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You’d Never Guess These Gorgeous, Net-Zero Houses Were Built In A Factory

Blu Homes is trying to make affordable, attractive pre-fab homes. And soon, they’ll produce more energy than they use.

Affordable, high-quality prefab homes have always been a dream not quite within reach. The market today is limited (only 2% of new single-family homes), and known for flimsy cookie-cutter models that don’t appeal to most mainstream Americans. But that’s slowly starting to change as premium factory-built homes become a more viable option for average property owners.

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The company most responsible for this trend in the U.S. is Blu Homes, a Bay Area startup founded in 2008. Using its online software, Blu Homes allows customers to mix, match, and personalize their dream home down to the small details. From there, it takes care of almost everything else, including permitting (see its factory here). By developing an origami-like folding system that allows it to economically ship larger houses all around the country than can normally fit on a flatbed truck, it has been able to create higher-quality, for a larger consumer market. Its projects can be completed from beginning to end in as little as a few months with no contractors needed, as opposed to the often multi-year, time-intensive process of typical home construction.

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While the homes are still expensive, Blu Homes wants to do for the factory model of home production what Ford did with the car. Higher volumes on its production line will eventually lower costs for everyone. Today, Blu Homes are more in the range of would-be Tesla buyers. Eventually, co-founder Maura McCarthy envisions something closer to the Model T.

In 2015, while doubling sales, the company has been able to lower its prices for the first time. While most of the homes it has installed so far have been in California and the East Coast, it is starting to penetrate middle America–selling units now in Michigan and Oklahoma.

“My five-year vision is a $350,000 Breeze house, that’s where I’m headed–and every other house is going to be pulled along with it,” says McCarthy, referring to the company’s biggest model, a three-to-five bedroom, nearly 3,000-square-foot home that starts at $495,000 today.

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Beyond convenience to home buyers, the factory-built model fits neatly into several social and demographic trends. Most of Blu Homes’ consumers today are older couples who are building smaller, hip homes in desirable locations where they can “age in place” and have family come visit. A growing number of projects are “urban infill” homes, where people are building new homes or accessory dwelling units in on city lots that were previously untenable or poor condition.

Prefab homes are also starting to fulfill their green potential. Because it is working with economies of scale, Blu Homes is able to build homes more efficiently than a completely custom builder, and also able to build more efficient, sustainable homes–making it easier than ever for mainstream consumers to live greener lives.

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Recently, it set a goal to make all of its homes use “net-zero” energy by 2020, and in California, by 2018 (where a state law requires this by the end of the decade). Already, it has built several “net zero” homes on both the East and West coast through a combination of solar panels, a high-quality HVAC system, and a “tight” building envelope that reduces leakages. Its newest models come with home automation systems and a system that hooks the solar panels directly to the grid.

Blu Homes’ customer advisory board has been sending the company its electric bills; even a customer in Buffalo went through the winter using 20% of the energy she used to, says McCarthy.

“If you close your eyes and you imagine how a house was built when you were a child in your neighborhood and…how the same house was built today, there’s basically no difference,” says McCarthy. “It’s an industry that’s been virtually untouched by technology, and it’s not been very progressive.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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