Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP, who closed down her firm in May 2009, announced on September 28 on her blog that she has sold several assets of Michelle Kaufmann Designs to Waltham, Mass.-based prefab green home building company Blu Homes. Blu Homes will build Kaufmann's Glidehouse, Breezehouse, mkLotus, and mkSolaire prefab house designs in its Massachusetts factory and ship them nationwide. The acquisition adds to Blu Homes' existing portfolio of modern prefab house designs.
Kaufmann is currently consulting with Blu Homes to make adjustments to her designs' floor plans, proportions, and elevations to take advantage of the company's proprietary modular building system. Her original specifications and eco-luxury aesthetic will be maintained as much as possible.
Like other prefab builders, Blu Homes manufactures its homes in a factory using streamlined processes and optimized materials, but the company has developed a hybrid steel-and-wood building system that allows it to construct "unfolding" modules. Using this system, the company fully builds modular houses in its factory, then collapses portions of the modules for shipping, which allows transportation of wider structures than are typically permitted to pass down roads. Modules collapse down to 8-, 10-, or 12-foot widths for shipping, then are unfolded onsite to create structures 16 feet, 18 feet, or 22 feet wide—overcoming the restrictions that have constrained the prefab industry. Not only does this system broaden Blu Homes' territory, it also significantly reduces shipping costs. Blu Homes also retains control over foundation preparation for each project, using pile foundations on all home sites to circumvent potential difficulties with different types of soil bases.
"I think one of the issues of prefab has been that it's hard for companies to scale—to build thousands and thousands of houses—unless they're building mobile homes," says Maura McCarthy, Blu Homes' co-founder and vice president of business development. "Prefab 1.0 was about aesthetics and the green elements of homes, and that spirit is still there. But unless we can deliver it to more people, then it remains just a luxury product." The Blu Homes building system's simplified foundation preparation, reduced site work, and transportation cost savings promise future growth and expansion based on economies of scale.
Through the acquisition, Blu Homes has hit on a combination that draws on the strengths of both parties: Kaufmann's unique aesthetic perspective and design innovation and the company's own technical and business savvy, engineering craft, and national reach, according to McCarthy. "Michelle is a super-gifted designer; we love her designs. She has a lot of mojo," she says. "We're hoping we can couple the factory-building technologies and shipping efficiencies that help us make our product less expensive in general with her products."
Moving forward, Kaufmann has established a new practice—Michelle Kaufmann Studio—that will focus on custom net-zero energy single-family residences (site-built or modular, depending on the project), as well as community developments such as the ariaDenver multifamily project.
"I am consulting with Blu Homes as they forge ahead in the modular home arena, and look forward to working with them as their innovations take shape," Kaufmann said in her blog post announcing the agreement. "Despite the chilled climate in the home construction industry as a whole, I still believe this is a time of great opportunity for thoughtful, sustainable design ... I am happy to say that the designs created over the last five years are not dying, but rather will continue to live on in a new chapter."
At just about one year old, Blu Homes has completed seven projects and anticipates three more completions by the end of 2009. Within the next month, Blu Homes will publish the new versions of the Glidehouse, Breezehouse, mkLotus, and mkSolaire designs on www.mkd-arc.com.