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Super Models

Lauren Murrow | September 21, 2016 | Story Architecture

Mare Island, a World War II-era naval base off Vallejo, is an eerie place, its 3 1/2-mile span strewn with abandoned warehouses. There, at the edge of the Napa River, towers a 250,000-square-foot glass curtain wall factory. Though the building was originally used to repair submarines in the 1940s, today its midcentury cranes hoist shrink-wrapped kitchens and bedrooms onto the backs of flatbed trucks. Since 2012, the building has been the headquarters of Blu Homes, a company using 3-D technology to design and build modern prefab homes faster, greener and cheaper than standard construction.

The business is the brainchild of Maura McCarthy, a former venture capitalist who founded the company alongside environmental entrepreneur Bill Haney in 2008. Although McCarthy, a petite, buttoned-up blonde, stands out among the factory’s hard-hat clad construction workers, building is in her blood. She grew up in Port Huron, Mich., in a home her parents built themselves with $2,000 worth of recycled materials. “I come from a do-it-yourself-type family of engineers,” she says, “the kind of people who like to build electronic planes in the backyard in their free time.” After graduating from Georgetown University in 2001, she joined the Boston venture capital firm Ironwood Equity, where she began researching—and later investing in—the prefab housing industry. In 2005, while on a business trip to the Dominican Republic, she met Haney, who was then shooting a documentary on the working conditions of sugar plantations. Combining their backgrounds in environmental engineering and tech investing, the pair set out to revolutionize the homebuilding industry by creating high-quality, eco-conscious prefab homes at fixed prices. (The homes range from $235,000 for a 438-square-foot cabana to $1,855,000 for the 6,100-square-foot, six-bedroom Sidebreeze Max.) The average model measures around 3,000 square feet and is 50 percent more energy efficient than existing Bay Area homes, incorporating sustainable hardwood flooring, eco-friendly countertops and low-flow water fixtures.

Though the company was originally founded in Boston, within its first three years, 75 percent of its clients hailed from California. Blu Homes relocated to Mare Island in 2012, and since last fall, the brand has been building exclusively in Northern California. While wine country was an early adopter of the prefab movement, McCarthy says, this year Silicon Valley surpassed it as Blu Homes’ fastest-growing region for new business. The brand has found particular appeal in teardown-happy towns like Palo Alto and Mountain View, where past clients include employees of Uber, Google, Facebook and Yahoo. Currently, there are a half-dozen projects in the works throughout the Valley, including in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Portola Valley and Saratoga.

Much of the allure is in the company’s speed. Active construction on a Blu Home lasts just four to six months, compared to 18 to 24 months for a traditional custom house. Each home is constructed in modules on Mare Island. On-site, the rooms unfurl like pop-up books and are fused together in less than two days. Designed by Blu Homes’ director of architecture and engineering, Roderick Bryan, the abodes feature 15-foot-high ceilings, soaring windows and indoor-outdoor elements like accordion-folding glass doors. “Some white-glove buyers, particularly in Silicon Valley, want a high degree of personalization,” says McCarthy. That’s where the tech-savvy design process comes in. In January, the company launched its Blu Design Studio app, which allows clients to virtually render appliances, finishes, fixtures and floor plans in 3-D. In April, the company doubled the number of home models available, from eight to 16.

A mile away from the frenetic Blu Homes factory, a model home of the company’s most popular design, the Breezehouse, sits in a tranquil meadow overlooking the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve. By the end of this year, two more model homes will rise here: the Lotus Mini, a 640-square-foot one-bedroom starting at $425,000, and the 2,500-square-foot, $945,000 Solaire, which, with its solar-panel-ready shed roof, ample deck space and expansive walls of glass, was specifically designed with Silicon Valley in mind. “It’s the modern alternative to the McMansion,” says McCarthy. “We’re making high-design prefab homes that are elegant, beautiful and healthy.”

Originally published in the September issue of Silicon Valley

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