Houseboat factory builds modular homes that could revive industry

Jeff Patterson, left, an employee of a Knox County crane company, signaled to crane operator Jim Hall as they worked to place half of a modular house on its foundation in Whitley County last month. The house is a prototype of an energy-efficient modular home that can be built at houseboat factories.
Jeff Patterson, left, an employee of a Knox County crane company, signaled to crane operator Jim Hall as they worked to place half of a modular house on its foundation in Whitley County last month. The house is a prototype of an energy-efficient modular home that can be built at houseboat factories.

GOLDBUG — Dennis Reynolds' new house isn't just a place to live. It's an experiment.

The 1,000-square-foot modular home is one of two prototype structures built during the past year in a project to develop highly energy-efficient, relatively low-cost houses that may be built at southern Kentucky factories that ordinarily produce houseboats.

Those factories have been hit hard by the recession. Several have closed, and employment is down significantly from before the economic downturn.

The project to create a new product for houseboat makers is a partnership of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.; the University of Kentucky College of Design, with help from UK's Center for Applied Energy Research; and the Stardust Cruisers houseboat factory in Wayne County.

Workers at Stardust built two of the prototypes in 2011, piecing them together on the same lines where houseboats were being built.

The houses were built in two large pieces, to be delivered by tractor-trailer to building sites and placed on a block foundation using a large crane.

One house went to Monticello. A buyer has been identified, said Tom Manning-Beavin, director of housing for Kentucky Highlands.

Reynolds bought the second house with help from Kentucky Highlands.

On a rainy day in early December, workers put together the two pieces of the house in the Goldbug community of Whitley County.

For Reynolds, his wife Billie, 28, and their 3-year-old son Gabriel, the project brought a chance to own a home that will cost only about $1.60 a day to heat and cool, significantly lowering their energy costs.

The couple, who receive federal disability payments, rent a house in Corbin. They'll probably be able to move into their new house in January.

"It's beautiful," Reynolds said. "We're so excited."

For the partners in what is called the houseboats-to-energy-efficient residences project, the prototypes were a chance to test a concept they hope will revitalize the houseboat industry and create jobs at suppliers.

Jerry Rickett, president and chief executive officer of Kentucky Highlands, pushed the project.

Kentucky Highlands works to boost economic development in a 22-county area of southeastern Kentucky.

In addition to creating jobs, Rickett wanted to promote development of energy-efficient homes that could appreciate in value, as an alternative to aging houses and mobile homes in rural Kentucky that are not efficient, resulting in high electricity costs for owners.

The challenge Rickett presented to the UK College of Design was steep: design a house that could be built at a houseboat factory, that would cost a buyer no more than $100,000 for the home and lot, and that would be so efficient it would cost an average of $1 a day to heat and cool.

Teachers and students at UK began working on the design in 2009, poring over various building materials, analyzing the least amount of power needed to keep the house comfortable, and figuring out how to arrange the space so the house would be compact but have adequate storage and not seem cramped.

The two prototypes were packed with insulation and built with 24-foot-long panels filled with insulating foam, eliminating much of the framing that can conduct heat from the inside to the outside of a traditional house.

Federal grants totaling $1.25 million helped finance the design and construction of the prototypes.

Another goal of the project was to get as many of the component materials as possible from Kentucky suppliers, to boost jobs even more.

Michael Speaks, dean of the College of Design, said about 85 percent of the materials used in the two prototypes originated in Kentucky.

The first two units didn't meet the cost and electricity goals. Each cost more than $100,000.

However, that was to be expected in a new venture, project partners said.

And the designers and builders learned things on the first two units that will help cut costs on future units.

A change in how the two halves of the roof are hinged, for instance, will allow elimination of some large beams, cutting the cost, said Manning-Beavin.

The designers and builders are trying to figure out ways to drive down costs. Speaks said he is confident the cost could be cut by 30 percent.

"Nothing is where we want it right now," Speaks said. "It's why you do prototypes."

The project partners are working on a design for a third single-family house to be produced soon.

UK teachers and students also are working on designs for units that could be put in a shipping container — rather than hauled in two pieces — as well as multifamily structures and buildings to be used as classrooms.

School districts often buy mobile homes as classrooms, Manning-Beavin said.

The homes designed for construction at houseboat factories could be a better deal in the long run because of their greater durability and lower energy costs, supporters of the project argue.

Speaks said the goal is to produce some of the modular units for use by schools soon.

Partners in the project see a range of other potential uses for the structures, including military housing, disaster-relief housing and vacation homes.

It will take a lot of work to build those markets, said Bruce Chesnut, a partner in Stardust Cruisers.

"I think the potential for it ... in southeast Kentucky is as large as the mobile-home business would be," Chesnut said. "That's a significant market."

If interest in the houses and classrooms catches on, it could create work for other houseboat factories.

The project already has helped Stardust. The factory had 12 full-time and 12 contract workers in 2009 when the project started; it had 56 full-time employees in early December, Kentucky Highlands said in a news release.

Not all that growth resulted from the energy-efficient housing project, but it was definitely a help, Chesnut said.

Manning-Beavin said there is a growing in interest in energy-efficient structures.

"I think this is a way to meet that interest and that demand," he said.