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With a goal of providing architecturally designed houses with custom amenities to a wider clientele, company takes factory-made homes to a whole new level


Whether you look at them from the street or from inside, you'd never guess they came out of a factory.

And yet the spacious, architecturally designed Blu Homes being made in a historic shipbuilding warehouse at Mare Island are elevating the look of prefab to a whole new level of sophistication.

For the past two years, Blu has been trucking its sleekly contemporary, steel-framed homes all over the country, including to Wine Country. (The name "Blu," by the way, is meant to encompass the natural colors associated with air and water, crucial elements to consider when designing sustainable, healthy homes, company spokeswoman Dana Smith said.)

In August, their Breezehouse, a variation of the celebrated Michelle Kaufmann design by the same name that rocked the architectural world a few years back, drew loads of people to the back of a Healdsburg housing development to see it set up as Sunset Magazine's 2012 "Idea House."

The four-bedroom, four-bath house with a front deck and expansive patios etched into a hillside served as a case study in what the future of factory-made could look like. And when the visitors were gone, it was put on the market by Palo Alto-based developers Jack and Rosemary Wardell for $2.6 million.

It wasn't the first Blu house in Healdsburg, however. That distinction went to Steve and Jo Cooper, who bought the first Breezehouse out of the factory and had it placed on a country lot northwest of town in the Dry Creek Valley earlier this year.

Jo, an interior designer, said she actually cut a picture of the Michelle Kaufmann Breezehouse out of a magazine nearly five years ago as a reminder of the kind of house she'd like.

"I really wanted an easy way to have a new home in a warmer place," she said.

And it was. They picked it out online in June of last year, selecting all the appliances, flooring and finishes within two hours and receiving an actual price, including delivery. They broke ground in September for the $80,000 foundation and site work and on Jan. 18 the three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,300-square-foot house arrived in pods. By the end of the first day, the three pods were unfolded and in place, and by the end of the next day a roof was on.

"It was a very cold day and they brought in a crane six stories high," recalled Jo, who watched with a mug of hot chocolate in her hands. "They swung them over oak trees that were 50 feet wide, dropped them and unfolded them right before your eyes. It was fascinating."

The house includes the kind of attractive and green features you usually find only in custom homes, like bamboo floors, radiant heating, Caesarstone quartz countertops, and Italian cement board and clear-cedar siding. The homes are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified for green building practices and energy efficiency.

Blu is attempting to solve the seemingly impossible equation contemplated by the great minds of modern architecture, everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Walter Gropius: how to create beautifully designed and crafted buildings in a factory, thus taking advantage of economies of scale to keep costs down.

The Wardells installed a smaller Blu "Glidehouse," another retooled version of the very first Kaufmann pre-fab design, next to the Breezehouse and similarly customized it with higher-end upgrades. It was quickly snapped up for more than a million dollars. The couple is planning to acquire three to four other plots in Healdsburg to install more upgraded Blu homes for people with a taste for light-filled modern design warmed up with natural finishes.

"It's a lot of house. The design is really focused on function," said Rosemary Wardell, an interior designer who has done and redone many homes in the Bay Area and Hawaii over the years, including Eichlers. Her brother John Brooks Boyd was a key architect for developer Joe Eichler, who from 1947 to 1973 filled the Bay Area suburbs with well-designed and open-planned modernist homes for the middle class.

In some ways, Blu Homes is filling a similar niche, providing quality modern design at a more affordable price by cutting out the architectural costs and building up to 90 percent of the house and fixtures in the factory.

While the Wardells have taken their basic homes and installed them on more expensive sites with customized upgrades — the Breezehouse at $565,000 is the most expensive of seven complete home models offered by Blu — one could purchase a compact, single-story "Element" design with two bedrooms, 12-foot ceilings, sliding doors and transom windows for $175,000, including appliances. While it doesn't include a foundation or site work, it does include delivery, set-up on a pre-made foundation and professional finish work.

"Part of what we're trying to do is democratize design so that the 99 percent of Americans who can't afford an architect can choose their flooring and cabinets and countertops and bathroom fixtures online in 3-D and get a fixed price," said Bill Haney, the Harvard-educated co-founder and president of Blu.

The houses aren't cheap, but they are less expensive by 25 to 30 percent than a comparable custom stick-built house, said co-founder Maura McCarthy, a former federal economist.

Blu, she added, was founded out of the Rhode Island School of Design and MIT in 2008, applying technological innovation and know-how to fine design. They acquired the intellectual property, designs and assets of Kaufmann's faltering company as well as some of her design staff, she said.

They've taken the dream further, making adaptations and adding their own designs, while figuring out a way to make the modules larger and fold for shipping to a mere 8? feet, which allows them to ship by regular semi-trailers rather than wide-load trailers. That cuts the shipping costs dramatically and allows them to travel much farther.

"These houses really feel like homes that allow people to let the outside in," McCarthy said. "And that is the lifestyle people in California want."

&‘&‘They swung them over oak trees that were 50 feet wide, dropped them and unfolded them right before your eyes. It was fascinating.''