In the late 1960s, two brothers in Asheville, North Carolina—one a salesman, the other an engineering whiz who worked for Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Lab, home of Manhattan Project, the top-secret WWII program that developed the atomic bomb—went into business together building homes. At first, Wayne and Robert Kinser produced A-frame homes geared towards the resort industry, but before long, they realized that was a dead end: The A-frame, with all its space and heating inefficiencies, was not going to be the home of the future.
So, like many a great businesses, the brothers made an key pivot, betting instead on the prefabricated round house. They purchased plans from Rondesics, a local company that was already producing simple round homes, and Robert, the engineer, began making significant improvements to the design. The major change was a redesigned roof system that made use of compression rings and a tension collar, the same elements explored in Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes. The resulting structure—which didn't need internal columns or load-bearing walls—was lightweight, compact, and sturdy, and allowed for panoramic views.
The company, originally called Delta Technology, became Deltec Homes when it shifted its focus to residential projects in the 1980s. Since then, it has built over 5,000 prefab round homes in 50 U.S. states and 30 countries, and none of them has been lost to extreme weather. It's an impressive record for sure, but Deltec has its sights set on so much more.
The idea that prefab homes can provide efficient alternative housing has been kicked around for a while, from the postwar experiments of French modernist Jean Prouvé to Winston Churchill's plan to fight a housing shortage with prefab temporary shelters, to, of course, the Bucky Fuller domes that informed the classic Deltec round home design. While those efforts never saw major commercial success, the dream that prefabs are the future has never faded—in fact, the momentum behind it seems to be growing.
"Ten to 20 years ago, prefab housing was seen as a lesser product than site-build or stick-built homes, but coming out of the recession, it's clear to me that a lot of people's perceptions have changed," says current Deltec president Steve Linton in a recent phone interview. "I think it's inevitable, whether that's 10 years or 50 years from now, that the vast majority of houses eventually get built this way."
Linton proceeds to give an analogy about car buying, and how one wouldn't go to a dealer and ask them to build a specific model outside in the parking lot, exposed to the elements. "Houses are really following that same track," he adds.
For Deltec, this hopeful outlook has meant doubling down on the the prefab techniques they've been figuring out for decades, addressing shifting demands, and, well, thinking outside the circle. As newer prefab builders unveil shiny new designs (that are certainly not round) left and right, the nearly 50-year-old Deltec, hoping to appeal to as many people as possible, has had to constantly adapt as well.
In 2013, after fielding regular requests from customers seeking high-performance net-zero homes (houses that generate the same amount of energy as they consume), Deltec launched Renew Collection, a series of homes designed to use two-thirds less energy than regular homes, with the remaining one-third supplied by solar energy. Key common features? An airtight building envelop, passive heating and cooling, and options like a solar hot water system, triple-pane windows, and more.
The collection currently offers 10 models (three were introduced just last fall) ranging from a more traditional Arts & Crafts-style design called Chestnut to the Solar Homestead, an award-winning entry in the 2011 US Solar Decathlon, designed in collaboration with Appalachian State University. According to Linton, the most popular model among customers so far is the Ridgeline, which features vaulted ceilings optimized for passive solar energy.
Linton is quick to say that this way of building isn't necessarily a new concept invented by Deltec, but it's just a tangible way that the company can live out one of its core values, which is environmental responsibility. On its website, Deltec boasts that its production facility is powered by 273 solar panels, so every Deltec home is prefabricated using 100 percent renewable energy.
The company also donates roughly 80 percent of its construction waste to organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Apple Country Woodcrafters. And, last month, Deltec became the first prefab builder to achieve B Corp Certification, given to companies that meet stringent social and environmental performance standards; the pool of roughly 1,600 B Corp-certified companies worldwide also includes Patagonia, Etsy, and Ben & Jerry.
"We changed how we define [environmental responsibility] a couple of years ago from just trying to make things less-bad-than-they-used-to-be to really trying to find a way to build homes that have a restorative effect on the planet and the environment," Linton says. "That was kind of the thinking that went into these homes."
So, on to the real talk: How much will these eco-conscious houses cost you? Well, the typical range for turnkey Deltec homes is between $150 and $200 per square foot. That means for homes between 1,500 and 1,600 square feet—the most popular size range for Deltec—the typical final cost comes in between $225,000 and $320,000, excluding land and site work costs. These numbers certainly aren't the lowest we've seen, but for Deltec, they also aren't the most important numbers.
Affordability, or lack thereof, comes up whenever modern prefabs are concerned. When asked about how his company is tackling this, Linton argues that part of the conversation has to be about getting people into the mindset that affordability isn't only about the upfront price, if high construction and performance standards are to be upheld.
"If I'm building a $286,000 home (which is the actual final cost of a new net-zero model home Deltec completed this month), it's like I've bought all of the energy that I'm ever going to need in that house," he explains.
"That's a different model than a lot of people are used to, where they'd like to get that initial price as low as possible, but then end up paying more, month to month to month."
For Deltec customers—or anyone in the market for an affordable prefab for that matter—Linton always recommends doing the numbers on the long-term benefits and pursuing the "right-size" home. "Maybe the [built house] is smaller than they they thought it should be—maybe it's 1,500 square feet instead of 2,000—but then you can take the savings from that and put it into making the house a net-zero home," says Linton.
"It's not the number of square feet you have, it's how you put those square feet together that really make a beautiful house."