Q&A with Prefab Builder Bill Haney
Combining experience in their respective fields of environmental entrepreneurship and venture capitalism, Bill Haney and Maura McCarthy founded their prefab company in 2008 with a few goals in mind. For one, Blu Homes would owe as much to the tech industry as to the construction industry. It would also speak to a generation of home builders for whom green is the status quo—and it would do so directly, without middlemen. Under Haney and McCarthy, Blu Homes has put up over 100 prefab houses across 18 states. Dwell queried Haney about Blu’s competition, audience makeup, and design inspiration.
How is Blu Homes’s building model any different from traditional development channels?
Historically, housing companies are in the land business. They buy wholesale and then sell retail units on the land. They speak knowledgeably about interest rates and turning 10,000 acres into lots. We’re interested in serving individuals: either people who want a new home or for developers building on a small scale, without the muscle of a mega-million-dollar company.
Tech comes into play in two different ways: information technology tools— like our digital, 3D home-building tool, [available] on the Web for free—or building design tools that let us com- plete and permit a house in the factory. We can complete a home in a couple of weeks, which reduces stress and risk and saves time.
Which prefab pioneers inspire you?
“Bucky” [Buckminster] Fuller embraced technology to create new space, though he didn’t connect particularly well with the iconography of the typical American. On the opposite end, Sears Roebuck figured out a way to pro- duce a kit of parts, and they sold over 100,000 houses. So, in that sense, they were in touch with the cultural and economic landscape of America. On the modern side, Huf Haus is extraordinarily beautiful—expensive, but they have an aesthetic sense I find compelling.
What is your customer demographic?
The answer is evolving. Many of the people who have registered with Blu Homes and are saying they’d like to buy a house are in their early 40s. The average age of actual customers is 62. There are 10,000 people in the U.S. turning 65 each day, and they want to age in place, in a home that represents principles they’ve built over a lifetime: low operating costs, beautiful, easy to maintain, high quality, with smaller space that is more manageable.
Geographically, we are selling primarily on the coasts, but we’ve sold homes in 17 states [and two Canadian provinces] in the last three years.
How long does the process typically take, from a completed purchase order to picking up the keys?
On average six to nine months. It depends on three things: First, before somebody signs a contract, they have choices to make—countertop and bath- room finish details, kitchen appliance packages, flooring choices. The cus- tomer could pick a package designed by an architect and modify it with a few or a thousand details. Second is local zoning and permits that are regulated by the state. If you’re doing a house in Maine, we often see permits in a couple of days. If you’re building in a California wetlands zone, it could take seven months [to get a permit]. The third piece of the puzzle is how full our factories are and how quickly we can do the work.
How does your process differ from your competitors’?
Electrical and plumbing inspections are done in our factory. It goes faster for us because we’re very green, and most states favor green companies in terms of reviews and zoning.
Bill Haney’s Tips for Prospective Prefab Home Buyers
1) Find someone you can trust who is going to help you through the process. It’s an important emotional and financial decision and not something you’re going to do very often. It’s hard to be an expert if you’ve only ever cooked or golfed twice in your lifetime! So, partner with a firm who has a deep base of knowledge.
2) Do something you really like that shows who you are. Most people live in a house for an average of seven years. If it doesn’t echo your principles, it grates.
3) Push for value, and think about economics in a holistic way. The builders have taught the public to think about cost per square foot. But we don’t buy a car on a cost per tire basis! We think about resale, finishes, safety for our loved ones: a range of things that represent our values.
4) Build the smallest square footage you feel comfortable in. [Small homes] tend to have lower maintenance costs and lower insurance costs, but that goes against what we’re taught. As a builder, the incentive is to build as much square footage as you can to drop that perceived cost. But it’s bad for the environment, and you have to pay taxes on it.