Piecing together urban homes

By Gregory Cappis

Chris Loeber, Contributing Writer

The city’s economic conditions and decreasing residential property values have made buying a home a financial risk. However, a local architectural firm may offer relief with its line of green, prefabricated homes that will be the first of its kind locally.

Chicago-based Square Root Architecture and Design, an agency that focuses on creating environmentally sustainable housing, has developed the “Urban-C3” prefab project to bring affordable living to prospective home owners.

People who bought homes in 2005 held mortgages that exceeded the value of their houses by an average of $53,146 by the end of 2010, according to a report released this year by the National Association of Realtors.

“Our goal is to make city living approachable,” said owner and principle architect Jeffrey Sommers. “Owning a place in the city is not easy right now.”

“Urban-C3” prefab homes are manufactured as separate pieces, typically known as modules, at a factory in Middlebury, Ind. The pieces are then transported to the construction site.

This method facilitates increased quality, lower price and faster construction, said Katherine Darnstadt, co-director at Architecture for Humanity Chicago. She said manufacturing the modules in a factory allows for the re-use of scraps that would otherwise be thrown out. Construction waste is reduced by 90 percent when compared to conventional on-site building.

“One of the biggest benefits of this construction is that you are planning so far ahead,” Darnstadt said. “By thinking through every step of the construction, you are minimizing the amount of material use and material waste.”

The firm’s approach to home design has been evolving since 2006 when Sommers began researching prefab construction as an affordable and ecologically sustainable housing solution.

“We tried to distill this long list of things that became what ‘Urban-C3’ is now,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to strike a balance between affordability and sustainability.”

According to Sommers, an estimated 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.

“In the next few decades, millions of people are going to be moving into metropolitan areas,” he said.

The firm incorporates energy efficient features into “Urban-C3” homes, like solar panels, to minimize energy costs.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an agency that provides third-party recognition of efficient home design, granted Chicago’s first “Urban-C3” home with a LEED Platinum Certification. The house, located at 1404 W. Ohio St., was finished in March 2011.

Sommers said contributing to the local economy is important and consolidating his business in Chicago will hopefully encourage job growth.

However, some believe prefab construction may not be the only sustainable housing available.

Scott Conwell, director of Market Development at the International Masonry Institute, said masonry-built homes are also energy efficient. He explained that the method uses local, readily available and sometimes recycled materials in the fabrication process.

“Prefabricated housing has many benefits,” Conwell said. “But traditional masonry can offer some advantages that even the best prefab system cannot.”

However, Sommers said the firm is working to get the support it needs to make “Urban-C3” a success. Currently, Architecture for Humanity Chicago is talking with Sommers about collaborating on the development of prefab community centers.

“We’re trying to work with some organizations here in Chicago [that] are key in bringing and retaining green businesses in the Great Lakes Region,” he said.