Vermod mobile home wave of the future
By ERIC FRANCIS
CORRESPONDENT | October 28,2013
PHOTO BY ERIC FRANCIS
Andrew Winter of the Twin Pines Housing Trust stands in front of the first Vermod home as it was unveiled in White River Junction last week. Twin Pines helped sell the home to one of the residents of a trailer park they operate in South Royalton where it is expected to save its new owner $2,400 a year in heating and other utility bills.
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — In hindsight it seems obvious: Perhaps the easiest way make more of Vermont’s homes completely energy independent would be to start with the smallest kind of housing.
Last week, a Hartford company called Vermod showed off its first completed example of what the state is hoping will rapidly become the made-in-Vermont residence of choice at mobile home parks throughout the Green Mountains and eventually beyond.
It’s not an accident this new kind of high-performance mobile home is being made in Vermont: Vermod’s design is the culmination of a push by both the state government and a collection of over a dozen housing coalitions and community development organizations who saw the disproportionate damage that was inflicted on residents of mobile homes two years ago when Tropical Storm Irene inundated southern Vermont.
“When Irene hit we were so overwhelmed, we were so played out as a state government, that we couldn’t begin to think long term until we cleaned up the short-term challenges that people were facing,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said Wednesday, standing in front of the first completed Vermod unit and addressing a crowd of nearly 100 people, many of them from the housing and energy partnerships who’d collaborated on what became known as the Vermont Manufactured Homes Innovation Project.
“A bunch of folks said to me and others, ‘Why would we go back and do things the way we’ve always done them when we know this is an opening shot by the weather gods for what we have already put into the atmosphere?’,” the governor continued. He noted that the questions that inspired the project were: “Why, for the most vulnerable Vermonters — the ones who are living in mobile home parks — would we go and put those mobile homes back the way they were, the same places they were, at the same height, with the same incredibly inefficient buildings? Why would we do that? They are cold in the wintertime. They are warm in the summertime. They take huge amounts of money to heat and cool when we know we are asking the folks who have the least, who struggle the most, to pay the biggest bill? It makes no sense.”
Vermod’s solar-powered “Net Zero” high-performance houses are the same size as the estimated 22,000 mobile homes already in the state. They can be delivered with the existing fleet of wide-load trucks and fit on existing mobile home park lots, but that’s where the similarities end.
Architect David Pill designed Vermod’s mobile homes for northern climates. All the walls are 10 inches thick, allowing for a solid layer of fiberglass wool insulation. Vermod’s little houses are so airtight that even the doors and the triple-glazed windows each have an extra “three-point” locking mechanism which pulls each portal shut against a multi-layered gasket, ensuring a complete seal when they are closed.
“We have a high-efficiency appliance package included along with the high-efficiency lighting to make sure we are reducing our energy usage as much as possible,” energy consultant Peter Schneider of Efficiency Vermont, the state’s efficiency utility, explained as he led tours of the Vermod mobile home. “Because we are all electric, our fuel can just be the solar panels on the roof. We’re doing everything combined: Our heating, cooling, and ventilation is all part of the same system.”
Schneider said those working on the project spent time interviewing existing mobile home residents about what they wanted, and what they didn’t like, about traditional mobile home designs and functions.
“One of the things you find in most mobile homes is a furnace that is located in the wall behind an aluminum grate, and one of the main concerns of existing mobile home owners was how noisy the heating system is,” Schneider said as he opened the door onto what is a closet-sized central mechanical room containing what’s known as a CERV, a conditioning energy recovery ventilator. “When this heating unit is running you can hardly hear it. We’ve also eliminated fossil fuels because this is an all-electric appliance,” Schneider said.
“This uses a heat recovery ventilator with an in-line heat pump so the system is actually ‘stealing’ more heat, or cooling, depending on the season, out of the exhaust stream” from within the tightly sealed home, Schneider said. “We are recovering back what we’ve already paid for.”
With two dozen solar panels on the roof generating 6,000 watts of electricity, Schneider said, “we have conserved enough energy with the design, the thick walls, better windows, high-efficiency lights and appliances, that a small (solar panel) system on the roof will allow this homeowner to achieve ‘net zero’ energy; that is, they will produce as much energy as they consume on an annual basis.”
Another inherent problem with trailers, especially those built before 1976, when stricter national code requirements were enacted, is that they often lack the kind of larger windows that can be used to escape a fire.
“About 30 percent of the mobile homes in Vermont are pre-1976 and they have multiple small louvered windows that you couldn’t get out in the event of a fire. If there’s a fire you really need to be able to get out from every room,” Schneider noted. All of the rooms in the Vermod home have a least two sources of natural light and the windows are all big enough to easily exit through.
Vermod’s homes cost about 50 percent more than regular mobile homes in the current market, but they are expected to reduce their owners’ utility bills to around $16 a month from an average of $250 to $300 in a regular unit. Shumlin said even that small monthly expense will probably go to zero once utility fees are eventually phased out.
The first two Vermod homes to come off the assembly line were made in downtown White River Junction, but the company, owned by Steve Davis, who built six high-performance houses in Charlotte last year, will be moving a short distance in the next month to the former FedEx building in Wilder where there is enough space to build four Vermod units side by side simultaneously.
The company’s first 10 homes are being purchased by various housing trusts around the state, the first one is going to a resident in a park in South Royalton run by the Twin Pines trust, and the hope is that with a combination of subsidies and financing that, despite the higher base cost of the units, the monthly mortgage payments will end up being about the same as for a conventional mobile home for most purchasers.
After Irene, said Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, “the idea of trying to help Vermonters pick up from that terrible experience and replacing mobile homes with something of similar quality just seemed like a crazy thing to do.”
The final result of the desire to do something really different, Seelig said, is the Vermod home, which should start appearing all over the state in the months ahead. “It’s also great that we are going to be growing jobs here in Hartford if we can be successful,” Seelig noted.
As the governor made clear, mobile homes are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and so too is violent weather.
“Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change doesn’t live in Vermont,” Shumlin told the gathering in front of the first trailer last week. “I’ve been governor for about two and a half years but I have now overseen five storms induced by climate change that have required the federal government to come in and help. Five storms in two and a half years and we know that’s just a harbinger for what lies ahead… to meet the promise we made during Irene that we were going to rebuild this state smarter, better, more prepared for the future,” the governor concluded, gesturing to the Vermod home behind him, “I just had a tour of this. The future is right here.”