Prefab green homes get affordable (©  Clayton Homes/Popular Mechanics)Click to enlarge picture

An exterior view of the innovative, prefab Clayton i-house.

It looks like a house you'd order from Ikea. It sounds like a house designed by Apple. The I-House just might be the future — well, one future, anyway — of the housing market.

Clayton Homes, based in Maryville, Tenn., is one of America's largest manufacturers of mobile homes and prefabricated housing. So when President Kevin Clayton wanted to go green, he gave his architects a free hand, instructing them to incorporate as many green products as possible and to produce a home that was super energy-efficient — the only constraint was that it had to be something that could be built in existing facilities.

The result was the Clayton I-House (view Clayton’s online tour of it here), an innovative prefab home that can be powered for a dollar a day, thanks to Low-E windows, solar augmentation, high-efficiency appliances and superior insulation. The solar panels on the roof don't supply all the home's needs, but they do cut electricity consumption in half. There's also a tankless water heater and a cistern that collects rainwater from the roof for use in gardening, car washing or other outdoor uses. Floors are made of fast-growing bamboo, and paint and insulation are low- or zero-emission.

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The basic I-House is 992 square feet, though the design's blend of indoor and outdoor space makes it seem bigger. Though final prices haven't been set, Clayton hopes to deliver it for about $100,000. But the "core" unit can be expanded by adding additional rooms in different configurations to suit the buyer's needs and the character of the lot — placing rooms above one another to accommodate, for example, a hillside. Clayton Vice President Chris Nicely says the goal is to allow as much customization — both in configuration and interiors — as possible. It can be set on a traditional foundation, for example, or it can sit on piers driven into the ground.

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As innovative as the energy and environmental features are, though, it's the design that draws attention. As Popular Mechanics toured a display model near the Knoxville airport, people were stopping in to look it over. "I'm not a mobile-home kind of guy," one man said, "but I could see living in this." That's the idea.

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The Clayton folks see the typical customer for the I-House as being younger and more affluent than traditional mobile-home buyers. The interior and exterior are attractive, looking like something from a high-end home show, not the kind of disposable mobile home you'd see coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The house more closely resembles a product that you might buy from Ikea. In fact, it is a house you might buy from Ikea: Kevin Clayton is a fan of the Scandinavian furniture company, and Clayton Homes is exploring a partnership with Ikea that would feature display models at Ikea stores and even allow people to design and order their own I-Houses from the Ikea Web site. (Clayton's own Web site will allow this in a few months, via a build-your-own I-House feature. They'll even let you visit the factory while it's built.)

So where does the I-House fit in to the troubled times of the current housing market? Well, obviously, it's not for everyone; even with several expansion modules added, large families will probably find it a bit small. But with big, expensive houses looking less attractive as investments — since their values are actually plummeting in many markets — and with energy costs virtually certain to climb in coming years, the market for a small but stylish house that has lots of high-end amenities with a low energy bill is likely to be pretty big. And if you're like a lot of Americans, you spend most of your time in a couple of rooms anyway, regardless of how many rooms your house has.

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But the I-House's impact is likely to go beyond this particular home. What was learned in the process of designing and building this energy-efficient home has fed back into the rest of Clayton Homes' product line, Nicely says. An ordinary mobile home that gets much lower energy bills may not be as exciting as the I-House, but multiplied by millions, it's likely to have an impact. And the strong interest in the I-House's look and "green" character is also likely to encourage other builders — including the makers of traditional site-built homes — to add green features as well.