Modular builders seize 'green' edge

Amid the worst housing slump in decades, some makers of factory-built homes are trying to make market inroads by pitching their products as "greener" and move-in-ready sooner than those built the traditional way.

Cisterns to collect rainwater, sophisticated climate control systems and tankless water heaters are featured in the "i-house," offered by Tennessee-based Clayton Homes, one of the biggest players in manufactured housing.

Those features and others are also used in designs by New World Home, an Atlanta-based start-up offering traditional-looking homes that can cost up to $450,000, with assembly of modular components on-site.

Both companies say their homes can be completed in far less time than traditional "stick-built" homes. Buyers purchase their land separately.

The factory-built players are also climbing aboard the "green" bandwagon to try to freshen their traditional price-based appeal.

A home can be classified as "green" if it creates less waste and uses less energy, water and natural resources, than the average dwelling. To be truly green, the house must also be a healthier environment for those living there, environmental experts say.

Clayton's i-house —- named for its unusual shape, not as a takeoff on the iPod —- and New World's homes feature Andersen Low-E windows, dual flush toilets and interior paint with no volatile organic compounds as standard features.

The i-house is still a new concept at this point, as are New World's designs, so it remains to be seen if either widens the market for manufactured or modular housing, which has long suffered from an image of cheap materials and box-on-wheels designs.

"There's a lot of conversation and discussion about green homes across the home building industry," said Chris Nicely, vice president of marketing for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Clayton Homes.

"And we wanted to see just how green we could make one of our homes, and this is what our designers and engineers came up with: the i-house."

The creation debuted as a concept house late last year, Nicely said. The house created such a buzz, the company decided to put it into production in May. Since then they've set up five model homes, sold six and have dozens of reservations across the country.

Because Clayton is a national distributor, these homes are available across the U.S., Nicely said.

New World has offices in New York but recently moved its headquarters to Atlanta. The company also built two model homes in Cobb County off Murdock Road earlier this year, said Tyler Schmetterer, the company's chief operating officer.

Clayton says its green modular homes are built to earn an Energy Star designation, the government benchmark for efficiency. To get the rating a home must be "15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code, and include additional energy-saving features that typically make them 20 to 30 percent more efficient than standard homes," the Energy Star Web site says.

New World homeowners can go a step further and be LEED certified, a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of green buildings, Schmetterer said.

In an economy where builders can't afford to build on speculation, these prefabricated housing alternatives can be exactly what the market needs, Schmetterer said.

Chad Harvey, executive director of the Modular Building Systems Association, based in Harrisburg, Pa., said more developers and builders are looking into green housing options.

"This is a trend we've seen emerging over the past three years," he said. "And in the past decade or so the designs have become much more sophisticated."

New World has several designs. The smallest is around 600 square feet and starts at $80,000. The largest is around 2,600 square-feet and can cost upwards of $450,000 — for just the house as land is not included.

Clayton's i-house ranges from 720 to 1,640 square-feet.

"The cost starts $90 or $93 per square-foot, on your land, and goes up from there," Nicely said.

While the Clayton home arrives at the site fully assembled, New World's offerings still need to be put together. Build-out takes about one-third of the time it takes to build a home the traditional way, Schmetterer said.

John Wieland, chief executive of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, said the test will be to see if the modular homes really are more energy efficient than stick built.

"The question is can they build a tighter, greener house," he said. "And I think time will tell."