Some burned-out homeowners turning to pre-fab houses
Labor shortages and high material costs prompt some to take an alternative approach to rebuilding
Sonoma native Norm Clover sold his home in Glen Ellen less than two years before the October 2017 fires swept through, burning more than 350 homes to the ground in northern Sonoma Valley. His old house survived, but his mother’s house on Sylvia Drive did not. Nonetheless, Marjorie Clover might be considered in an enviable position compared to some, since Clover, now of Park City, Utah, owns Grizzly Log Builders, specializing in craftsman-style panelized home packages, and he has put her on the short-list to get her home rebuilt by Christmas of this year.
Despite the name, Grizzly Log Builders does more than your lumberjack-inspired log cabins, and Clover has settled on a modern “Summit” design for his mother. Unlike pre-manufactured modular homes, which are almost fully constructed in a factory and delivered to the site on the back of a flatbed, panelized homes utilize prebuilt walls, delivered with windows installed, that are assembled on site. This building model cuts down on labor costs as well as time, and reduces on-site building waste, compared to a home built in the traditional fashion – often called a “stick-built” home, where the majority of materials are brought in and assembled entirely onsite.
Clover said his Grizzly Log Builder homes are inspected and certified in the Hamilton, Montana factory. Once the 40- by10-foot walls are delivered to the building site, a crew can set an entire house in five to 15 days. All this comes in for around $285-$350 per square foot, depending on design.
Clover said he hopes to begin construction on his mother’s house this spring, but his timeline has hit two snags. He is still waiting for the plans and permits to be approved by the county, something that has proved less than expeditious, and he’s having a hard time tracking down enough local labor, like framers, to get the job done.
“One of the bottlenecks I see in Sonoma County right now is there are not enough available framing crews to get a house up in that time,” he said. “You need manpower to get a house up.”
This sentiment is being echoed around the county as fire victims turn their attention from cleaning up to rebuilding. With nearly 6,000 homes burned across the county, competition and cost is rising for construction materials and labor.
Rachel Ginis, a licensed contractor who lives on Turtle Creek in Kenwood, pegged the cost of a stick-built home at around $400-500 per square foot, with the caveat that, “I don’t think any contractor worth his or her salt would give you a firm estimate on construction to be done a year or two years from now.”
Ginis said a “perfect storm” of conditions got us here: lots of tradespeople left California when work dried up during the 2008 recession; there has been a lack of encouragement for young people to enter the trades; and the high cost of housing in this area makes it hard for those earning laborer’s wages to live here. Now with multiple fires up and down California and two hurricanes elsewhere, there is a materials shortage added to a labor shortage. With construction costs “skyrocketing,” quoting the cost is tricky because it may be two years from now when the project breaks ground, according to Ginis.
Modular home for the HolmesThis unpredictability is one of the reasons Tim and Deborah Holmes opted to purchase a pre-manufactured modular home, scheduled for delivery to their Bennett Ridge property later this month. The Holmes, who moved from Kenwood, had lived in their home on Old Bennett Ridge for less than a year before the fires. While they are opting ultimately to rebuild the house they lost, buying a pre-manufactured modular home will allow them to move back onto their property – instead of staying in a rental – by a targeted May 1 date.
“We want to be back on the property and feel like we are normal people again,” said Tim.
Modular homes, considered the higher-class sibling to mobile homes, have come a long way in the last few decades, with upgrades like granite counters and craftsman-style front porches. Tim said they are getting what’s called the “energy star package” that includes thicker walls, “so it will be a reasonably robust home.” The company, Skyline Homes, will construct and deliver the home to a permanent foundation in six to eight weeks, coming in at a price of $240 per square foot. The total cost comes out to less than what the Holmes’ insurance company would be reimbursing them for rent, which is how Tim was able to convince his insurance company to cover the cost.
The Holmes plan to live in the 1,000-square-foot house until their main home gets rebuilt, ultimately repurposing the modular home into a granny unit, or accessory dwelling unit (AUD). The county’s permitting department, Permit Sonoma, has waived impact fees for AUDs under a certain size in response to the county’s asphyxiated housing market.
This repurposing is something Ginis of Turtle Creek is happy about. In addition to being a contractor, she is also CEO of Lilypad Homes, a nonprofit advocating for the development of second units for a functioning and resilient community. Ginis encouraged anyone rebuilding to consider adding an AUD to their building plans. Had people done this more often in the past, “we all could be using it as emergency housing right now.”
Panelized on Turtle CreekGinis’s home is still standing after the fires, but her neighbors, BJ Patnode and his partner Glen Smith, were not as lucky. They have been staying with Ginis while they rebuild, opting for a pre-manufactured design to expedite the building process.
“We knew immediately that we wanted to rebuild,” said Patnode, “We like Turtle Creek; we like Kenwood. We like the neighbors and they have become some of our best friends.” Patnode and Smith, who also live part-time in San Francisco, had only lived on Turtle Creek for a year and a half before their home burned.
Originally, they wanted to rebuild using a prefabricated modular home, for many of the same reasons the Holmes chose that option. However, one week after the fires, when they approached a company whose designs they liked, they found the company unprepared to work with fire victims. Luckily, a second company, Stillwater Dwellings, had just finished construction of a mid-century modern panelized home in Windsor. Patnode and Smith were able to tour the home and were impressed. Four months later, their new home’s design is complete and they are waiting on the county’s permit department to sign off on the building plans.
Patnode and Smith would also like to be back in their house by Christmas, but, like Clover, are finding the county’s permitting process to be aggravating and slow. “The county’s claim of expedited permits – we’ve found they are not very good at it,” said Patnode. “We are finding if you go down there personally, things will happen. We are finding the county to be more responsive to homeowners than contractors.”
Patnode said the home panels were supposed to be delivered in April, but now will be delivered in May, due to stalls in the permit process, with plans to break ground in June. A panelized 2,000-square-foot home will take about four to five months to build once delivered on site.
Still, it’s a quicker timeline than some are facing.
“I noticed personally right after the fires in November or December, when people who wanted to rebuild contacted local architects, they realized it was going to take two to four years to rebuild and there was some frustration with that,” said Kaveh Khatibloo, CEO of the Seattle-based Stillwater Dwellings. “So then they contacted us with the attitude that they were going to have to settle for something less than what they wanted. But they came to see the home in Windsor and all of the sudden, they realized they were going to get a better house, faster, for the price that’s the same or only a little more than their old house – the best of all worlds.”
Stillwater Dwellings is a full service architecture firm that also offers pre-manufactured homes. It had serendipitously expanded its staff and doubled its factory space at the end of 2017. The company is now booked up through 2019, with 15-20 North Bay homes in the design stage, the majority in Sonoma County.
Khatibloo said that in order to meet the jump in demand, they are offering a selection of six pre-engineered homes – meaning ones that have been previously permitted or built somewhere in California. If clients select one of these six and don’t want to make any changes, it will cut the design timeline down by six months. They are also offering a six percent discount on these designs. The cost of a Stillwater Dwellings home normally ranges from $400-475 per square foot.
Patnode and Smith are rebuilding in tandem with their other neighbors on Turtle Creek, Tammy Sakanashi and Carl Keen, and are getting a discount on their homes since two homes side by side will allow Stillwater to send a contractor and his crew out from Reno, Nevada, and get the two projects done simultaneously.
Norm Clover of Grizzly Log Builders summed up the current building situation, “We have a large amount of homes to build in the county and I don’t know how we are going to do that without some innovative solutions.” He added, “I’m offering one of these.”
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.