Dear EarthTalk: I am looking for a small, modular home to put on a piece of vacation property. What’s available that could meet my needs and be easier on the environment than building a traditional house from scratch?
—Rob Sherman, Minneapolis, MN
First utilized by relief and aid missions around the world to house workers or refugees, self-contained modular homes that can be partially or even fully fabricated in advance are now all the rage among green architects and those committed to more sustainable living—and they’re beginning to pop all across North America and beyond, mostly for use as guest houses and vacation cabins. The benefits of such homes versus their larger traditional counterparts are many. In theory, prefabrication generates less waste, uses less energy, and provides more opportunities for the incorporation of greener construction methods and technologies. Most such buildings are also less demanding on the home site of choice.
One of the leaders in this fast-growing sector of residential construction is Toronto’s Sustain Design Studio, which has been building on its miniHome concept for almost a decade. The firm’s miniHomes range from single- to double-wide sizes and can fit into trailer parks or small urban lots accordingly, but are also optimized for off-grid self-sufficiency in wide open or wilderness areas. The buildings, which are mostly prefabricated at Sustain’s Toronto build facility, combine energy efficient systems with beautiful finishes that make owners feel like they are indulging yet remaining true to their green ideals.
Sustain’s California miniHome, for example, comes complete with all millwork, cabinets, plumbing fixtures and appliances, as well as high efficiency lighting circuits, plug-and-play connections to renewable power sources, sustainably sourced woods, and a built-in HVAC/water system that generates 20 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional home—all for under $150,000.
Another player is the Latvian firm Esclice, whose buildings can be installed on-site by two workers in two hours once foundation posts, water and wastewater hook-ups and electricity are in place. Other design studios building similar homes include Quikhouse, Zerocabin, Method Homes and Stem Design Works.
Of course, potential buyers should keep in mind that a home’s construction is just a fraction of its life-cycle carbon footprint—small pre-fab houses are built by people who also drive to work, watch TV and sometimes take long showers—plus, producing and shipping steel, concrete and other building materials are the major drivers behind any building’s carbon and energy footprint, wherever it’s manufactured.
Bearing that in mind, Seattle-based HyBrid Architecture has come up with an interesting slice on the sustainable small home idea: “cargotecture,” which describes the buildings it creates out of empty ISO shipping containers (those large boxes used for long-distance international shipping that one sees stacked atop giant cargo ships). Since many of these containers make just one-way trips from China, HyBrid has a lot of raw material to choose from. A single 8″ x 20″ container yields 160 square feet of living space, and the structures can be placed side-by-side or stacked up to eight high for more interior square footage. And while no one wants to live in a shipping container, HyBrid cuts doors and windows out of them and finishes them outside so that they look like modern yet nevertheless somewhat traditional buildings.