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I-house marks big leap from trailer park

An Oct. 28, 2008, image released by Clayton Homes Inc. shows the new i-house. The solar-powered, energy-efficient prefab house features decks on the ground level and on the roof of the detached "flex room."  AP Photo by Clayton Homes

An Oct. 28, 2008, image released by Clayton Homes Inc. shows the new i-house. The solar-powered, energy-efficient prefab house features decks on the ground level and on the roof of the detached "flex room." AP Photo by Clayton Homes

Duncan Mansfield
AP Writer

Knoxville, TN — From its bamboo floors to its rooftop deck, Clayton Homes’ new industrial-chic i-house is about as far removed from a mobile home as an iPod is from a record player.

Architects at the country’s largest manufactured-home company embraced the basic rectangular form of what began as housing on wheels and gave it a postmodern turn with a distinctive v-shaped roofline, energy efficiency and luxury appointments.

Stylistically, the i-house might be more at home in the pages of a cutting-edge architectural magazine than among the Cape Cods and ranchers in the suburbs.

The layout of the long main “core” house and a separate box-shaped guestroom-office “flex room” resemble the letter “i” and its dot. Yet Clayton CEO and President Kevin Clayton said i-house stands for more than its footprint.

With a nod to the iPod and iPhone, Clayton said, “We love what it represents. We are fans of Apple and all that they have done. But the ‘i’ stands for innovation, inspiration, intelligence and integration.”

Clayton’s i-house was conceived as a moderately priced “plug and play” dwelling for environmentally aware homebuyers. It went on sale nationwide last week with its presentation at the annual shareholders’ meeting of investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire-Hathaway Inc. in Omaha, Neb.

Maryville, Tenn.-based Clayton Homes, acquired by Berkshire-Hathaway in a $1.7 billion buyout in 2003, delivered 27,499 mobile or manufactured homes last year, a third of the industry total. Clayton said the i-house very quickly could represent more than 10 percent of the company’s business.

“I think in 12 to 18 months it is possible,” he said. “That is a lofty goal, but it is very possible. Retailers are saying they want the home on their lots tomorrow. I know the demand is there. How fast we capture it is really just determined by how affordable we can make it.”

Clayton Homes plans to price the i-house at $100 to $130 a square foot, depending on amenities and add-ons, such as additional bedrooms. A stick-built house with similar features could range from $200 to $300 a square foot to start, said Chris Nicely, Clayton marketing vice president.

The key cost difference is from the savings Clayton achieves by building homes in volume in green standardized factories with very little waste. Clayton has plants in Oregon, Tennessee, California and New Mexico geared up for i-house production.

A 1,000-square-foot prototype unveiled at a Clayton show in Knoxville a few months ago was priced at around $140,000. It came furnished, with a master bedroom, full bath, open kitchen and living room with Ikea cabinetry, two ground-level deck areas and a separate “flex room” with a second full bath and a second-story deck covered by a sail-like canopy.

“It does not look like your typical manufactured home,” said Thayer Long with the Manufactured Housing Institute, a Washington-based group representing 370 manufactured and modular home-building companies.

The “i-house’s” metal v-shaped roof — inspired by a gas-station awning —provides a rain water catchment system for recycling, supports flush-mounted solar panels and vaults interior ceilings at each end.

The Energy Star-rated design features heavy insulation, 6-inch thick exterior walls, cement board and corrugated metal siding, energy-efficient appliances, a tankless water heater, dual-flush toilets and lots of “low-e” glazed windows.

The company said the prototype, at roughly 52,000 pounds, may be the heaviest home it’s ever built.

Susan Connolly, a 60-year-old accountant who works from her conventional Knoxville home, wants to be one of the first buyers.

“I have been interested in green construction and the environment in my own personal life,” she said. “It is nice to have a group of people that have thought of everything. Where you don’t have to shop around and go to different places … to find the products you want.”

The company sees the i-house as a primary residence — three developers already have inquired about building mini-developments with them — that also could appeal to vacation home buyers.

Brian McKinley, president of Atlantis Homes of Smyrna, Del., a manufactured-home dealer that sells Clayton and other brands, said the i-house resembles high-end custom homes he sees along the Delaware-Maryland shore.

It represents a “new direction and an innovative application for what our industry can do,” he said.

“I think there is a market,” McKinley said. “The challenge is to find that market, and then will they visit this home at one of our traditional factory-built home centers. I think they (Clayton) want to find that out, too.”

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