Press in VTDigger : Making it in Vermont: These Vermont homes will move to New York this summer / by Paul Castrucci

Making it in Vermont: These Vermont homes will move to New York this summer

by Anne Wallace Allen

Vermod general manager Kristen Connors inside a Vermod home. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger   Editor’s note: Making it in Vermont is an ongoing series by VTDigger’s business reporter Anne Wallace Allen looking at companies and industries driving innovation in the state. If you have ideas about inspiring entrepreneurs or companies, send them to Anne at awallaceallen@vtdigger.org.

Vermod general manager Kristen Connors inside a Vermod home. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Editor’s note: Making it in Vermont is an ongoing series by VTDigger’s business reporter Anne Wallace Allen looking at companies and industries driving innovation in the state. If you have ideas about inspiring entrepreneurs or companies, send them to Anne at awallaceallen@vtdigger.org.

A Hartford company is building 13 modular homes that it plans to ship to New York City this summer for a Habitat for Humanity project.

Vermod makes 1,000-square-foot net zero energy homes with solar panels on the roof. The homes have a base price of about $190,000 installed and are designed to return the solar power they generate to the power grid.

The Habitat for Humanity homes will fill 13 small lots scattered through Queens that will be sold to income-qualified buyers through a lottery later this year. Vermod was one of about a dozen modular and prefab home companies that the project leaders considered, said project architect Grayson Jordan, an associate architect with the New York firm Paul A. Castrucci, Architect. The project RFP called for a very energy efficient home.

The New York City job is the most complex assignment yet for Vermod, which was started by Hartford builder Steven Davis as state and local officials sought new affordable housing after Tropical Storm Irene demolished several Vermont mobile home parks in 2011. Davis, who had been building energy-efficiency conventional homes since 2008, built 11 modular homes that fit the specifications for the parks.

“He probably had five employees working there” at the time, said Kristen Connors, Davis’ niece and now the company’s general manager. Davis then moved his company to its existing manufacturing plant in Wilder and now Vermod makes 25 to 40 units per year for homes based on one to four units. It has 15 workers.

The company provided units to build 14 duplexes for an Addison County community put together by Addison County Community Trust and the nonprofit Cathedral Square Corp. housing organization in 2017, and last fall delivered a four-unit home in Massachusetts.

“We looked at a few different models, but this one was better in terms of quality, durability, and energy,” said Cindy Reid, director of development at Cathedral Square, about Vermod. “When we’re developing long-term affordable rental housing, we really need to look at durability and built to last. The quality was just way higher than alternatives.”

While modular homes experience a brief mobility while they’re being shipped to a site, they are designed to be fixed and permanent and they are usually placed on a conventional foundation or on piers. That sets them apart from manufactured homes, which are built on a steel chassis and can be towed even after installation. Vermod works hard to set its products apart from the manufactured variety.

“That’s a bad word for us,” said Ashley Andreas, who explains the homes to prospective customers. “It’s not a trailer home. There’s a legal difference.”

Modular homes are made of wood and must meet all local building codes, said Andreas. Vermod’s homes are clad in vinyl with steel standing-seam roofs cut in the company’s Hartland plant. The interiors are wood with bamboo floors, Energy Star utility systems, and structural insulated panels on the roof.Connors said the company gets most of its materials from Goodro Lumber in Killington.

“We’re trying to change the stigma that surrounds mobile home parks and create a better product that is obtainable, affordable and healthy for anybody no matter what their price point is,” Connors said.

Vermod also created and delivered 13 homes for the Lamoille Housing Partnership’s Evergreen Manor Mobile Home Park.

Connors got involved in the company in 2015 after working in insurance for 13 years. By then, Davis was selling homes as far away as Burlington, Hardwick and Shelburne. At 72 feet long, the full-size structures are slightly longer than most of the modular or other homes that travel by road, and Davis had trailers custom-made by a company in Pennsylvania.

The two model homes at Vermod’s Hartland factory contain wall-size Sonnen batteries that can store the solar energy generated on the roof in case of power outages. The homes in the Addison County project, on a site in Waltham and Vergennes, also contain the batteries, which were installed without charge by Green Mountain Power.

“We had 14 homes producing energy on the grid, and (Green Mountain Power) needs to manage peak times and who is producing and who is drawing,” Reid said. “During peak times they can take solar panels offline and draw from the battery. It was a tool to help the utility and to create resilient homes so if the power does go down, they still have heat and lights.”

Connors expects the New York installation to be the most complex yet.

“They are nestled right in there, one after another. Some sites have trees sitting in front of them; there are electric wires running through the streets,” she said. “My uncle loves complicated projects.”

As with all of Vermod’s projects, the units will be delivered with all finishes and appliances in place. Habitat for Humanity will have poured the foundations, and Connors said it will take a week for each home’s structural, electrical and plumbing connections to be completed.

Also like the others, the New York homes will have rooftop solar panels. While connected to the grid, they are designed to produce at least as much energy as they consume. They will be tall and thin, made of three units on top of each other, with the third box primarily used as roof space.

Habitat for Humanity has signed a letter of intent for the project, and Connors expects construction of the 13 homes to continue over the next two years.

The New York project specifically calls for net zero energy homes. With Vermod, “(we) were working with a system that we felt we could work with that made sense for us, as far as how they built,” Jordan said. “And then another big thing was they are delivering a nearly complete building, versus some of the panelized systems where you get your walls and then you do everything else.”

Vermod also makes sense because labor costs in Wilder are lower than they are in Queens, said Jordan.

“There is a cost in transporting these things and using a crane to erect them, but it is offset by the ability of Vermod – they’re in a factory, so it’s a little more controlled, and that can offset the cost,” Jordan said. “And the other thing is we’re getting a known product from people who are really passionate about energy efficiency; that is another criteria.”

Connors and Davis have talked about franchising and about expanding nationally, but “I think right now the main goal is to perfect our process and just really get good at what we are doing,” she said. “I’d hate to lose sight of our vision.”