Future of Kentucky's houseboat industry might be on land

Rendering of a low-cost, highly energy-efficient homes to be built by a Wayne County factory better known for building houseboats.
Rendering of a low-cost, highly energy-efficient homes to be built by a Wayne County factory better known for building houseboats.

SOMERSET — An effort to revitalize the state's beleaguered houseboat industry is set to begin with construction of the prototype of a product for land instead of lake.

The idea is to build energy-efficient modular homes on the same factory lines that normally produce luxury houseboats.

The goal is to boost jobs at the Lake Cumberland-area factories and at material suppliers while creating a model of relatively low-cost, highly energy-efficient houses.

Supporters see a number of potential markets for the houses, including lower-income people, people who want compact vacation homes and empty-nesters looking to downsize.

There might even be a market to use the homes for military housing or to replace dwellings destroyed in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

"There's just all kinds of opportunities," said Bruce Chesnut, a partner in Stardust Cruisers.

The Wayne County houseboat factory has participated in the development of the idea and will build the first two prototypes.

Those will be set up in Monticello and Whitley County, which each received a $125,000 federal grant to finance the prototypes, said Stephen Taylor, development director for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.

The project also received a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced last year.

Work on the first model house should begin within weeks, officials said.

Supporters hope demand will grow to the point that work will spread to other factories, but Stardust and others would continue making houseboats.

The push for the project came from Jerry Rickett, president and chief executive officer of Kentucky Highlands, which works to boost economic development in a 22-county area of southeastern Kentucky.

The cluster of houseboat makers around Lake Cumberland was once a sizable economic force. Factories in Wayne, Pulaski, Clinton, Russell and Adair counties employed an estimated 1,000 people at one point — many of them skilled workers such as carpenters and electricians — to make floating houses that sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The recession hit houseboat makers hard, however, forcing several out of business.

There are now fewer than 200 workers in the remaining lake-area factories, said Josh Ayoroa, a graduate student in the University of Kentucky College of Design who is manager of the houseboats-to-houses project.

The project is a collaboration of Kentucky Highlands and the UK College of Design, which also worked with the Center for Applied Energy Research at the university.

In addition to creating jobs, Rickett has had an interest in promoting construction of more energy-efficient homes to replace aging houses and mobile homes in rural Kentucky that are not efficient, meaning high energy costs for their owners.

Those twin goals led to an intriguing challenge: design a house that could be built in pieces on the line at a houseboat factory, then trucked to a lot and put together quickly. Hold the total cost for the house and lot to less than $100,000. Make it so efficient that the two-bedroom unit would cost an average of $1 a day to heat and cool.

"It was a very tall order," Rickett said.

Michael Speaks, dean of the College of Design, said more than 50 students and teachers tackled the job in 2009, coming up with several potential models.

Designers had to analyze building materials and track down standards on the least amount of electricity needed to keep the temperature and humidity comfortable.

They also had to figure out how to arrange the space so the house would be compact, to hold down costs, but pleasant and efficient, with enough storage.

"There's very little space to waste when you're trying to get two bedrooms in a thousand-square-foot house," Ayoroa said.

Another goal was to get as many of the materials from Kentucky suppliers as possible.

The partners in the project have identified state businesses to supply more than 80 percent of the components of the house, Rickett said.

The first models will be modular houses built in two pieces, then joined on a block foundation on a lot.

They will be built with 24-foot-long panels filled with insulating foam.

That improves the insulating quality of the wall and eliminates most of the framing which, in a traditional house, conducts heat from the inside to the outside.

That "thermal bridging" is a big source of heat loss in a traditionally built home, Ayoroa said.

The house will use 50 percent less energy than a typical "stick built" house, Ayoroa said.

However, the design didn't achieve the original goal of using an average of $1 in electricity a day.

It wasn't possible to do that while also keeping down the price of the house, Speaks said.

The model that Stardust will begin producing soon is designed to have an average heating and cooling cost of $1.62 a day, Rickett said.

Work on the prototypes will help answer a number of questions, such as how long it takes to build the houses on the line.

"You learn an enormous amount each time you prototype one of these things," Speaks said.

Jim Carroll, head of the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth at Kentucky Highlands, said builders should like the houses because they can be produced quickly and year-round.

"You're not dependent on the weather," he said.

It will take investment and a good deal of marketing to build a significant market for the houses, but supporters have high hopes.

"This forward-leaning initiative by Kentucky Highlands is great news for our houseboat manufacturers and will help these vital employers transition to expanding markets while keeping factory doors open," Rogers said.