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Affordable housing that’s also sustainable? Yes, it's possible

After seeing one Florida builder's highly-automated, modular construction process for a prefab home, our sustainability reporter feels like he has seen the future.

Several months ago, our firm was hired by a new client that claimed to offer comfortable, attractive, energy-efficient, resilient, sustainable housing… that is also affordable.

In our initial telephone conversation, the client’s CEO, Joe Esposito, told me that his “sustainable hybrid” homes included – as standard features – solar photovoltaic (PV), high-efficiency AC, solar thermal for domestic hot water heating, LED lighting, and an integrated cistern for rain water harvesting. Needless to say, I was curious about his definition of “affordable”. However, after visiting the Mesocore website, I realized that sustainable and affordable were no longer mutually exclusive.

The Mesocore concept is very unique. They start with a 20-foot shipping container, but unlike other housing products that use recycled containers, Mesocore builds its own new, steel containers using state-of-the-art robotic welders. The container – or chassis, as they call it – then becomes the core of the new home.

Mesocore’s standard, single-family floor plan is 1,000 sq-ft and features two bedrooms and two baths. The completely finished kitchen and baths, with all appliances and fixtures installed and tested, and the mechanical/electrical/plumbing packages – again, factory installed and tested – are all contained in the chassis. Also factory-installed is the 2,000-gal. cistern and purification equipment (pump, filter, UV lamp) for rainwater harvesting. The chassis, itself, even serves as the shipping container for all of the materials (exterior structural insulated panels, ceiling, floors, TPO roof membrane, insulation, caulk, etc.) required to completely build the home on site, once the concrete slab is poured.

After seeing the highly-automated construction process in the Mesocore factory, and reviewing several iterations of plans and specifications, I am truly impressed with the quality of the manufacturing processes and the materials they have chosen. Our recently completed energy models confirmed their energy-efficiency claims, easily meeting the requirements of the Florida Energy Code for Climate Zone 1. A Florida structural engineer has also found the design suitable for High Velocity Hurricane Zone (HVHZ) construction, and the design we modeled for South Florida had low-E impact windows throughout.

Our next tasks, as Mesocore’s energy and sustainability consultants, will be to determine their efficiency in Climate Zone 3, and to model the contemplated Southern California design for compliance with California Title 24 requirements. Like the Caribbean locations where Mesocore homes have been successful, California has an urgent need for affordable housing, a need which is expected to be exacerbated by the recently-enacted 2020 mandate for residential solar on new homes.

So having established that the homes are energy-efficient, sustainable, and resilient, the question that remains is, are they affordable?

The 1,000 sq-ft, 2/2 home described above can be built on an existing lot here in South Florida for $100/sq-ft or less! The secret to its affordability is due, in large part, to Mesocore’s hybrid construction technique, with the chassis being factory-manufactured and the home’s completion done on site. According to Mesocore, the home can be completed by relatively unskilled workers primarily using drill-drivers. But I suspect many U.S. buyers will prefer to have a professional contractor complete the construction. Even so, since all of the materials are either factory-installed or shipped in the container, ordering mistakes and shortages are minimized or even eliminated.

The standard Mesocore home is designed for temperate climates (ASHRAE Zones 1 and 2) and has the option of being completely off-grid with additional PV panels and batteries. Unfortunately, if you live in colder climes, it is not available.

A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability. He can be reached at [email protected]. 

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