Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Five new affordable green modular homes from Excel

September 2011 update...These homes are no longer offered by Excel.

Last week, the new year brought us the Osprey (from Nationwide Custom Homes/Palm Harbor Homes) and other modular eco-cottages, and now another challenger to the Clayton i-house; an energy star rated (30% more efficient than average), green modular line of five new small home designs. They come from a big player in modular housing, Excel Homes of Pennsylvania.

These homes are available in the following states only: ME, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI, NY, PA, NJ, DE, MD, VA, WV, NC, SC, and OH.

Read their blog, with the most recent post about their new affordable series, STARTING LINE UP aka Ultra-Value Series.

The five homes in the series start at around $60,000 for the 556 sq.ft. "Trailblazer," to under $100,000 for three models that are all 945 sq. ft. One model, the “Craftsman Bungalow,” is 771 sq. ft and will presumably fall somewhere between $60,000 and $100,000.

Excel is adapting to the market and it's a timely addition to their larger home series.

In the introduction to their new ULTRA-VALUE series, they explain how they've kept the prices on these homes rock bottom by offering no customization options.

Unlike the i-house, where Clayton might be able to move a wall, add a bathroom, or put a window where wall is currently, or vice-verse, all five homes in this ULTRA-VALUE series come as is. As far as I can tell, no flooring options, color selection, or upgrades of any kind.

Again, go here to see the floor plans.

I’ll comment on each one individually, from what there is to go on. Also, over the next few days, I will edit this post and be making changes(photo-shopped) I would make, if I were designing these homes. Sometimes I look at a home and see immediately something isn't quite right...well, I'll try to make it right doing very simple things. So, here are all five homes starting with the smallest:

The 1 bedroom, 1 bath 556 sq. ft. "Trailblazer"

"Trailblazer" comes 95% completed from the factory, and can be shifted from the flat bed truck to the foundation, without need of a crane. This keeps the price low. All these homes can be set up in one day and set up is included with the price.

My improvement to the home, (second photo) is the addition of an overhang above the front door. I just clipped a bit of the roof to do this quickly. Always good to have this in the rain and it balances the appearance of the facade. All but two of the changes/additions I recommend are something a homeowner could do easily after buying one of these homes.

The center dormer with all the windows, makes for a dramatic interior on this little "Trailblazer" home. What's up with Excel showing one measly “virtual” interior rendering per house. Too costly to press a button on the architectural software and pop out several views of the interior AND exterior of each house? Perhaps they haven’t finalized the kitchen and bathrooms.

They’ve got a blog here on the new designs, and are looking for reader feedback, so I love them for that. Anyone with an opinion can go at them.

This is what more companies should do before they introduce a home. It is one of the things the web allows, of which too many companies are not taking advantage.

I’ll eviscerate their designs here instead of on their blog though, since, to be fair, these are just my initial reactions, and their homes aren’t even available in New Mexico.

Starting off with several things I don’t like about their website. First of all, where are the specs? They want a person to write in to get a more detailed floor plan in PDF, giving address and phone etc.

Again, this is part of my harangue about how housing manufacturers are not using their websites to full potential for presenting information. They put things out like they are paying per page, as in a brochure, to advertise. I don’t know, many of the companies probably contract their website design out and have to pay per page.

Or when specs or vendors change, they don't want to be responsible for having to change it on their website too. More each year, companies, when they contract to outside web designers, will need at least one person in their firm, who can make changes as needed to the website, including adding photos. Or, they can hire people who work at home, to make these changes for much less than it would cost to always have a web design or ad agency controlling the content of their website.

When considering a home, or trying to compare, I like to see specs up front before talking to anyone. Salesperson contact, and human contact is as important as ever. It is just that full information properly presented on a company's website, can help that contact to happen.

House models are not like cars, where everyone can see them driving around. The web is a housing company's opportunity to show the world their houses, and everything about them. See my former post on Marketing homes in the age of the web, HERE.
Look what Nationwide/Palm Harbor did with the Osprey…they showed over a hundred photos of it in various stages of construction. I like that! I like seeing the size and spacing etc. on the floor joists they are using.

