Modern Pre-Fabs Combine Technology and Elegant Designs
When Leslie and Stephen Scharf decided to build a new home on their wine-country property in Healdsburg, drawing plans from scratch felt intimidating. Then a realtor friend suggested they visit a house just on the market built by Blu Homes. They liked what they saw, and in September 2014 finished construction of their own home.
“The whole front of the house is glass, and we have a really lovely view,” Leslie Scharf said. “You can see it from every room, opening out to the vineyards.”
The secret behind the Scharfs’ residence is this: It’s actually a prefabricated home, built off-site, then assembled in the center of the six-acre lot.
When most people hear “prefab,” there are certain images that come to mind. Co-founder of Blu Homes Maura McCarthy said, “It always takes some time to explain this is not your grandmother’s mobile home. When you go inside, it’s like you’re closing the door of a luxury car. That’s what people want – homes that feel durable.”
Seeing a Blu Homes residence for the first time, it’s hard to believe that it is prefabricated. With open floor plans, soaring ceilings, wood floors, beautiful finishing inside and out, and ample exterior decking, the luxury car seems an apt metaphor.
But it’s not just looks that make Blu Homes unique. These houses are engineered to the smallest detail, with radiant floor heating, Energy Star appliances, recycled steel framing, LED lighting, and water efficient fixtures.
How It Started
According to McCarthy, “a bunch of nerds in Boston” at MIT founded Blu Homes. Her partner, Bill Haney, is the technology entrepreneur. Their question was how do you use technology to fundamentally change housing, while still keeping a softer perspective, the spirit of the house? “We wanted to make homes with a smaller footprint, lighter on the land, less expensive to operate, that would feel healthy and elegant to live in,” McCarthy said.
Blu Homes began selling in Boston in 2008, but from the beginning, sales in California, especially in wine country, led the pack. “Californians get it,” McCarthy said. The style of housing the company became known for, with extensive decking and a focus on indoor/outdoor living, was ideally suited to the California climate and lifestyle.
“A lot of people want 10 acres,” McCarthy said. “And there are beautiful old homes that should be restored. But those homes can also be full of toxins and other hazards, things that don’t need to be saved.” She said it is possible to find smaller infill pieces of land and build an “elegant little mini-compound,” using the flexibility offered by Blu Homes designs. “It’s still very peaceful and gives people what they need, a restful place to be.”
Californians also love the idea of building “net zero” homes, McCarthy said. Currently about one-third of the homes the company sells fit that label; it used to be 25 percent. She anticipates the number will jump to half within a year. The company’s goal is to hit 100 percent. “The price of solar has gotten so good.”
McCarthy said for the last three years, Blu Homes has done the bulk of their business in California. In January 2014, the company officially moved headquarters, setting up their manufacturing base in Vallejo.
How It Works
Blu Homes has six home models, all listed with a base price: the flagship Breezehouse ($675,000), the Breeze Aire ($475,000), the Balance ($525,000), the Sidebreeze ($775,000), the Element ($375,000), and the flexible Origin Pod ($225,000), which is a single room. The Origin Pod can be added on to any of the other models as a studio, guest bedroom or workspace, or it might be just what you need to supplement your current living situation. There are also garage models available.
Each model has its own unique features and various options (number of bedrooms or baths), all of which can be viewed on Blu Homes’ website at bluhomes.com. After choosing a model, a client can add or change components and features, with help from a Blu Homes designer and a 3-D configurator.
One of the advantages of going with Blu Homes is that the construction process takes about half the time of a conventional custom-built home, according to McCarthy. One caveat—although these homes are miraculously good at fitting in like unfolding origami structures onto small lots, the property must be accessible by a crane for move-in day.
Once everything is decided, the home is built in about eight weeks at Blu Home’s climate-controlled factory on Mare Island. Then the parts are delivered to the lot and set up on the foundation in one or two days. The home is completed by Blu’s team of craftsmen in four or so weeks, McCarthy said.
The Scharfs’ Story
Leslie and Stephen Scharf live in Los Angeles. They met at Stanford years ago, and had always enjoyed spending time in the Bay Area and wine country. “We had friends who owned property in Healdsburg, and we fell in love with the area,” Leslie Scharf said.
They were lucky enough to find a small piece of vineyard property with a house on it, surrounded by larger lots. “Otherwise it would have been prohibitively expensive for us at that time in our lives,” she said. That was 30 years ago.
The Healdsburg house served as a vacation home for nearly three decades. Leslie Scharf said, “It was teeny tiny, and fine when the kids were little. But we wanted to expand or build a new home.” The couple did some preliminary designs, but then found what they wanted in the Blu Homes Balance model, with an extra bedroom (three total). “You knew what you were getting,” she said. “And because we were in Los Angeles, it made the project more manageable, since we were not able to be there on site.”
“It has enough space that we could live there full-time, but it’s not so big that it’s hard to close up when we leave,” Leslie Scharf said. “I feel like we hit a sweet spot.”
The open floor plan of the Balance home has a blended kitchen, dining and living space. The entire front wall of the house, looking out over the vineyards, is made of sliding glass doors. The ceilings reach up to 18 feet high, with clerestory windows along the top, letting in even more light. The house has solar panels, and the Scharfs liked the fact that it was LEED certified. This year they added a swimming pool.
The couple has two grown daughters, one in San Francisco, one moving there soon. “The kids can be up there with their boyfriends. They love it, especially now that the pool has gone in. And we just found out our oldest daughter is getting married next July – so we’ll be having a wedding there.”
Elsewhere in the County
Blu Homes are cropping up throughout Sonoma County. There are a couple located in the center of the City of Sonoma just blocks away from each other.
Jamee Houk and her wife Ondina Hatvany finished building their home in July. Houk is a huge fan of Dwell Magazine, and she had been seeing more and more prefabricated homes. They had a loft in San Francisco, and wanted to sell, so the couple embarked on their own research project. They took a factory tour of Blu Homes, but also looked at and spoke to seven or eight other companies all the way from Los Angeles to Seattle.
In the end, Houk said what pushed her into Blu’s court was that the company owned their own factory—other companies outsourced manufacturing. She also liked working with a local sales representative.
Houk’s home is on one-third of an acre. “Everything fits on it like a tightly designed puzzle,” she said. “It is just hugging the perimeter, but it doesn’t feel tight on the property. It feels very open, like a little resort.”
Her “resort” includes the house, a guest house, a carport and an integrated pool and spa. “What’s beautiful is that all the bedrooms and the main house are just steps away from the main pool.”
“Ondina and I are both very environmentally conscious. We solared up both the house and guest house and swimming pool. The house has fantastic insulation, Energy Star appliances, uses recycled materials. We are really happy with how environmentally conscious they are.”
Bruce Hammer and his partner Cecilia Kojima moved into their Breeze model home in Sonoma in August. While for Kojima the design flexibility was a huge attraction, for Hammer, another feature was equally important.
“I’ve been in a wheelchair for 33 years,” Hammer said. “I am really interested in the accessibility of the home.” One of the advantages of Blu Homes, Hammer said, is that they are easily modified.
Hammer used to be a professional motorcycle racer. Now, he designs products for those with disabilities. “This house has 1,000 square feet of decking. But there are no stairs. It doesn’t look like some kind of wheelchair ramp. It all just looks like more deck. Everything is universal design, a little bigger doorway. So everybody benefits.”
For more information about Blu Homes, including upcoming home tours and Mare Island factory tours, go to their website at bluhomes.com. SD