KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — From its bamboo floors to its rooftop deck, Clayton Homes' new industrial-chic "i-house" is about as far removed from a mobile home as an iPod from a record player.
Architects at the country's largest manufactured home company embraced the basic rectangular form of what began as housing on wheels and gave it a postmodern turn with a distinctive v-shaped roofline, energy efficiency and luxury appointments.
Stylistically, the "i-house" might be more at home in the pages of a cutting-edge architectural magazine like Dwell — an inspirational source — than among the Cape Cods and ranchers in the suburbs.
The layout of the long main "core" house and a separate box-shaped guestroom-office "flex room" resemble the letter "i" and its dot. Yet Clayton CEO and President Kevin Clayton said "i-house" stands for more than its footprint.
With a nod to the iPod and iPhone, Clayton said, "We love what it represents. We are fans of Apple and all that they have done. But the 'I' stands for innovation, inspiration, intelligence and integration."
Clayton's "i-house" was conceived as a moderately priced "plug and play" dwelling for environmentally conscious homebuyers. It went on sale nationwide Saturday with its presentation at the annual shareholders' meeting of investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire-Hathaway Inc. in Omaha, Neb.
"This innovative 'green' home, featuring solar panels and numerous other energy-saving products, is truly a home of the future," Buffett wrote his shareholders. "Estimated costs for electricity and heating total only about $1 per day when the home is sited in an area like Omaha."
Maryville, Tenn.-based Clayton Homes, acquired by Berkshire-Hathaway in a $1.7 billion buyout in 2003, delivered 27,499 mobile or manufactured homes last year, a third of the industry total. Kevin Clayton thinks the "i-house" very quickly could represent more than 10 percent of its business.
"I think in 12 to 18 months it is possible," he told The Associated Press. "That is a lofty goal, but it is very possible. Retailers are saying they want the home on their lots tomorrow. I know the demand is there. How fast we capture it is really just determined by how affordable we can make it."
Clayton Homes plans to price the "i-house" at $100 to $130 a square foot, depending on amenities and add-ons, such as additional bedrooms. A stick-built house with similar features could range from $200 to $300 a square foot to start, said Chris Nicely, Clayton marketing vice president.
The key cost difference is from the savings Clayton achieves by building homes in volume in green standardized factories with very little waste. Clayton has four plants in Oregon, Tennessee, California and New Mexico geared up for "i-house" production.
A 1,000-square-foot prototype unveiled at a Clayton show in Knoxville a few months ago was priced at around $140,000. It came furnished, with a master bedroom, full bath, open kitchen and living room with Ikea cabinetry, two ground-level deck areas and a separate "flex room" with a second full bath and a second-story deck covered by a sail-like canopy.
"It does not look like your typical manufactured home," said Thayer Long with the Manufactured Housing Institute, a Washington-based group representing 370 manufactured and modular home-building companies.
And shattering those mobile home stereotypes is a good thing, he said. "I think the 'i-house' is just more proof that the industry is capable of delivering homes that are highly customizable at an affordable price."
The "i-house's" metal v-shaped roof — inspired by a gas-station awning — combines design with function. The roof provides a rain water catchment system for recycling, supports flush-mounted solar panels and vaults interior ceilings at each end to 10 1/2 feet for an added feeling of openness.
The Energy Star-rated design features heavy insulation, six-inch thick exterior walls, cement board and corrugated metal siding, energy efficient appliances, a tankless water heater, dual-flush toilets and lots of "low-e" glazed windows.
The company said the prototype at roughly 52,000 pounds may be the heaviest home it's ever built.
The final product will come in different exterior colors and will allow buyers to design online, adding another bedroom to the core house, a second bedroom to the flex room or rearranging the footprint to resemble an "L" instead of an "I."
"We thought of this a little like a kit of parts, where you have all these parts that can go together in different ways," said Andy Hutsell, one of the architects.
Susan Connolly, a 60-year-old accountant who works from her conventional Knoxville home, hopes to be one of the first buyers. She's seen the prototype and has been talking to the company.
"I have been interested in green construction and the environment in my own personal life," she said. "It is nice to have a group of people that have thought of everything. Where you don't have to shop around and go to different places ... to find the products you want."
"I think it is smart. It is fresh. It is kind of hip for a new generation of green-thinking homebuyers," said Stacey Epperson, president and CEO of Frontier Housing, a Morehead, Ky.-based regional nonprofit group that supplies site-built homes and manufactured housing, including Clayton products, to low- and moderate-income homebuyers.
"You know a lot of people don't see themselves living in manufactured (housing), but a lot of those people would see themselves living in an 'i-house.' I could live in an 'i-house,'" she said.
"Are we repositioning to go after a new market?" Nicely said. "I would think we are maintaining our value to our existing market and expanding the market to include other buyers that previously wouldn't have considered our housing product."
The company sees the "i-house" as a primary residence — three developers already have inquired about building mini-developments with them — that also could appeal to vacation home buyers.
Brian McKinley, president of Atlantis Homes of Smyrna, Del., a manufactured-home dealer that sells Clayton and other brands, said the "i-house" resembles high-end custom homes he sees along the Delaware-Maryland shore.
It represents a "new direction and an innovative application for what our industry can do," he said.
"I think there is a market," McKinley said. "The challenge is to find that market and then will they visit this home at one of our traditional factory-built home centers. I think they (Clayton) want to find that out, too."
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