It is frustrating to have to contact the company to find out what the R-values are in the insulation of a home, or how the wall sandwich is made, or who supplies their siding.

On the good side, I don't mind their idea of doing everything they can to keep the price low, even down to the lack of customization.

The “Trailblazer” with all those windows on the south side, would be great for passive solar gain in the winter. And it has half the roof at a good angle for solar panels, to be added at a later time.

No windows on the north, which is good for passive solar.

The 771 sq. ft. 2 bedroom, 1 bath “Craftsman Bungalow.”

This home is a real cutie. It's simple, and they got the proportions and visual rhythm of the porch and windows down right. It doesn't look dorky. It is the steeper roof pitch that makes it look more genuine than manufactured homes which sometimes imitate this style.

In my version, I've added a window I borrowed from a photo of Sears Craftsman bungalow, making it look a little more Craftsman-like, and painted maroon just for some contrast.

The interior plan looks nice too. For a couple starting out, they could add a bath and bedroom as their family or needs expand.

The only drawback, which for me is a personal preference, is that it wouldn’t be optimal for passive solar gain in the winter. So, the “Trailblazer” or "Prairie View" would be my pick, for passive and active solar design.

The designs of all these houses are pretty simple on the outside, but their strength is in the interior design, nice proportions and quality for the price.

The 945 sq.ft. two story, 2 bedroom, 1 bath “Craftsman Cottage.”

This might be good for a narrow lot, but the exterior design is too plain and somewhat unbalanced looking. But, I've seen worse. In this photo, you can't see a nice Craftsman-style window that is on other side of the house. It looks good on the inside.

In my version, I moved the white band up about one foot so the house doesn't look top-heavy. It looks equally good with no white band.

What I can see of the interior looks nice though, except there's the inconvenience of going upstairs to use the bathroom. For me, the priority is the interior, energy efficiency, price, and quality of construction, over exterior appearance. It would be nice to have it all though.

The 945 sq. ft. 1 bedroom, 1 den, 1 bath “Prairie View”

This split shed roof design with clerestory windows makes my pulse quicken. It is great for passive and active solar. The double shed roof, or split gable (I think it is called) is one of my favorite designs. There's a house of this style down the street from me, but it is not as proportioned as nicely as this one from Excel.

Looking at this, something is off though. The three windows in the front make the front portion of the house look like a garden shed which was enclosed, instead of part of the house. The proportions are nice and good roof slope etc. I'd like to see real photos of all these homes instead of the virtual ones.

In my version I replaced the trio of square windows in the front with a quartet, and voila, music. I'm very pleased with this change. It is subtle, but makes the home look better. The front half no longer looks like a shed. I also figured out what the real problem was. It was the square shape of the windows in the front, more than the number used. The square front windows echoed the square windows of the small clerestory windows, and it was just too many square windows! Now, the clerestory windows look better too.

About the sunken living room in the interior... First of all, there’s the going up and down steps just to go between the living room and other rooms. Secondly, in colder climates, cold air tends to sit in the lowest spot. On the other hand, in a warmer climate, like South Carolina, this temperature difference can be welcome in warmer months. And, a level change can be dramatic in a home. Their website says this was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie designs.

I want to see more views of the interior of this home, like how the clerestory windows look from the kitchen. One great thing about clerestory windows is that on the south, they flood the home with light, but inside the home it is indirect light. They are high enough that you never look right at the sun coming in, and no need to shade them. In the summer, with sun overhead, they don't heat the house nearly as much as skylights. And in the winter, they let in more solar warmth when the sun is lower in the sky.

Finally, the 945 sq. ft. 2 bedroom, 1 bath L-shape “Villager.”

This is a nice variation on the traditional ranch, in that it creates some enclosure with the L and nice separation of one of the bedrooms, without the wasted space of long hallway found in many ranchers.

When I first saw this photo of the exterior, I thought it didn't look very good because of the window placement. See how the windows on the right, are right up against the edge of the house. I don't like that. However, that window placement, along with the windows on the adjacent side, can look very cool INSIDE, a wrap-around effect. So, sometimes it is worth a sacrifice of something that doesn't look all that great outside, for what it brings to the interior of a home.

