The term “mobile home” is a serious misnomer. That they are homes is certain: Figures from the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) suggest that tens of thousands of Vermonters reside full-time in these smallish, low-cost structures. But mobile they are not. Though technically attachable to a trailer for hauling, the great majority of mobile homes remain where they were originally sited. Few Vermont mobile-home owners relocate them to, say, Arizona when the winter winds begin to blow.
Despite their permanence, mobile homes are far more vulnerable to weather fluctuations than so-called “stick-built” houses. They’re less well insulated and are typically propped up on concrete pillars rather than a true foundation. In short, mobile homes may be relatively inexpensive to purchase, but their owners can get slammed with energy costs.
Now the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board and Efficiency Vermont are collaborating to rewrite that energy equation. Embracing forward-thinking design and construction techniques, the Manufactured Housing Innovation Project (MHIP) aims to create mobile homes that are energy-efficient and reasonably affordable. A Wilder company called Vermod has the exclusive contract to build what it calls “high-performance manufactured homes for the 21st century.” Vermod’s structures are built to withstand Vermont winters and other rough weather.
Mobile homes’ vulnerability to the elements was forcefully driven home to Vermonters in 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene slammed into the state and took an outsize toll on them. According to Peter Schneider, a senior consultant with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation/Efficiency Vermont, 15 percent of the residences that qualified for post-Irene Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance were mobile homes — yet those homes constitute only about 7 percent of the state’s total housing stock. (According to CVOEO, that translates to 22,490 housing units.)
Schneider says the devastation wrought by Irene was “the catalyst” that inspired the collaboration of Efficiency Vermont, the University of Vermont, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board and the nonprofit High Meadows Fund. The goal was to design and build a mobile home that far exceeds the standards laid down by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which have not been updated since 1976.
Sarah Woodward, director of the mobile-home program at CVOEO, helped MHIP gather feedback from owners about what they’d like to see in the next generation of such housing. She calls MHIP “an innovative group that’s approaching this problem with a fresh mind.” CVOEO’s operating question, Woodward says, is “How can we find a safe design that’s going to be affordable for people?” The project commenced in 2012, and the first homes were built the following year.
With Schneider as a guide, Seven Days took a tour of a Vermod mobile home last fall, when it was on display in the parking lot of Burlington’s Innovation Center of Vermont. Schneider eagerly pointed out the home’s many energy-efficient features. So far, he’s overseen the placement of 16 Vermod homes in towns across the state.
Schneider started his tour by calling attention to an easily overlooked but important feature: roof overhangs. Many manufacturers omit them, since they occupy precious width in an interstate lane. “But they’re almost critical to durability in our climate,” he explained; the roof extensions allow ice and snow to drip down and away from exterior walls.
Another outdoor innovation: Vermod homes are set on true foundations. Mobile homes perched on blocks expose more surface area to cold and damp. Many owners invest in skirting that covers the gap cosmetically, but it remains uninsulated.