The last few years have spawned a whole new era of pre-fab homes. Most of them are gorgeous, architecturally forward-thinking (at least in America—most of these designs are common practice in Europe), and marketed to the environmentally-conscious.
When most people think of pre-fab homes, they probably think of the post-WWII lot. These drab cubes had cheap siding, aluminum-framed windows, and horrific pseudo-indoor plumbing. They also had the tendency to be built nearly on top of each other. (After all, for post-Depression WWI vets, a two foot space between buildings may have been the most space they’d ever seen).
Contrary to their 1950s predecessors, these modern day pre-fab homes are largely targeted at mid-to-upscale markets. Because rich people “care” about the environment, many of the companies that make today’s industrial, factory-assembled, pre-fabricated homes cater to the image.
Most of the fabricators throw around a series of buzzwords like “sustainable,” “green,” and “environmentally friendly.” More substantively, several companies designed their homes to be easily LEED certified—if you’re willing to pay the $10K for the paperwork, that is.
So what’s on the table in DC? The first company I ran across, Ideabox, had beautiful and cost effective homes. Ah, the Confluence. 3-bed, 2-bath, large deck and 1,700 sf for $204,000? I fell in love with it at first sight.
Then the horror—they only manufacture on the West Coast. Admittedly, I was researching this because my young family realized it was a viable option—financially and career-wise. I quickly recovered and continued my research. What I quickly realized is that there’s no effective price ceiling because you can stack module upon module like Legos.
I ran across quite a few more than I thought existed. From most to least established (based on my shabby internet research) there’s Livinghomes, Method Homes, Wee House, Cubbicco, KitHaus and It House.
Livinghomes says they’ll build homes from L.A. to New Orleans to Toronto—so they cover some good territory. Their C6.1 Series starts at $275,000, and offers a 3 bed, 2 bath, 1,288 sf configuration. These guys promise materials that don’t off-gas or pollute indoor air, and insist the buildings can easily be added on to.
Another of my favorites is Method Homes, who says they can build homes to meet the (varying) criteria of LEED, Energy Star, Passive House, Built Green, and Living Building Challenge, among other environmental standards.
Wee House also caught my attention for both the name and the photo on its website (yeah, I know the adage not to judge a book by its cover). I couldn’t help it—it’s “weeee-tiny.” It offers 1,350 sf, 3-bed, 2-bath configurations for as low as $180,000.
The other companies on the list were a little less than impressive. They might provide great service, or actually have really high quality housing, but they don’t seem like they focus on housing, per se. Cubbico looks like they do more office-focused work, KitHaus looks more like one-room kits, and ItHouse is more do-it-yourself.
If I were to describe the general style of these homes, it would be Bauhaus. While that doesn’t mean much to most Americans, I would describe it as a famous school of simplistic modern architecture revitalized since the 1970s, particularly in Northern Europe.
Most Americans would call them ultra-modern, boxy or chique. People that love the standard old fashioned farmhouse vibe ubiquitous in our suburbs would think they’re garish—I would disagree. In either case, because they’re square, there are limitations on pitched roofs, gutters, etc. that have to be otherwise accommodated for.
Some of these companies (Livinghomes, Method Homes and WeeHouse in particular) offer Net Zero construction. That means the house would aim for zero CO2 emissions and minimal energy use. Livinghomes even pushes what it calls the “Six Zeros of Sustainability”: energy, water, waste, emissions, carbon, ignorance. Yeah, I also like the last one the most.
Now if you’re serious about building one of these pre-fab homes—the second ingredient is land. As I’m sure you can personally attest, finding an open plot of land within the confines of the District of Columbia is rarer than finding an evangelical minister at a pride parade.
Instead, I started looking out along the metro lines. Ehhh—wrong. The only lot I saw for sale that’s within walking distance of my current abode is $995,000. Yes, that’s just the lot.
However, along the MARC and VRE there are actually plenty of options. You can easily get several acres within a few minutes’ drive for $100,000 to $200,000—depending on what you’re looking for.
So that puts to total to somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 for a basic 2 or 3-bed configuration. If you really wanted to cut some corners, I’m sure you could find a $60,000 plot along the VRE and a plop down a $150,000 1-bed, 1-bath—but I was assuming you didn’t want to pull an Into the Wild.
Like any trend, the pre-fab home may come and go again. However, this iteration is notably better than that of our grandparents generation. If you do it right, the trend may be here to stay.