Nearly four years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) selected the GreenMobile project for its Alternative Housing Pilot Program. The design for GreenMobile, a prefabricated home with energy efficient, green features, came from Michael Berk, recently named director of the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University. Out of 29 submissions, Berk’s project was ranked first by judges. The grant was $5.9 million.
So I was surprised to learn, when I recently talked with Berk, that his project never saw the FEMA money, and despite interest from potential users around the country, he has yet to find a manufacturer to prototype his design. An edited version of our conversation is below.
You designed a sustainable mobile home and received some FEMA funding several years ago. What’s happening with it now?
It still hasn’t been prototyped. I’m trying to find an industrial partner who wants to move in that direction.
The project was awarded a pretty signification chunk of money [from FEMA], and Mississippi Emergency Management took the money and had other ideas. [GreenMobile] was selected as the number one choice of the jury and the money was awarded to the state. That’s all I want to say about that right now.
Did the ideas for these homes come from Hurricane Katrina?
No, it started in 2002, and it was already designed and fully engineered when Katrina came along. Even at that time we were trying to work with industrial partners, and they were ready to move into that FEMA project, and it never materialized.
The one thing I found out in this industry is that the actual mobile home industry doesn’t have a research and development component to it. So the idea of working with the industry to develop something new is nonexistent. You need to start your own company, and that’s not something I’m particularly interested in doing.
The goal when the GreenMobile was being designed was that we weren’t going to ask the industry to redesign their assembly process. But even working within their guidelines we still can’t make it work.
Let’s go back to what you just said—that there’s no R&D in this industry. Can’t the product be improved?
They know how to do what they do, at a rock bottom price, and they see their market as people who don’t have any money. But the future is prefabrication. Whenever I’ve done a stick-built house [assembled on site], much of that construction and the materials are compromised by rain and weather. So the more components that can be pre-made in a factory and then delivered—protected—to a jobsite—the better the end product will be.
Somewhere in between the mobile home price range and the low end of what residential construction is. It’s designed to meet building codes. When it was originally started, the idea was to make something that would cost twice as much as a mobile home—$50,000 instead of $25,000. It wasn’t possible to do it for $50,000 and make it meet code, so this is between $75,000 and $100,000.
The model was trying to replace the home that would immediately lose value and come unglued and fall apart. That type of home is not an investment; they end up with nothing at the end of it. We came up with a model with the same monthly costs but that is increasing in value. They could get a real mortgage. USDA Rural, which lends to disadvantaged folks, was willing to come up with more extended mortgages, so it becomes incredibly affordable.
Is this demographic of home buyers interested in sustainability?
It’s an abstract thing to people who are incredibly poor, thinking about this stuff. I don’t think it’s on their radar screen. That’s where industry doesn’t know how to market this.
For a while, I was getting a dozen emails a week from people interested in purchasing the homes. The Baton Rouge Housing Authority wanted to buy 250 of them. Right after Katrina, people wanted to buy some. But you need a manufacturer. The only way they are economical is if they are made in a factory; and then we have to figure out what are the savings when you mass produce, so it can become more economical.
It has a limited number of parts. The walls, roof, floors and structurally insulated panels are all a kit. It’s very modular and it’s figured out so there’s no waste. Energy smart appliances. All the equipment is on-demand equipment; you’re only using energy right at the point when you need it.
There’s something called a green SIP [structural insulated panel] now, and the wood on it is sustainably harvested. But the foam on the interior is far from green. There’s a whole bunch of products coming out, from foam glass to Greensulate. At Rensselaer Polytech, they are making foam out of fungi. I was ready to say let’s start with the materials we have and as the other materials get building code approved, we’ll switch to those, and we’ll be a completely green product.
Where do you envision these homes?
It was designed for rural areas. A lot of places where people have 20 to 40 acres of land, that’s where you see these trailers. It’s meant for that, and out of the way places, anywhere along the Mississippi Delta. It can work in urban settings or disaster relief settings, but that wasn’t its intent.
What inspired you to design it?
It’s based on single-wide with all these parts, pods that clip on—other sleeping areas, storage, porches on the sides. Fred Carl [chairman, president and CEO of Viking Range Corp.] is a good friend of mine, good friend of the school’s. He was interested in prefab housing. So he was giving me and the school money to study this. So I can thank him for starting to look at this topic, and it’s not a topic most architects were looking at.
It doesn’t make sense to me that it hasn’t been built.
I know. I put a product out there, and I think it solved something, and I’ve watched a lot of other work and research addressing the same issues. There is a market for them; there’s enough data to show that. It would be nice to build it, but that’s not what I’m thinking about anymore.
So what are you thinking about now?
About running an architecture program. I just became the director of the architecture program, so that’s pretty all-consuming.
I feel if I had taken a leave of absence from my position and decided I’d get this thing built, it would be built. At the very least, something would have happened—either a disaster or success, but it would be done.
If someone called you tomorrow and wanted to build this…
If something were to happen, the university has all kinds of things in place to move forward with it.
Digital modeling: Justin Taylor
Michael Berk will be speaking about GreenMobile at the National Building Museum on Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 12:30 p.m. as part of the Building in the 21st Century lecture series.