The window in the bedroom (front, on the left) bothered me. It looks like a 1960 ranch house picture window, and didn't go with the style of the other windows in the front of the house. So, first I tried either putting a single or double window there, same kind as in the front. That looks fine. However, in a bedroom, a lot of people don't want a window that when open in the summer, is big enough for someone to crawl in.

So, I left the window as it was, but added a mullion (dividing stick) and I think it looks better. It could be a do-it-yourself project.

Since 1984, Excel has had a reputation of building reasonably-priced modular homes -- over 27,000 of them -- with the overriding principal that their homes -- the more expensive ones anyway -- are pretty much indistinguishable from site built. They don't stray from traditional styles, but being modular, they can be built faster and with better control and quality.

Along with looking like site-built, owners can have peace-of-mind their home itself will be a good investment.

In the past, the starting size of their homes (over 1000 sq. ft.), the level of customization, and the number of larger more expensive homes they build precluded me from paying much attention to them, even though their homes frequently win modular awards for design in their price range.

Even though I want to review mostly green modular homes that are nationally competitive with the i-house, I thought I'd stick these in, because I like all of them, and the Clayton i-house can't be delivered in parts of NY State and some other places because of bridge height. Also, some of these designs might be better for areas with big snow load.

How different these homes are from the attention-getting California green modular builders, who kept [only] wishing for mass production on a scale that would bring their homes down from an outrageous $250+/sq. ft. Excel sells many homes, instead of a handful, and is still in business for a reason. While many other builders closed shop, they followed the market without attempting to create cutting-edge modern designs that people can't afford, and they have a good reputation.

I'm not against architects exploring any ideas they want, no matter how far fetched, but I'd like to see more small, affordable green homes go into production, and its great to see Excel, Clayton and Palm Harbor catching on. Smaller is greener. It saves energy.

I'd like to throw in a link to MODULAR HOME BUILDER, a blog by Gary (modcoach) of everything and anything having to do with what is going on in the modular home industry. Sometimes it can be difficult to navigate through manufacturer's websites to find what is new, and keep track of the inside business news, and Gary does all this and more. Unlike some of the green blogs, his experience in this industry allows him to see through a lot of the green hype.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Clayton i house has a FACEBOOK page

The Clayton i-house FACEBOOK page has many links to blogger's mention of the i-house, including satisfied owners or visitors.

Frankly, a few of the posts are kind of thin, e.g, "I love the i-house and want to get one." A few are quite good though, better than some of the articles.

For any blog posts by disgruntled owners, you'll have to tune into my page, because only I will link to them, ha ha.

Also, note to Nigerian mail scammers posing as beautiful Siberian women who just want plane fare to get the the U.S., the Clayton i-house is not dating anyone.

While I'm here, might as well throw in two opinions of the i-house by friends of mine, who have gone to visit it. One guy who hates manufactured homes, really liked the i-house but said he would be concerned with "investment value." Then again, he's very wealthy and looks at everything in terms of investment value.

Another friend of mine, who saw the model in Mesa, AZ, and she has a beautiful house, said she really liked everything about it, except the trim molding between the ceiling and wall. She thought it should be rounded, at least at the lower edge, rather than perfectly square. Like over half of the people interested in the i-house, according to my poll, this was the first time she ever went to a dealer of manufactured homes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A challenger to the i-house, Palm Harbor Homes eco-cottages

Model at top is "The Osprey" which will be at the Int. Builder's show in Las Vegas, Jan 19-22.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

It was only a matter of time, before another major manufacturer introduced green manufactured homes, and now Nationwide Custom Homes, a subsidiary of Palm Harbor Homes -- a major builder of manufactured homes -- is introducing their new line of “eco-cottages.”

I'm going to be editing this post, adding interior photos as they become available and including more accurate information as more is known about these eco-cottages. Rather than a challenger to the i-house, now that the specs are in, they are shaping up to be more of a tinier alternative.

Go HERE to see their website. It shows three or four models with variations of roof style and configuration. For example, two can be put together. The Osprey is modern but others are more traditional cottage style. All of them are as cute as they get.

