Green Housing, Once the Preserve of Millionaires, Goes the Way of Double-Wides

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Nine times out of ten, when you see a "green" home, it's the vanity project of some millionaire who likes feeling virtuous. Cheap it is not. Add in a bunch of high-tech gizmos, and you're wading into Bill Gates territory. So how come a Bainbridge Island affordable housing organization is able to sell two environmentally-friendly, "cutting-edge" homes, as the Kitsap Sun put it, for $130,000 and under? Hint: Think double-wides.

Dale Sperling, the Seattle builder who donated the homes (one stacked on top of the other; pictured above) to Bainbridge Island's Housing Resources Board, says the secret to their low cost is that they were built in a factory. Mobile-home producers have long understood the economies of scale achieved from building housing this way. You can have all your labor and materials in one place, rather than having to transport them to each individual site. Plus, you don't have to worry about bad weather slowing you down.

"It's sunny every day inside the factory," Sperling says.

While the factory approach has usually been associated with the tackier end of the housing spectrum, increasingly upscale builders are taking a look at it too. Working at Seattle's Unico Properties, Sperling built the Bainbridge Island homes several years ago as a test. He wanted to create what he calls "affordable urban infill housing units for the ecoboom generation." The units are small-- under 500 square feet each--but they come with features that appeal to the save-the-planet set: "dual flush" toilets that conserve water, recycled materials, sensors that automatically turn lights and heat on and off.

One of the architects who worked on the project, Robert Humble, has became so enamored with the factory approach that he has had a home for himself built that way. Tricked out with even more green features, it is being delivered in six boxes to Humble's Central Area property tomorrow, where it will be assembled in one day. Developer Greenfab is encouraging onlookers to ooh and ahh over this feat of "modular" construction. (See this video of another modular home being constructed.)

Humble's 1,790-square-foot house cost just over $300,000 to build, according to Greenfab--not cheap but still fairly inexpensive as green housing goes.

Humble, however, had to go to Idaho to find a factory to build it. The Burlington factory that constructed the Bainbridge Island homes has since gone out of business, according to Sperling. That would seem to suggest that factory-built housing is not an economic sure thing.

Yet Sperling, who has left Unico and started a new business called OneBuild, is betting that he can do better. He's bought the assets of the Burlington company and is now scouting locations for a new factory where he boasts he can do for green housing "what Henry Ford did for automobile manufacturing."

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