Offsite Provider Interview: EcoCor

We recently sat down with Chris Corson, Technical Director, CPHD, Assoc. AIA, at EcoCor.

EcoCor is a small firm that designs, manufactures, delivers and erects wall assemblies, which are designed and fabricated to the global Passive House building standard. It is the first Passive House-certified component manufacturer outside Europe. The homes are extremely energy efficient and constructed using the cleanest, healthiest materials available. Most of its products – wall, foundation and roof systems – are for heating-dominated climates, but Ecocor is developing other products for other climates. The panels have high levels of continuous insulation throughout the entire assembly. Windows are high-quality triple glazed and imported from Europe. Construction is completely thermal bridge free. The homes are designed and engineered to IRC 2009 and IBC commercial construction standards. “Our model is not to build the cheapest houses out there,” Corson says. “Our model is to build the best homes out of the highest quality and cleanest materials we can source as locally as possible.”

HIA: What do you think of the current building model in the U.S.?

CC: The housing industry in this country has not evolved from a performance standpoint at all since the 1940s, essentially. There have been small, incremental changes to levels of insulation, but we’re still in the mindset of building cheap housing as quickly as possible at the lowest possible cost and then deferring the long-term cost of ownership onto the homeowner. I don’t think that’s a good model. And somehow, we’ve built a trillion-dollar industry on that model. We live in a world where we have access to better building products and more technology and those could be utilized in the construction industry.

HIA: What about the affordability factor for Passive House homes?

CC: Investing in components that will last the longest and are the most resilient and that won’t need replacing is a smart investment from a homeowner standpoint. If you do net present value calculation and annuity calculations on savings and upfront capital costs of a Passive House versus normal code-built house, I think it makes a lot of financial sense. You decrease the costs of heating and cooling and decrease the costs of the things that will break every 10 to 15 years and invest in the envelope. While you’re doing that you’re increasing your health and comfort and decreasing the long-term cost of ownership.

HIA: Only 2 percent of homes in the U.S. are built with modular systems of some sort? How do you get consumers to turn around?

CC: I don’t really have an answer to that. One barrier to prefab construction in the U.S. is there’s a misunderstanding in the marketplace that modular construction is cheaply built. The modular construction industry chose the path of lowest common denominator and there’s an association with mobile homes and trailer homes that barely meet HUD codes.

The market will change at the rate corollary to the adoption of enlightened people. When we really begin to care about our carbon impact on the planet and the way that we live as energy costs begin to rise, the adoption rate will increase. Especially since the cost delta is not that different from custom homes.

Why panels as opposed to prefab or modular?

CC: A panel approach gives architects and designers a broad palette on which to design and conceive of homes before they become objects. I like the flexibility of panelization. For example, we have a project we’re working on and the walls are curved. You can’t get that from a modular company; it doesn’t exist. With modules you’re limited to nine-by-seven-inches tall by 14-feet wide. Those elements cater well to multifamily and larger projects, not single-family homes.

Does Ecocor do all the work — from manufacture to build?

CC: Our company is basically cutting through the complexities of Passive House design and leaving the fit and finish to local trasdesmen and local GCs.

Builders, architects and homeowners come to us. I don’t know when that model will change, but it likely will. We’re not large enough for dealerships at this point, but we do have GCs we work with in different regions that we’re familiar with. We can deliver a shell package, and they work with clients directly to finish the house.

We send out a crew of four guys to erect the house and do everything the way we want it done. At some point we may transition to GCs erecting the house, and we’re just the manufacturer. We’d need to double the [number] of homes per year to make that work. I think that will happen.

We’ll probably do 12 to 15 projects this year. But we built and panelized a new 20,000 square foot manufacturing facility and another 2,800 square foot office space. We had to work that into the production schedule.

Would you want to become a service provider for production builders?

CC: I’d love to — if they want to build Passive House. The service provider would have to be enlightened, and then I’d be thrilled to build hundreds and hundreds of Passive Houses. That would be great.

Can I compete against somebody like a national builder that knocks out 500 houses a day? No. But they’re not building what we’re building. Could that national company build 500 Passive Houses in a day; yes, but it would be at the expense of their profit margins and wouldn’t fit their business model. They’re stuck in an antiquated way of doing things.

Are construction costs a barrier?

CC: We have competed locally against custom homebuilders and have built Passive Houses for a very small cost delta for what normal construction would cost. Talking about square foot costs and square foot pricing is a blessing and curse. It doesn’t’ tell the story. It doesn’t tell about the interior fit and finish. There are houses we can build for $236 a square foot and houses we can build for $900 dollars a square foot, and they can be exactly the same size house but look different and have different fit and finishes. Everyone wants their home to feel customized to their taste. That can happen to an extent but a lot of that is what drives cost.

We’re trading complex mechanical systems for better foundations, better walls, better windows and better roofs. In doing that we eliminate a $40,000 hydronic heating system and put that $40,000 into the walls, the roof and the envelope and now your shell may cost more but the overall cost of the home has not really changed a whole lot. If you look at our platform of model homes, the average cost is $236 a square foot. The tiniest house at 300 square feet is $400 a square foot, and the largest house at 2,800 square feet is right around $205 a square foot. That assumes “X” siding, “X” window details, sheetrock, gypsum wallboard, Ikea kitchens and baths. If you want a custom Brookhaven kitchen that costs $50,000 you can spend that money. To work those costs into a square foot cost is hard to judge. Then you get into people using terms like “modest” finishes, these are subjective things.

What is your long-term outlook for the building industry?

CC: For the future of homebuilding to really increase not only the quality of houses and decrease the costs, I don’t see any other pathway long term than getting as close to automation as possible. And that is happening. Long-term that’s the answer. Automation, robots building components and those components being erected and delivered and assembled by humans. If we got a contract to build 100 houses next year, I’d go buy a robot tomorrow.

Image courtesy of EcoCor