Cottage Industry

­With this month’s launch of a Web-based company, Brett Zamore hopes to do what no one in the market has done so far: deliver sustainable modern homes that live up to the promise of affordability.

The shotgun shack has never been a home for the wealthy, but Brett Zamore, who has worked for more than a decade with the ubiquitous form that dots the Southern landscape, has found a wealth of virtues in it. The narrow cottages are community-minded, with sociable porches and friendly proximity to neighbors. Despite—or more likely because of—their folk roots, they’re energy-efficient. Concrete piers allow cooling breezes to pass below, while diametrically aligned front and back doors offer cross-ventilation. “Shotguns have elegance,” says Zamore, who renovated one for his graduate thesis at Rice University in 1999 before producing the much lauded Shottrot hybrid. “They’re an excellent template for the small home.”

This month, in the wake of the home-lending collapse and under the shadow of a looming energy crisis, Zamore is betting big on small-home chic. He is launching a Web-based company, Zamore Homes, to offer environmentally friendly shotgun-inspired cottages at prices as low as $100 a square foot. With the largest standard version, Kit 06, measuring in at 2,200 square feet, and Kit 00 a mere 400 square feet, they are efficient to ship, build, and maintain. Their well-placed windows, open floor plans, and vaulted ceilings lend them a sense of largesse. Zamore would argue that these are homes for the carbon-crisis world.

Nevertheless, it is a risky venture. There has been much hoopla surrounding attempts to buck the traditional home-building model and deliver architecture in volume at affordable prices. Most of the focus has been on prefab, whereby manufactured units are delivered complete to a site. But while many firms claim to offer high design for low prices, prefabs can still come in at well over $200 a square foot once shipping costs are factored in. In particular, homes delivered in modules, such as Kieran Timberlake’s new line of “expandable residences,” can require caravans of vehicles to deliver them to a site and even cranes to settle them. After all is said and done, some prefabs end up costing $500 a square foot to construct.

By contrast, Zamore Homes, which aren’t prefabs, use components that are ordered locally and assembled on-site; they cost a mere $100 to $170 a square foot. Although the seven customizable patterns have sleek modern lines, they take cues from the past in more ways than one: they are based on a vernacular style and delivered in much the same way Sears, Roebuck and Co. homes were circa 1910. The Web Site explains the process: “A customer selects a home online, and chooses styles and finishes from lists of products we’ve put together. We assemble these at outlets nearest the customer and ship them from there.” Options include exterior siding, flooring, countertops, cabinetry, and appliances. Like prefab dealers, Zamore has built partnerships with national companies to provide components: off-the-shelf cabinets come from Ikea, appliances from Sears. Drawings for Zamore Homes’ structural elements are already on file with Trussway, a national building-supply company. By negotiating in volume, Zamore gets bulk deals. “We get tankless water heaters for $300 less than the typical plumber,” he says, in reference to Rinnai, a plumbing company. These arrangements mean that Zamore Homes can be assembled within 20 weeks, compared with the eight to twelve months typically needed for custom homes.

Because Zamore’s local shipping model is entirely different from that of prefab homes, he estimates that it will save thousands of dollars in warehousing, fuel, and delivery charges. “As the price of energy goes up, I’ve watched companies putting these modules on trucks and sending them over long distances,” he says. “I’m not doing that. The home site becomes the factory. Instead, I’m just selling information.” Rocio Romero, who makes site-built homes but ships the components from one factory in Missouri, finds what Zamore is doing timely. “I deliver from the factory in parts, and keep my homes on one flatbed truck to keep costs down,” she says. “But the cost of fuel has gone up 50 percent in the past three years, so I’m literally charging customers thousands of dollars more for each home.”

Zamore has also prefigured savings into the home dimensions themselves. He has based designs on standard units of lumber, bypassing the time it would otherwise take contractors to cut and measure. “We make thirty percent less waste than a custom home,” Zamore says. “That means fewer extra materials ordered and fewer dump fees.” The only pricing variable Zamore has no control over is the charge for local labor. The result: even with luxury finishes and a carport, developer Mark Johnson—whose company, Area 16, is building three homes in central Houston, including a tiny Kit 00—anticipates being able to sell the two 1,250-square-foot Kit 002s for about $300,000 each. That’s about the same as an older cottage in the area would cost—and a bargain for new construction with energy-efficient modern conveniences like dishwashers and central air.

So the price is right—but will the product sell? Zamore Homes has already caught the ear of Houston investor and art collector Bubba Levy. “Houston is this overbuilt town with a lot of poorly designed real estate, and it’s just blooming out in the suburbs,” he says. “There’s a market for young professionals who want a home that’s good on conservation.” Levy notes that Zamore has a successful track record: “Everywhere he builds, he gets rave reviews from people who really care about architecture.” One such person is Chris White, who has a degree in architecture and is entering negotiations with Zamore for his own first home. “It’s like having a custom home, but less expensive,” he says. “My wife and I can’t afford a high-end prefab, but we still want to get that kind of design, affordably.”

Michelle Kaufmann, who produces environmentally friendly modular housing through California-based Michelle Kaufmann Designs, finds Zamore’s ideas promising but is cautious about outright endorsement. Although she now makes prefabs, she initially followed a site-built model similar to Zam­ore’s, without localized shipping. “It’s great when anyone thinks about ways of making sustainable design good for everyone,” she says, warning that site-built homes have their own set of problems. “It only takes one on-site electrician getting confused to delay things significantly,” she says. Meanwhile, Romero worries that Zamore’s model may compromise quality.

“I like to touch, feel, and inspect everything,” she says. “As you outsource your components to various vendors, you lose some quality control.”

Zamore’s long-term achievements remain to be seen, but he has had some early success off of Washington Avenue in Houston. Johnson, who traf­ficks in sustainable residential projects, felt that Zamore Homes were naturals for his lots. “They’re sleek and clean, but they have real intimacy,” he says. “All over Houston, shotguns are being torn down to make way for town houses, some of which sit on slabs of concrete, and have high energy price tags. We’re offering low energy costs, fine design, and outdoor space on a lot.”

Both Zamore and Johnson acknowledge that the kits are still far more expensive than big-developer homes on cheap suburban land. “Those have volume in Texas, and have just been mass-produced so that they cost $60 to $80 a square foot,” Zamore explains. Still the prices are competitive with both old and new urban houses. “We’re offering a great option for infill,” he says.

After the Washington Avenue homes are finished, Zamore will turn his atten­­tion to fine-tuning models to comply with regional codes and conditions. A Northeastern house might need to incorporate an insulated foundation for warmth, for example, while one in a hurricane zone could require thicker walls. At the moment, Zamore has roughly 500 prospective customers like White waiting for his launch. Now faced with the challenge of learning how much volume he can really handle, he’s looking for investors and to hire someone who can supervise the expansion of the business. “I’d like to build it into

a national company,” he says, underscoring that he doesn’t want to pair with a large-scale developer to make tract homes. “I’d rather have a progressive developer working with me because my houses are smart, green, and good for a community.”

As a developer, Johnson sees a real business opportunity in Zamore Homes. “The economy is down, but the cost of materials is high,” he says. “A lot of people want to live in—and pay for—less footprint.” As an admirer of architecture, he’s drawn to the purity of the designs. “Great art comes from restraint,” he says. “I think it’s often like that with life too.”

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