Update: I just read a blog from a person who attended the show, and the 523 sq. ft. Osprey will have a price of $60,000. The show model was tricked out with Gaggenau (Click HERE to see PDF of what that entails) kitchen appliances, and other options that do not come with that price.

Download floorplans, photos, and specs from this page.

Although my blog is dedicated to the i-house, I want to introduce the major reasonably-priced green homes as they come along, since the i-house is not available everywhere and also some people may be looking for something smaller or different.

One of the several models, the one bedroom 523 sq. ft. “Osprey” will be shown to the public for the first time at the International Builder’s show in Las Vegas, NV on January 19-22, 2010.

HERE's a short slide show of some bad photos of the Osprey and other modular homes at the show.

Here's a link to some much nicer photos of the Osprey from the Charles & Hudson Green Building blog. The bathroom! What a jewel.

HERE is a large photo set of the Osprey and other homes Nationwide had at the builders' show in Vegas. (Click on full screen icon to see larger photos.)

Dig those ceiling fans in the living room. They remind me of atomic bombs or the propellers used on the Hindenburg. Oh the humanity!

How to you feel about the bottom of the V running the length of the house as reflected in the ceiling line? I'm not sure, although it is cool, the way the kitchen changes to just a shed slant. That's a nice design element.

All these photos but no good shots of the bedroom or the bathroom. I like the bamboo covered wall behind the TV. This little house has some nice things going for it! It might make the one bedroom i-house seem spacious in comparison though. The wall space in the Osprey is better suited to the philatelist than the collector of fine art.

HERE is an extensive photo set from Nationwide Custom Homes, showing the Osprey being made. Note the SIS (Structural Insulated Sheathing) foam paneling they are using to tighten the building envelope.

The show model features a standing-seam metal roof with integrated thin film solar ($7500 upgrade from roof without solar), and other green features similar to the i-house…bamboo floors…point-of-use hot water, Andersen windows, but also with some cork, no-duct heating, and LED lighting.

One aspect of the Osprey -- and the other models as well -- that goes beyond a regular park model RV cottage and is comparable to the i-house is the insulation. It has R20 walls, R19 floors, and R38 roof. (Some sites list the show model as having higher insulation.) Another nice feature; the decks are included and integrated into the structure. (The extra decking for the show is not part of it, just the front and back decks.)

Nearly all park models -- but not all -- come with only R11 insulation in the walls. There are a few small builders, that use SIPS. With SIPS, you can get more insulation per inch. For example, this prefab from Solargon of Colorado.

The styling on these eco-cottages is very cottage-like, with wide eaves, porches, wrap-around decks and other things that don’t usually come on most manufactured homes.

They are meant for vacation homes, retirement residences, or backyard "granny" or guest cottages. It is disappointing they haven't used either SIPS (Structurally Insulated Panels) for walls or 2 x 6" studs in the exterior walls instead of 2 x 4". However, at least they developed a hybrid (foam/batt) to get more insulation than most homes built this way.

Eco-cottages are built on piers or a foundation [probably] and not be moved around, although if you have a lot that is in an RV park, they can build one to conform to the codes for that.

The company is based in Virginia, with facilities in Georgia and Alabama, but distribution will probably be nationwide. Pricing is not yet available but their website says all the homes will be between $25,000 and $90,000.

The International Builders' Show, where the Osprey is now making its debut, is featuring four smaller, greener modular homes than usual but the theme that is stealing the press of the show, is the downturn of the economy. This year, for the first time in the decades the show has been going, they do not have a multi-million dollar dream home to showcase all the latest innovations and products. The builder for this year's 3.5 million dollar home lost financing, so it wasn't finished in time and they sold what there was of it for $500,000.

Instead, they are replacing it with Marianne Cusato's VIRTUAL $95/sq. ft. home, but they didn't build it. Even though she isn't interested in building modern designs (which is unfortunate, because I would like to see what she would design), Cusato is one of my favorite architects. Here's a question and answer I found interesting. And HERE is a list of articles where Cusato is mentioned.