Manufactured Housing: Blessing or Curse For Katrina Survivors?

Jim Vallette - January 23, 2006

In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, HBN launched GreenRelief to initiate and assist efforts that emphasize environmental and social justice when rebuilding communities and restoring the natural environment. HBN investigator Jim Vallette has traveled to the Gulf States region repeatedly to assess the opportunities and barriers affecting green rebuilding plans. This is the first of his occasional reports. More of Jim's work can be found at http://www.greenrelief.org.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita created an unprecedented challenge: over 310,000 new single family homes must be built from scratch, and fast. [1] The extent to which this transformation will be green may depend less upon the impressive commitment of the green building movement [2] and more on the insight of one of the world's richest men, Warren Buffett.

In 2003, billionaire Warren Buffett paid $1.7 billion for Clayton Homes, the nation's largest manufactured and modular home producer. [3] After Katrina hit, Clayton Homes landed $69 million in FEMA contracts and ramped up production at its 36 plants across the country. [4] By the end of 2006, the manufactured housing industry projects it could deliver up to 90,000 buildings to the region, totaling nearly one-third of projected single family home construction, worth about $3 billion in sales. [5]

The efficiencies offered by factory construction carry high potential for manufactured homes to be green buildings. Green Tech Housing, based in Worcester, Massachusetts, is committed to sustainable design, offering modular homes that boast: 60 percent less energy use, 50 percent fewer air pollutants, 40 percent improved indoor air quality, and 10 percent less water use. [6] Regional innovators have developed sustainable models for both temporary and permanent manufactured structures in the Gulf States, such as the GoHomes and GroHomes design by Pliny Fisk of the Austin-based Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems [7], and the GreenMobile, by architect Michael Berk of Mississippi State University.[8]

Run-of-the-mill manufactured houses rarely employ green building principles, and have a greater likelihood of becoming sick buildings. Despite regulatory restrictions imposed in the 80s on formaldehyde content in building materials, unsafe levels of formaldehyde, a respiratory irritant and probable human carcinogen, continue to be a hazard in manufactured housing due to its use in particleboard, vinyl flooring, fiberglass, insulation and paint.[9]

According to a respected federal lab, vinyl poses particular problems in the hot, humid South related to moisture damage, which causes mold and mildew growth.[10] One survey estimates that 61 percent of manufactured houses have vinyl exterior siding, compared to 22 percent of conventional homes.[11]

Clayton Homes lists among its suppliers Shaw Contract, whose EcoWorx carpet is the industry's first PVC-free product and Johns-Manville, which phased-out formaldehyde from its insulation products in 2002.[12] Those companies along with Benjamin Moore & Co, whose respected Eco-Spec line of paints earns the Green Seal and GreenGuard certification, are all owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway.

The pieces may be falling into place for a green transformation of the manufactured housing market. Berkshire Hathaway has green-lighted investments in green building materials. The economies of scale provided by post-hurricane reconstruction provide an unprecedented opportunity to finance the necessary retooling. Clayton Homes' Vice President of Marketing, Chris Nicely, told HBN that he would welcome a dialogue with the green building community, finding it to be consistent with a corporate culture that is always looking for new ways to improve environmental quality of their product.

If, as one industry spokesman insists, manufacturers are "not focusing on the economic impact … from the perspective of a boon for the industry" and are prepared to "[do] what they can to help," [13] then there is no reason not to help resettle Katrina victims into healthier homes.


Footnotes

[1] "310,000 new single family homes must be built in the affected regions immediately," ICF Consulting estimates. See: http://www.icfi.com/Markets/Energy/doc_files/katrina-rebuilding.pdf

[2] The US Green Building Council, Environmental Building News, Global Green and the Healthy Building Network have all announced post-hurricane green building initiatives, as have other important players in the housing industry, including the Enterprise Foundation, the US Department of Energy, and Habitat for Humanity.

[3] See Clayton Homes website, http://www.claytonhomes.com/about_us.cfm

[4] "Katrina Contracts: CMH Manufacturing," Taxpayers for CommonSense website, http://www.taxpayer.net/budget/katrinaspending/contracts/cmh.htm, last updated Oct. 21, 2005.

[5] The figure of 90,000 houses by the end of 2006 is based upon testimony of David Roberson, president of Cavalier Homes, "Written Testimony of the Manufactured Housing Institute and the Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity," September 15, 2005. The estimate of $3 billion is based upon the per unit price of FEMA-purchased manufactured houses.

[6] See Greentech Housing Company, http://www.greentechhousing.com/gt_story.htm

[7] "Pliny Fisk III/Gail Vittori Architecture", Metropolis Magazine, December 19, 2005. http://www.metropolismag.com/cda/story.php?artid=1693. See generally http://www.cmpbs.org

[8] "Stronger and Sustainable: Architect Sees New Mobile Home Future", Mississippi State University, November 12, 2003. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/501918/

[9] USEPA Technology Transfer Network Air Toxics Website: Formaldehyde http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/formalde.html, accessed 1/20/2006, and Hodgson, A.T., A.F. Rudd, D. Beal and S. Chandra. 2000. Volatile organic compound concentrations and emission rates in new manufactured and site-built houses. Indoor Air 10: 178-192.

[10] Dennis Barley, "An Overview of Residential Ventilation Activities in the Building America Program (Phase I)," National Renewable Energy Laboratory, May 2001, NREL/TP-550-30107, p. 20.

[11] Percentages from NAHB Research Center, Inc., "Factory and Site-Built Housing: A Comparison for the 21st Century," prepared for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, October 1998, available at: http://www.manufacturedhousing.org/developer_resources/factory_vs_sitebuilt/index.asp

[12] "Suppliers and products," Clayton Homes website, http://www.clayton.net/contact/suppliers.cfm

[13] Reporter Bob Stuart, quoting industry spokesman Thayer Long in "Housing Business that Has It Made," The News Virginian, September 9, 2005 http://www.newsvirginian.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WNV/MGArticle/WNV_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1031784955107


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