Prefabulous and Sustainable - Why You Should Build A Prefab, Energy-Efficient Home

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 8:05 AM EDT

Sheri Koones has made it her business to spread the word that prefab homes aren't ugly. Not even close.

Instead, judging from the photos in her latest book, Prefabulous+Sustainable: Building And Customizing An Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home, prefab homes are not only, well, fabulous, they're indistinguishable from site-built homes.

And for the budget-conscious among us, they're a very modern, 21st century way to get a whole lot more house for your money.

I asked Sheri to answer a series of questions about prefab homes. Here's an edited version of the conversation:

What is the cost differential between building a prefab house vs. a site-built house? How much do you really save once you add in an architect's and designer's time?

You can actually save up to 15 percent building modular over site-built depending on the location, size of the house and the intricacy of the design. Architects are becoming increasingly interested in prefabricated design because of its sustainability and increasing demand. Many prefab companies will execute the working drawings for the design, which takes away a lot of the work and liability from the architect so that their fees are likely to be less for a prefab construction.

Have architects learned how to manipulate prefab houses better in the past couple of years since the housing crash?

Many architects are seeing the benefits of prefab and are now very capable of designing with a variety of different prefab methods.

Why focus on sustainability? How does being green add to the cost of a prefab house?

There are so many reasons to build a sustainable house. There is the political reason â€" limiting our dependence on other countries for fuel. The global warming issue is an important reason â€" preserving the environment for future generations.

But a reason most homeowners can relate to is the saving in the cost of upkeep and the comfort created in the home. A tight house will limit the amount of necessary fuel and will also make the house more comfortable. Using healthy materials will create a less toxic, more enjoyable environment to live in. Appropriate lighting can also decrease headaches and create a more comfortable home to live in.

According to a 2003 study, "The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings: A Report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force," "An upfront investment of 2 percent in green building design, on average, results in life cycle savings of 20 percent of the total construction costs â€" more than ten times the initial investment."

In addition to saving money, building a sustainable house will also increase the value of their home if homeowners ever want to sell it.

Why should builders and suppliers go greener?

For contractors and suppliers, building green is a wise choice. In a study by Booz Allen Hamilton and the USGBC, "Green building will support 7.9 million U.S. jobs and pump $554 million into the American economy over the next four years (2009-2013)."

Such items as positioning a house to take the best advantage of the sun, including overhangs on windows, limiting the amount of hallways, etc., add minimally or nothing at all to the cost of the house, but increase sustainability. The homeowners, architects, manufacturers and builders in Prefabulous + Sustainable found so many creative ways to make their houses sustainable, most of them with a close eye on their budget.

What are the best energy-efficient perks to focus on if you're going to design a sustainable house?

Starting with a prefabricated house, you are already eliminating a great deal of waste and assuring that materials have been protected from the elements, limiting the possibility of mold and mildew developing later on. The building envelope is then the most important factor. It is essential to have a tight construction with excellent insulation and high efficiency windows. Selecting non-toxic materials, such as low or no VOC paints, adhesives and finishes will assure a healthier environment.

What should home buyers be thinking about when choosing a prefab/sustainable architect, prefab company, etc? What mistakes should buyers avoid making?

They should ask about the other prefab houses the architect or contractor have built and find out what they have done to make their houses sustainable. It would be good to find out if they have built any houses that have been certified (by a local program, LEED or NAHBGreen), although this isn't a necessity.

One of the most important things for homeowners to consider is getting all of their plans in order before they build. It is very important to have an integrated design that has been reviewed and hopefully jointly developed by the architect, along with a landscape architect, lighting specialist, energy specialist, interior designer, engineer and anyone else who might be important to the project. This avoids error, duplicity and excess cost.

If budget is a consideration, as it most often is, consider the long-range cost of items to be included in the design. If you plan to live in the house for a long time, will the extra cost for a particular item, save you money over 5 or 10 years?

Tomorrow, I'll share more of my conversation with Sheri and why she thinks prefab and sustainable homes are the future of home building in the U.S.

Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and the upcoming Buy, Close, Move In!.
She blogs about money and real estate at ThinkGlink.com.

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    Ilyce R. Glink is an award-winning, nationally-syndicated columnist, best-selling book author and founder of Best Money Moves, an employee benefit program that helps reduce financial stress. She also owns ThinkGlink.com, where readers can find real estate and personal finance resources.