WAY FAB PREFABS
In their quest for affordable, energy-efficient homes, some Mainers are thinking outside the site-built box.
BY SARAH STEBBINS, VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT, AND BRIAN KEVIN
A hundred years ago, it was nothing for a homebuyer to purchase a house from the same source that supplied her corsets and motor buggy. From 1908 through the 1940s, Sears, Roebuck and Company sold some 70,000 “kit homes” from its voluminous mail-order catalog. Customers could choose from 447 (!) prefab models, Colonial to Craftsman style. Once purchased, Sears shipped the parts needed to build the home — precut lumber, windows, cabinets, nails, paint, and more — to the buyer’s lot for (typically DIY) assembly.
Kit houses attracted buyers because they were affordable, transportable, and comprised of quality materials. But over the course of the 20th century, the prefab premise shifted. “The driver became stripping things down to get the bottom line as low as possible, which resulted in lesser-quality builds,” says Parlin Meyer, director of Portland’s BrightBuilt Home, one of several Maine companies that have jumped on a national trend toward prefabs emphasizing style, energy efficiency, and high-end materials and construction methods.
Like Sears back in the day, companies like BrightBuilt, Searsmont’s Ecocor, and Belfast’s GO Logic offer ready-made, customizable house plans in an array of sizes and styles.
Meanwhile, Bensonwood, of Walpole, New Hampshire, designs its homes from scratch but follows the same basic tenets of modern prefab. Wall, roof, ceiling, and floor components are assembled with precision in a factory, where bad weather can’t cause delays and excess material is recycled and reused. Prebuilt parts are trucked to the site and pieced together, typically by a builder.
The result is an airtight home that can go from drafting table to housewarming party in three to five months — compare with nine months to a year for homes built onsite. And while prefab efficiencies don’t necessarily translate to a less expensive build, they do offer what Meyer calls “price predictability.”
“Because so many decisions are made up front, before the factory process starts,” she says, “you can home in on a fairly fixed cost and not worry about it ballooning.”
Chris Corson, Ecocor’s technical director, views today’s efficient prefabs on par with other high-tech products. “If you were buying a car, would you want one built in a factory or assembled in your driveway?” he asks. “To me, prefabricating is the future of the construction industry.” On the following pages, meet six Maine homeowners who got in on the ground floor.
→ Done with Old and Cold
For three years, Marian and Alex Starkey lived in a 1916 foursquare in South Portland that was charming, but chilly. “We were paying over $500 a month to keep the temperature barely tolerable,” says Marian. She issued an ultimatum: “If we’re going to stick it out in Maine, I want to build a warm house.” After accepting an unsolicited offer on their SoPo place, they had only a few months to secure a plot and construct their new home. The prefab path was a no-brainer.
→ Fitting In with the Neighbors
“We didn’t want to be conspicuous,” Marian says, living in some space-age cube on a street full of Victorian cottages. So the couple customized BrightBuilt Home’s Great Diamond model, the company’s most popular offering on account of its classic, cottagey appeal that nonetheless accommodates more than 2,000 square feet of living space. The generous floor plan allowed the Starkeys, who telecommute, to carve out a pair of offices, as well as a guest room.
→ DIY-Friendly Design
Alex, who renovated the couple’s previous homes, did the finish work himself, shaving roughly $175,000 off the building cost and enabling the pair to incorporate upgrades — cedar-shake siding, custom cabinetry complete with doggie nook — that would otherwise have been out of reach. Having the shell prebuilt allowed the Starkeys to chip away at projects while living in the house, which they keep at a toasty 70 degrees using electricity partially offset with solar panels.
UP NEXT: THE VILLAGE LIFE
→ The Village Life
Betty and Randy Libby aren’t new to high-performance construction. In 1999, they built a 1,900-square-foot home on the Brunswick outskirts. It had insulated, foot-thick walls and adhered to the Natural Resources Canada energy-efficiency standard. “We were pretty happy with that,” Betty says. Now in their 60s, they’ve downsized and moved into a solar-powered, net-zero home downtown. “We walk a lot — to yoga, the grocery, the library, over to Bowdoin College for events,” Betty says. “We love it.”
→ Here Comes the Sun
Ecocor designed the eaves so they allow shade in summer and direct sunlight in winter. “Unless the day is absolutely miserable, the light is wonderful,” Betty says. The sun brings other benefits as well. Their total energy costs are $10.68 a month, Central Maine Power’s basic rate. They use the supplemental heat panel in their bedroom only on the coldest, windiest days — and then only for about 10 minutes before going to bed. “We had a sunroom in our other house,” Randy says. “This whole house feels like a sunroom.”
→ Hands-On Homeowners
It took the Libbys more than a year to find an in-town lot with suitable southern exposure. All the while, they were sketching and re-sketching their ideal home, and Ecocor’s Chris Corson worked from their plan to create the final design. The Libbys saved money on construction by doing much of the finish work themselves (this included cabinets, counters, built-ins, closets, interior doors, trim, shower walls, tile, and paint). Their guest bedroom, furnished with a pullout couch, doubles as a shared office. “We use all of the house every day, so it’s the right size for us,” Betty says.
Cost to build: $260,000 (excluding finish work)
Square feet: 1,175
Heat/electricity: Air-source heat pump, supplemental electric panel heaters, 5 kW solar array
Annual cost for heat/electricity: $128
UP NEXT: PASSIVE PASTORAL
→ Balance of Power
Alison and Eric Rector wanted out of their “drafty old Maine farmhouse” in Monroe. They didn’t want to move far — they picked a building plot on their own land, subdivided it, and are selling the farmhouse — but they did want to reduce their energy footprint. So they approached GO Logic about a passive house, a structure designed to meet a strict, German-derived efficiency standard, cutting energy loss by 90 percent compared to a conventional home thanks to a highly insulated shell, triple-glazed windows, and a ventilation system that brings in fresh air without letting heat escape with the stale air. The Rectors’ place is grid-tied, but 24 photovoltaic panels feed a battery bank that can power the lights, propane heater, water pump, and other critical systems during outages. Excess energy they generate feeds the grid; in 2017, they got a power-company rebate (and put it towards an electric car).
The Rectors’ corrugated weathering-steel exterior was largely an aesthetic choice. Both the Rectors and architect Timothy Lock loved the industrial look of COR-TEN, a steel alloy that quickly develops a consistent oxidized finish. The rust acts as a protective layer, and compared to clapboard or shingles, it’s both cost-effective and low-maintenance. “In the farmhouse, it seemed like every year we were painting or scraping,” Alison says. “Not here.”
→Have It Your Way
“People hear ‘prefab’ and think ‘Oh, it has to look the same as every other project,’” Eric says. “But really, within the concept of prefab, we had a lot of flexibility in terms of interior design.” The Rectors worked with Lock to extend a wall here, move a couple of doors there, and select designs for their windows. They tacked on a garage-cum-art-studio. They used Maine black slate in the shower and deep-green Vermont slate in the kitchen. Lock designed the eye-catching grid of bright cabinets — which didn’t break the bank. “Ikea!” Alison reveals.
Architect: GO Logic
Cost to build: $230,000
Square feet: 1,024
Heat/electricity: Propane heater, supplemental electric baseboards, 6 kW solar array
Annual cost for heat/electricity: $90
UP NEXT: CUSTOM CABIN
Cost-to-build calculations are for homes alone and do not include excavation, site prep, permitting, surveying, or outbuildings.