For almost a decade I lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world, Vancouver, BC, where average home prices hover around $600,000 (CAD) for a one-bedroom condo and over $2 million for a three-bedroom detached home. Unsurprisingly, there’s a housing crisis in that city, and yet the container housing project just down the street from my own tiny apartment was the lone example for years of a low-cost, low-waste, simple, mostly prefabricated tiny home project that houses those in need of affordable housing.
Happily, in the past couple of years, more of these prefabricated housing projects have popped up (sometimes seemingly overnight!) in the city to provide a home for some of Vancouver’s more vulnerable residents. These microapartments and prefabricated buildings provide a quick and attractive way of addressing the housing crisis in cities like Vancouver and are prefabricated, modular homes and tiny homes are also increasingly popular with those looking to add to the value of an existing home or get onto the property ladder for the first time.
If, though, like I did, you assume that tiny or “micro” homes and container homes are inherently eco-friendly, it might surprise you to learn that this isn’t always the case. Sure, some prefabricated tiny homes and other prefabricated buildings are specifically designed to be energy efficient and non-toxic, and to use recycled and low-impact materials in a smart way. However, not all prefabricated homes or tiny homes are eco-friendly, nor do all tiny home trends work well in every climate or for every occupant. In fact, some aren’t very eco-friendly or functional at all.
Let’s start this series with a look at the potential benefits of prefabricated homes, followed by the possible pitfalls of prefabricated homes, tiny and otherwise. If you want to skip this part, you can jump ahead to the following articles:
- The environmental impact of conventional construction versus prefabricated homes
- How to build an eco-friendly prefabricated home
- Eco-friendly home design
- Living off-grid – is it really eco-friendly?
- Eco-friendly insulation.
- The best eco-friendly prefabricated homes.
Ten Key Benefits of Prefab Micro Homes
Compared to a conventionally built apartment building, or a detached home, prefabricated homes can offer a wealth of benefits. For instance, prefab micro homes, tiny or not, can be sustainable in a whole heap of ways.
A prefabricated home (or prefab), is built off-site in a factory and is then shipped in pieces to a building site where it is quickly assembled in place. Because these homes often follow a set design template for the most part, they are typically faster to produce and less wasteful, having been designed with efficient construction in mind. And, if you order a prefabricated tiny home, chances are that the designer will have taken great pains to make the best use of a small space. All in all, compared to conventional building, this can mean that your home:
- Uses fewer construction materials and generates significantly less construction waste
- Is more durable than a house built on-site (it has to withstand the rigors of the journey to site!)
- Will often be made using locally sourced materials, thereby reducing transport emissions
- May have a lower ‘permit value’ and faster, pre-cleared permit process
- Typically includes some eco-friendly passive heating, cooling, or power elements
- Is, therefore, easier, faster, and cheaper to heat and cool
- Is easier to maintain than a larger home
- Doesn’t require a large area of land to be clear-cut and offers flexibility for positioning on site
- May allow you to live ‘off-grid’, pay back into the grid, or use renewable energy sources more easily
- Encourages you to avoid buying things you don’t need and instead borrow and trade tools, equipment etc. (because of the lack of storage space).
A prefabricated tiny home can also be picked up and relocated with relative ease, meaning that you can keep the home you love, even if you have to move neighborhoods, cities, or even countries in some cases. This saves you and the environment the trouble of building a new house or renovating an older building.
How popular are sustainable micro homes?
In the United States, around 2-3% of residential construction comprises modular homes. There is wide regional variation though, with nearly 6% of homes in the Northeast using modular methods, but less than 1% doing so in the West. Prefabricated homes that use modular, manufactured, and panelized techniques together account for more than a quarter of construction, however (R).
The cost of prefabricated homes
Looking back at those container housing units on Alexander Street in Vancouver, these are bachelor style apartments averaging 290 square feet. They boast a small kitchen, full bathroom, in-suite laundry, and a price tag of just $82,500 to build. A conventionally built 325 square foot apartment in another social housing development just around the corner cost around $220,000 (CAD) to build in 2018 and took a lot longer to get to a move-in ready state.
A quick look at census data shows that the average sale price of a new home in the U.S. was $379,600 for February 2019. In the U.S., building a new home using conventional methods can vary from $90 to over $1000 per square feet. This amounts to around $180,000 to $2 million for a small three-bedroom home. The cost of labor and materials will differ wildly depending on where you live, of course, and your choice of entry-level, comfortable, or luxury materials and finishes will also affect the price. As such, it’s hard to state an average price to build a detached home in the U.S., but one thing is certain: conventional construction takes longer and offers more opportunity for things to go awry and get really, really expensive.
Prefabricated eco-homes can also range dramatically in price, but the costs are more likely to tally with initial estimates, given the quick construction and nature of the project. If you’re going for an ‘off-the-rack’ type studio container apartment, a new home may cost you around $50,000 to $100,000 (not including land). For a four-bedroom prefabricated luxury home, you’re looking at anywhere between $200,000 and around $500,000 for the home (not including land).
Maybe my sense of cost has been warped by years of living in Vancouver, but buying a beautiful, eco-friendly family home such as the Mandala home, tailored to your needs for far less than the going rate for a small one-bedroom apartment, seems like a screaming deal to me.
What’s more, a prefabricated home may only take a matter of days, weeks or a couple of months from initial design to turning your key in the lock. Indeed, it can take as long to prepare a conventional building site for the building process as it can to build an entire prefabricated home. This is, in part, because cutting and building prefab pieces indoors removes the potential for delays due to weather. According to The National Association of Home Builders, most prefabricated homes are completely finished in around five months. Some may take just a couple of months, and smaller homes may take even less time.
Compare that to construction times of up to three years for some condominium projects in some cities, or around 18 months for a conventionally built detached family home and it’s easy to see the attraction of a prefabricated home, especially for many Millennials trying to get into the housing market for the first time.
Prefabricated tiny homes and larger prefabricated homes can also be extremely stylish and, if you choose the right company, are very eco-friendly compared to a conventionally built home. Two additional benefits of tiny homes and other accessory dwelling units (ADUs) such as laneway houses include:
- Shorter commutes and associated greenhouse gas emissions – by making use of existing space in urban areas, tiny homes and ADUs allow people to live closer to where they work and to other amenities. And, if you use a prefab tiny home as a home office, you really reduce your commute!
- Greenspace protection and reduced sprawl – Tiny homes, laneway houses, and other ADUs allow for higher density in places where high-rises aren’t the right fit. This helps prevent further urban sprawl and, in so doing, helps safeguard greenspaces, with benefits for the environment, wildlife, and for our mental and physical wellbeing.
All this being said, a tiny home, especially if prefabricated, will likely cost you less than an average family home. Now for the rub. On a cost per square foot basis, building a tiny home can cost twice as much as building a conventional home (for a variety of reasons, described below). Some tiny home designs are also arguably all form and no function, making them less eco-friendly than an equivalent living space built in a conventional manner.
Next, let’s look at the potential pitfalls of tiny homes and prefabricated homes of all sizes.