I don’t know what to do with Elon Musk. One day he’s a visionary hero, the next day it’s Jeff Bezos with hair. A few weeks ago, I saw leaflets in Oakland about an Elon Musk protest; nothing specific, just to protest against his General Elon Muskiness. Is this the same guy everyone cheered on a few years ago, the irreverent entrepreneur who doesn’t care if someone steals their code?
I don’t pay enough attention to Elon Musk, obviously, to understand the evolution of his relationship with the militant class, but he did something recently that caught my attention. You’ve probably heard that he moved to Texas and put his Hillsborough mansion on the market ($ 35 million, if you’re interested in buying a 16,000 square foot estate with a wacky past) , but did you know his new home is a studio-sized “little house” built on an assembly line?
For me, this is the interesting part of the story; not that Elon Musk, the billionaire announced to the world that he “sells almost all physical goods” and chooses to live the life of a millennial couple on a failed HGTV show. These are the uninteresting parts. The interesting part is that his new home was built on an assembly line.
The house comes from a company called Boxabl whose goal, along with a few peers like Juno, APT, and Generate, is to revolutionize homebuilding by creating prefabricated homes that, when completed, can be towed behind a standard pickup truck and then unfold in place until they become a house. Boxabl’s 400-square-foot “casita” costs $ 50,000 at the door, minus Elon Musk’s upgrade package.
Manufactured homes are certainly not something new. One hundred years ago, you could order a house from the Sears catalog. It would appear in a box, just add nails. And we’ve seen cedar houses from Lindahl and others that are assembled on site, and “prefabricated houses” precariously towed behind tractor-trailers on the highway.
So big problem; what is the revolution?
Boxabl wants to become the Henry Ford of housing, building modular, stackable and transportable homes on an assembly line like a car. Elon’s casita is small, but the concept is scalable, up to and including multi-story apartment buildings. The finished product folds up into a box with a width of up to 100 inches, for easy transport, and Boxabl claims to be able to finish a home in six hours. The turnaround time for boxes already inventoried, they say, can be as short as a day.
No need for coating: it’s a potential revolution, especially in terms of affordable housing, the Casper mattress of residential construction, not to be missed. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s cool. Your house arrives and is revealed. It’ll work, right?
Perhaps. There are edifying stories.
But every sordid tale seems to focus on incidental factors. No one thinks that manufactured homes are a bad idea.
There is the story of Pulte homes, a traditional home builder who built a 109,000 square foot factory in Northern Virginia to build components for 1,800 homes a year, to be assembled on site. The problem was the timing; Pulte built the factory in 2007. In 2008 the recession hit, the housing market collapsed and the Pulte factory was quietly closed.
Then there’s the spectacular Katerra fire, which declared bankruptcy in June after burning nearly $ 2 billion in investor money in just six years. The media coverage, which is plentiful, finds many reasons for Katerra’s demise, mostly orbiting pride and over-expansion and a general misunderstanding of how to go about executing her business plan. .
“Rather than adapting to the industry,” says a story in Architectural Digest, “Katerra would try to replace or buy the obstacle in her path.” Running out of wood, Katerra built a massive factory in Washington state, the story continues, essentially smashing a fly with an Uzi. Nowhere does it say that Katerra was a bad idea.
Because it’s not a bad idea. It’s a good idea, but it does come with a few questions. Can Boxabl operate on a large scale? Can homes built on an assembly line accommodate often quirky local building codes? With construction being cyclical, what if Boxabl ends up with a housing backlog during the downturn months? Houses, after all, are not cars.
But what if part of Boxabl’s strategy is to convince cities to mass-buy hut-style casitas from the 1906 earthquake and use them as social housing? This seems like a no-brainer in a city where tents would cost $ 61,000 a year …
It’s certainly not that simple, but why not take a look at it?
Either way, I am in favor of Boxabl. With homeownership in San Francisco looking further ahead than ever for so many people, maybe a home that unfolds is the answer to a lot of questions.
Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster, and former real estate agent. He is a guest columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the examiner. The Market Musings real estate section appears every two weeks.
affordable housing housing crisis Housing market real estate