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Modular Living: Connect:Homes makes prefab housing consumer friendly

Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Photo Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

ConnectHomes installed a temporary prefabricated living unit at Hillview Community Center earlier this month. The unit features large sliding glass doors that open to a deck that extends the living space. The model unit includes ample space for creative interior design.

Imagine leaving for work and returning less than 24 hours later to a fully functioning new home, complete with appliances and lights.

Although the idea might seem implausible, the brain trust behind Connect:Homes hopes such a concept will soon become the norm in the Bay Area.

“It’s like the difference between building a car in your garage and building a car in a factory,” said Connect:Homes co-founder Gordon Stott, describing the contrast between traditional homebuilding and his company’s prefabricated modular architecture system.

Stott showcased one of his models earlier this month in Los Altos at the Hillview Community Center as part of the Silicon Valley Dwell Home Tour. The display unit was staged and installed within 24 hours of delivery, according to Stott.

“It’s pretty amazing that this is possible,” he said.

By re-engineering the construction and home-delivery process, Stott hopes to make contemporary green living accessible and affordable to everyone.

“One of the things that people are most excited about is how efficient factory building is in comparison to site building,” he noted.

Several members of the Los Altos Hills Planning Department stopped by the company’s prototype display at Hillview to examine the unit and its feasibility in the community.

“The prefabricated units by Connect:Homes or other similar manufacturers would provide an additional option for homeowners who would like to construct a secondary dwelling unit on their property,” said Debbie Pedro, planning director for Los Altos Hills, in an email to the Town Crier.

She noted that each site is different and that as with any other applicant for a building permit, the homeowner would need to ensure that he or she complied with site development and zoning rules.

The U.S. Green Building Council recognizes 70 percent of the materials, products and factory assemblies Connect:Homes uses as “environmentally preferable.”

Unprecedented in the industry, the homes are also 90 percent complete when shipped. All plumbing, mechanical and electrical work is finished in the factory. Standard features include low-flush toilets, enhanced-energy-performance appliances and a cool-roof system.

According to Stott, constructing a home this way is 75 percent more efficient than the traditional construction process, sparing new homeowners expensive on-site work, excessive construction waste and disruption to neighbors.

Unlike the standard home-building process – which typically takes 18 months to design, plan and build – a Connect:Homes creation can take less than six months to complete.

A vision emerges

Stott and Connect:Homes co-founder Jared Levy met while working on the prefabrication team for a large, upscale architecture firm in Los Angeles. Although they were creating highly regarded modern homes, the cost of custom design work and transportation made their work inaccessible to the average homeowner.

“Our system couldn’t ship farther than 250 miles before the cost of transportation rivaled the cost of construction,” Stott said.

He was frustrated by industry limitations and how they restricted the firm from offering a “compelling value proposition” to its clients, he said.

From securing permits to hiring pilot cars and special equipment and even mapping routes to avoid power lines, traditional cross-country transport of modular units can be a nightmare, said Stott, adding that it costs $20,000 for an industry standard-sized modular unit to be shipped across country.

“If we were to solve this delivery crisis,” he recalled thinking, “we could create the dream.”

With the vision of making modern homes efficient, green and affordable, Stott and Levy spent three years developing the concept for Connect:Homes and launched their business in July. The first three homes will be delivered to Sonoma in the spring.

Although the company’s approach of customizing units in the factory offers savings to homeowners, the real cost-saving factor for Connect:Homes is its focus on using existing intermodal shipping networks.

Employing the template of a shipping container, Connect:Homes units are designed to be easily transported by ship to locations around the world. Transportation costs are minimal – 32 tons of anything can be sent internationally for approximately $3,200, Stott said.

“Like the Internet, once you’ve laid out the network, once it’s all set up, you can basically move costlessly,” he noted.

Changing the image of prefab homes

Defying the perceptions associated with prefabricated housing is a challenge for Connect:Homes, but Stott said the company is trying to change that by improving how they’re built and how they look.

Although the prospect of modular architecture may cause concern among some neighbors and planning commissioners, Stott said Connect:Homes is committed to working with buyers to think outside the box to enhance their appeal.

“What we’ve found is that if a specific roofline scares people, we can go with pitched roofs … a sleek traditional structure,” he said. “We have never once run into an issue we couldn’t work with the local agency to find a way around.”

In addition to changing the size of window openings, more neighborhood-appropriate material palettes, covered decks and other features can be incorporated in the unit to soften the feel of the home.

All units are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certified, which Stott said makes it easy for homeowners to comply with green codes and laws.

A new way to save green

With home-building costs on the rise – the median price per square foot for homes in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills increased 21 percent (to $800 and $810, respectively) from 2011 to 2012, according to a September DataQuick survey – Connect:Homes may provide a more affordable option for residents.

“We want to deliver real value to the end user,” Stott said. “Building a modular unit doesn’t make sense unless it costs less.”

Ranging from $128,000 for a 640-square-foot unit to $448,000 for 2,560 square feet – including delivery, a budget for the foundation, installation, utilities connections and everything else except required permits – Stott said he hopes the Connect:Homes concept will appeal to homeowners otherwise unable to afford to design their homes.

“Our low price really is a differentiating point,” he said.

For more information, call (888) 959-2261 or visit connect-homes.com.

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