• The Whangapoua Sled House

    Credit: Jackie Meiring

    The Whangapoua Sled House

If you jogged by it on the beach, you might think the Whangapoua Sled House was a glorified guard shack. But the 525-square-foot domicile designed by Crosson Clarke Carnachan Architects of Auckland, New Zealand, is actually a vacation home--and a mobile one at that.

Built on a pair of steel skids, the two-level, two-bedroom house is towed by a tractor into place on the beach (or wherever the owners want it). A self-contained septic system, greywater recycling, a woodstove, and other internal mechanical systems enable its independence, while pulley-driven shutters expose (and control) a dramatic front window expanse and other fenestration that allow daylight and passive cooling and ventilation; the same shutters completely enclose the wood-and-aluminum-clad structure against the elements or when it is unoccupied.

The architects have no immediate plans to replicate or mass-produce their ingenious system, but the Whangapoua Sled House is nevertheless a legit harbinger of factory-built housing’s future—well-designed, comfortable, adaptable, self-contained, and mobile to accommodate increasingly stringent resource-efficiency and land-use standards.

So, too, is a steel SIPs system devised by OceanSafe, a New York-based manufacturer of energy- and labor-efficient and affordable “kit” housing to areas ravaged by natural disasters, including Haiti and New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, rebuilding efforts in Iraq, and neo-company towns in North Dakota’s oil fields.

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    Credit: Courtesy OceanSafe

    A steel SIPs house from OceanSafe

While the system itself claims a 72% energy savings over stick-built homes, as well as resistance to fire, winds up to 190 mph, earthquakes to 8.1-R, termites and mold, arguably its best benefit is the ability to drop-ship a whole house almost anywhere and assemble it in four to five days with battery-powered tools.

A 500-square-foot house, including finishes and self-contained mechanicals, fits in a standard 20-foot, 1,200-cubic-meter shipping container, enabling easy and relatively cheap transportation. “And, there’s only one way to build it, so it’s done right the first time, every time,” says OceanSafe’s president Joe Basilice, who nevertheless sends a trained team to build the first house in any new location and leaves a quality control manager to oversee an indigenous crew after that. “It is truly attainable sustainable housing.”

With modular and HUD-code housing representing less than 9% of all U.S. housing starts in 2011 (about 67,000 units), the factory-built business needs some new blood for the new housing economy (and ecology).

“The U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the world with respect to modular and prefab buildings and components,” says Michael Landry, managing director of engineering at FMI, a research and consultancy based in Raleigh, N.C., who authored a whitepaper earlier this year about the state of the factory-built industry and prospects for its future. “It makes too much sense not to try, and I think it’ll be standard practice within 10 years.”