For the average American, the definition of a “dream house” has changed. In place of white picket fences or sprawling lawns is a desire for homes that are built with eco-consciousness in mind; almost 85% of people would like to own an environmentally friendly home and sustainability has become a top priority for buyers, especially since the covid-19 pandemic began.
This has opened the door for a new era of modular homes, which consist of pod-like modules that are made in factories and then transported to building sites for assembly. The energy-efficiency and minimal waste of modular construction makes these homes an obvious choice for today’s homeowners—not to mention the fact that, because they’re built more efficiently, modular homes are often more affordable.
Homebuyers aren’t the only ones benefiting from this new approach to making houses, either; the new era of modular construction is an opportunity for long-standing homebuilders to take a fresh approach to their craft, with an eye toward the future.
“[Modular construction gives] the builder control of a hundred percent of the job,” said Joseph Wheeler, a professor of architecture at Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design.
In the D.C. metro area, new-era modular properties are emerging on the market thanks to Van Metre Homes. The Northern Virginia building company has partnered with Wheeler on a new modular prototype, known as POWERhaus, which is set to be unveiled in Spring 2021. Several principles guiding Van Metre’s production and construction processes have set POWERhaus apart from other modular projects: progressiveness, optimization, waste prevention, efficiency and renewability.
With nearly seven decades of experience in the housing industry, Van Metre well understands the efficiency of modular building, in which simultaneous construction of the foundation (at the building site) and parts of the home (in the factory) saves time, compared to the step-by-step sequence of traditional construction.
But today’s manufacturers are also attracted to the sustainability and quality enabled by modular techniques, according to Wheeler. From improvements in automation to 3D-printing that lets designers customize the texture and appearance of walls and surfaces, new technologies are paving the way for more sophisticated modular properties.
“We’re reinventing the homebuilding process,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler had been fine-tuning his approach to modular building for a while before partnering with Van Metre; his progressive designs at Virginia Tech include completely solar-powered “smart homes” as well as FutureHAUS, a modular prototype that produces more energy than it uses. Then, at a home builder convention several years ago, he caught up with Kevin Rabil, executive vice president of Van Metre, and the idea for POWERhaus was born.
“This is not like any way that a home has been built in the past, even in the true modular setting,” Rabil said.
The process of creating a POWERhaus home begins inside Van Metre’s factory in Winchester, Va., where 95% of a property’s parts are created. This method allows for more efficiency; the traditional home-building process often involves shipping different parts from several places to an outdoor construction site, where a large crew is delegated to handle dozens of tasks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it can take longer since there’s more room for delays due to uncontrollable factors (like the weather).
Crafting every single piece of a home in the factory, where a builder has complete control over each aspect of the process, requires less time. It also produces less waste, which is another key aspect of the POWERhaus approach. When creating pieces at the Winchester factory, Van Metre can order specifically dimensioned materials in bulk, avoiding the need to trim wood in the factory and leave unused pieces behind. On a modular construction test run, Van Metre was able to cut construction waste from several dumpsters’ worth down to just a few bins, or “the size of two kitchen islands,” Rabil said.
Major parts, and some entire rooms, of POWERhaus are transported from the factory to the building site in the form of compact modules. Wheeler’s version of modules, which he calls “cartridges,” are small and can be easily attached to each other at the site. Typically, the “biggest burden” of modular construction is tying all of the parts together, said Wheeler, but his “plug-and-play concept eliminates as many interconnections as possible and makes POWERhaus easier to build.”
Before leaving the factory floor, individual cartridges are equipped with modern technology, including clean-energy mini-splits, which are ductless units for heating and cooling a home, as well as smart bathrooms and lighting. This means that when the house is built, residents will have access to the most cutting-edge technologies available, without having to individually select and choose to install each part, as might be the case in a traditional construction project.
“We’re trying to optimize [POWERhaus] for the end user and make sure that the home performs better,” said Rabil.
To achieve their goal of energy efficiency, Van Metre ensured that POWERhaus homes were equipped with electric car-charging capabilities and a home-energy control system that tracks energy consumption, tools that make it easier for homeowners to curb waste. Another energy-saving feature is the induction cooking system, which transfers heat from the cooktop to the pot magnetically and limits the amount that is able to escape.
In addition to being energy-efficient, the homes also have a renewable energy source: solar panels. This allows POWERhaus homes to achieve “net zero” status—meaning the total amount of energy used by the property is equal to or less than the renewable energy the house produces.
This level of climate-friendliness will be crucial for future home buyers. Eco-consciousness factors heavily into home-buying decisions for almost two-thirds of people; 80% of home buyers want properties with energy-efficient features and 89% would choose one home over another if it were more energy efficient.
For Wheeler, this all signifies a readiness on the part of home buyers for something as forward-looking as a POWERhaus. And he’s comforted by the knowledge that the average person cares about the values behind POWERhaus the same way that Van Metre does.
“With the ability to reinvent the construction process, we can also better adapt to what we think the future demands of housing may be,” he said.