There's growth for green prefab homes

A model prefab home by Marmol Radziner

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: During the peak of the housing boom, glossy home magazines like Dwell celebrated the rise of modern prefab architecture. These factory built homes with clean lines and green materials
promised to reshape the building industry. That is until the housing market crashed. But that doesn't mean green prefab is dead. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, here's Sam Eaton.


SAM EATON: Architect Leo Marmol realized his dream in this sprawling warehouse south of downtown Los Angeles. To build modern prefab homes on a factory assembly line.

LEO MARMOL: The steel frames themselves were put together outside on those large jigs and then literally slid into the factory to roll down this track assembly on the factory floor.

Marmol says the manufacturing process reduced construction waste by as much as 40 percent. And as green building began to catch on, business was looking up. Then...

MARMOL: When the credit market fell to pieces the prefab market went with it.

Today most of this 65,000 square foot warehouse sits empty. But Marmol remains optimistic.

MARMOL: There's always been this utopian dream of trying to make better design more available to our communities.

Meaning... more affordable. But Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne says Marmol's factory was missing a key ingredient to achieving that affordability scale.

CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE: The prefab designs are probably more progressive in terms of sustainability than they are in terms of economics.

But some companies are adapting. Boston's Blu Homes has thrived despite the recession. It has about 50 homes currently in its pipeline and a merger with another company in the works. Co-founder Maura McCarthy says Blu Homes success is simple.

Maura MCCARTHY: We didn't start trying to be the Armani of homes.

They did set out to become the Ikea of homes -- offering modern, green design at affordable prices.

MCCARTHY: You can't have clients putting them together as much. But you can definitely have them designing them and having more influence on how to put the elements of the home together.

McCarthy says Blu Homes' prefab houses cost as little as a $135 a square foot. That's about half the price of Leo Marmol's models. And with energy bill savings of up to 60 percent compared to other houses, McCarthy says the recession isn't killing prefab, its finally making it cost competitive.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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