fate of prefab may reside more with finances than with fabrication. “Blu Homes may well have developed a revolutionary system, but technical expertise, although advantageous, has never proven to be a guarantee of commercial success in the prefab business,” said Michael Sylvester, publisher of fabprefab.com, a clearinghouse of information about contemporary prefabs. “The current salvation of prefab will be a return to rational mortgage credit markets.”

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