Maine-made modulars go green

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of the Portland Press Herald

A Portland architect is teaming up with the state’s leading modular home builder to create a series of modular houses with the capacity to generate as much energy as they use.

The Modular Zero Collection is being launched this month by Kaplan Thompson Architects and Keiser Industries LLC of Oxford. The companies say they are the first in the country to offer a production line of so-called net-zero homes, which combine superinsulation, efficient heaters and solar energy to produce all the power they need, on an annual basis.

This Falmouth house is a prototype for a new line of Maine-built modular homes, which use superinsulation, efficient heaters and solar power to produce as much energy as they use annually. Photo by Trent Bell

Unlike custom, net-zero homes, these factory-made houses are meant to compete on price with conventional, site-built structures. Prices will start at $205,000 for a small, two-bedroom house, excluding the cost of land, utilities and solar panels.

The selling point, however, isn’t the initial expense. The appeal is to buyers who want a comfortable house with standard amenities, in which energy costs are stable for the life of the mortgage and essentially zero after that.

“Sustainable design has gotten a bad rap,” said Phil Kaplan, a principal at the architectural firm. “People think it has to be more expensive, or if it’s not, it looks like a box.”

The three models in the modular collection don’t look like boxes.

The smallest model, the Chebeague, is 960 square feet. It has two bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as a gabled roof and porch. The midsized model, the Peaks, is 1,200 square feet and has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Both start at $205,000.

These models are expected to be the first homes built and delivered this fall to an affordable-housing development on Peaks Island. Because of budget limitations, the solar hot water and electrical systems that would allow the house to achieve a net-zero capacity aren’t included in the package.

But the homes will be heat misers. Air sealing, premium windows and double the typical insulation — R-values of 40 in the walls and 60 in the roof — will cut heat requirements by roughly two-thirds, compared to a standard new house.

The idea for the Keiser-Kaplan collaboration goes back two years, when Kaplan and a New Hampshire modular builder designed a net-zero office-studio that was assembled in Rockport. That custom project was expensive, but it gained national attention.

The project caught the eye of executives at Keiser and its parent company, R.J. Finlay & Co. Keiser had been building some homes to the federal government’s Energy Star standards and was interested in integrating more green building into its products. While it doesn’t expect sales to take off in today’s economic downturn, Keiser wants to position itself for a recovery.

“We think this is the direction of the future,” said Josh Saunders, Keiser’s sales manager. “Even more than sustainable, energy efficient is what people are going to gravitate to. That’s where the payback is.”

To achieve net-zero performance, Keiser looked at a site-built home Kaplan had recently designed in Falmouth. That home, which is 1,680 square feet and has three bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms, served as a prototype for the line. It’s being offered as the Great Diamond model, with a starting price of $235,000.

Each model combines energy efficiency with features that promote healthy indoor living, such as low-emission paint and heat recovery ventilation for fresh air exchange. South-facing windows help warm the homes in winter; roof overhangs block hot sunlight in summer.

Each home will be plumbed and wired for solar. For buyers who choose the option, solar hot water, solar electric systems or both will be installed.

Choosing both systems could add another $40,000 or so, although tax credits could lower the cost. The systems are designed to soak up enough energy over the course of a year to offset electric bills. The extra power generated by the solar electric panels in the summer and fed back into the grid is intended to make up utility costs in winter — resulting in net-zero energy consumption.

Despite its enthusiasm, Keiser has doubts that many buyers will spend the extra money, unless energy prices skyrocket.

“It’s going to be hard to sell net-zero, although I really want to,” Saunders said.

These homes are aimed at middle-class families. Some may decide to install just solar hot water, which is less costly and has a faster payback. Most will be content to cut their heating bills, Saunders suggested, with a tight, superinsulated house.

Keiser is preparing literature to begin selling the product line through its network of builders in New England. The marketing goal, Saunders said, is to stress the advantages of a highly energy-efficient home that’s produced to factory specifications and can be ready for occupancy within three months of signing a contract.

Some builders already have experience selling Keiser’s Energy Star package, which adds another $6,000 or so to the cost of a home but cuts fuel costs by 40 percent.

“Net-zero is a greater version of that,” said Nick Sherman, sales manager at Hallmark Homes Corp. in Topsham.

Sherman, who also is president of the Modular Home Builders Association of Maine, sees two kinds of buyers as likely candidates for net-zero homes.

The first, he suggested, are people who drive hybrid cars out of environmental concerns, rather than hopes of saving money.

Other buyers, perhaps those on a fixed income, will remember the brief period of record oil prices in 2008 and worry about what energy will cost five years from now.

“I got a glimpse of what $4.50 oil looked like, and it scared me,” Sherman said.

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