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Architecture & Design

Is Prefab Housing Making a Comeback? Walt Disney's Great-Nephew Brings SoCal's First 'Blu Home' to Joshua Tree

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Tue, Sep 18, 2012 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge Blu Home exterior - COURTESY OF BLU HOMES, JOHN SWAIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Courtesy of Blu Homes, John Swain Photography
  • Blu Home exterior

Could prefab be making a comeback?

Prefab, or prefabricated buildings, are typically manufactured in component parts, typically in a factory, then shipped and installed on-site. Pre-housing bust several developers specializing in prefab lauched in SoCal, including Marmol Radziner and LivingHomes, delivering mass-produced modern homes. These homes, while having a high design quotient, were often not much cheaper than a custom-designed home on a per square footage basis. Enter Blu Homes: the latest entrant into the prefab space focused on sustainable solutions aiming to provide affordable housing.

One of the earliest prefab innovators marrying architecture and manufacturing was Michelle Kaufmann, who launched her eponymous architecture firm in 2002 in the Bay Area specializing in green homes that used modular, prefab technology. While her firm closed in 2009 due to the tanking housing economy (she later opened a new design firm), she sold several of her designs to Blu Homes. This past weekend, the first Blu Home in SoCal, set against the alien-esque desert backdrop of Joshua Tree, was open to the public for a tour.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF BLU HOMES, JOHN SWAIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Courtesy of Blu Homes, John Swain Photography

Owned by Tim Disney (great-nephew of Walt), who is also an investor and board member for Blu, the house is a compound of two of the company's Origin line modules set at a right angle, with a conventionally built room connecting the two. The result is a 2,450 square foot hyper-efficient home. The house includes solar panels, bamboo flooring with radiant heat, and an air recycling system to cool the house.

click to enlarge Blu Home interior - COURTESY OF BLU HOMES, JOHN SWAIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Courtesy of Blu Homes, John Swain Photography
  • Blu Home interior

The walls are steel-fabricated, with windows throughout, and movable cedar panels to block the sun on the hottest desert days. A generous deck flanks the house to maximize the indoor/outdoor flow and glass windows are standard Anderson products. Disney bought the five acre plot for just $40,000, and the compound (including a guest house) costs just over $530,000. What's not included is the cost to level the land -- an arduous undertaking on a site littered with massive boulders.

While Disney admits leveling the land was more costly and time-consuming than he expected, construction costs are kept down given the speed of installation. It takes one to two days to assemble the homes on-site and just a few weeks to have contractors and craftsmen finish them. The modules are built in six to eight weeks in Blu Home's Bay Area factory. They are then transported by truck and literally unfolded on site.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF BLU HOMES, JOHN SWAIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Courtesy of Blu Homes, John Swain Photography

It's the unfolding technology that seems to differentiate Blu from its competitors. Rather than assembling the house piece-by-piece, the walls of the module are unfolded in situ, like some sort of architectural origami. Modules start at $135,000, though the complex permitting in California raises the prices somewhat for houses located here.

Watch the installation process here:

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