In January, Ann Peden had just finished step two of a nine-step process to clean up the land where her house used to be. “I’m past the hazardous-waste part of it,” she said, speaking on the phone from Sonoma, California. “I have a guy out there digging through the ashes to see what he can find,” meaning any of her surviving possessions.
Her home in Glen Ellen, a hamlet southeast of Santa Rosa, was one of 6,000 destroyed by the North Bay wildfires that ripped through Northern California in October. It will be months before the soil has tested free of contaminants and the permits are in place for rebuilding.
When Peden, 77, is ready to start over, she will not reproduce the 1964 ranch house she lost or any other traditional style. Her new home will be contemporary. It will have big windows through which she can look at the mountains and watch for the return of the valley oaks. Its main components will be shipped from a factory and assembled on site. It will be, in short, a prefab.
“Most of the people I know are going with a prefab,” she said of her neighbors in the Trinity Oaks section of Glen Ellen, where about three-quarters of the 60-odd homes were severely damaged. “It just makes sense.”
For decades, utopian designers and populist dreamers have glorified prefabricated housing. The idea to mass-produce a home like an automobile, with much of the process standardized in a factory, promised greater efficiency and lower costs than traditional stick-built architecture.
“It’s a dream that has confounded generations of architects and developers,” said Amanda Dameron, until recently the editor-in-chief of Dwell, a shelter magazine that is one of prefab’s biggest proselytizers.
Less than 3 percent of housing starts in the United States in 2016 were some sort of prefab. On one hand, there is a “resistance to prefab as ugly boxes,” she noted. But the more specialized and elaborate the look and layout, the less affordable it becomes. Designer prefab easily costs more than $300 a square foot, putting it in competition with custom-built houses.
Which is a pity, Dameron added, because, compared with traditional methods, modern prefab construction saves time, limits waste and often incorporates environmentally sensitive materials and energy-saving technologies.
If ever there was a time and place for prefab to flaunt its virtues, it is now, in Northern California. Even before the fires, stringent statewide building regulations and a shortage of contractors and construction workers made erecting a home a challenge. Now with the spike in demand for labor and materials, the wait time for completing a stick-built house in the area is estimated to be four years at a cost of anywhere from $500 to $700 per square foot.
Compare that with what Stillwater Dwellings offers. The Seattle-based prefab company that Peden approached charges around $350 to $400 per square foot for a basic move-in-ready home assembled on a prepared foundation. Construction takes six to eight months once a building permit is issued.
It is to be expected that after the fires, the rebuilding process will be hampered by competition for contractors, poor site conditions and the mobbing of county building departments struggling to expedite paperwork. But prefab puts fewer demands on local construction professionals because so much of it is standardized.
An abbreviated timeline is what convinced B.J. Patnode and Glen Smith to replace the ranch home they lost in Kenwood, California, just north of Glen Ellen, with a Stillwater Dwellings prefab. The men learned that if they chose an existing design rather than one they customized, the process could be substantially shortened. They picked an H-shaped model, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms in each of two wings, separated by a breezeway. They also opted for a detached garage. The estimated price is $475 per square foot.
“We’re getting the soil boring details this week, and once they finalize the foundation and the house plans we can submit them to the county,” Patnode said in late February.
If indeed the plans and expedited permits are approved as promised, manufacturing will begin this month. The materials will be delivered in June and the home should be ready by Christmas. (The men received a big advantage by jumping into the process early. According to Kaveh Khatibloo, Stillwater’s co-chief executive officer, most new clients in the area are advised not to expect to begin construction until 2019 at the earliest.)
Because the men chose a panelized house — where the prefabricated parts are walls, roofing and floors, rather than three-dimensional modules with plumbing and electrical systems built into them — more work will be required to finish it on site. Expediting the project will be a general contractor and subcontractors that Stillwater Dwellings is recruiting from Reno, Nevada. The crew will camp out on the property and build not just Patnode’s and Smith’s new home but also one for the couple next door. Both sets of neighbors will share the expense of hosting the workers.
Several North Bay fire victims said they were attracted to prefab for streamlining everything to do with homebuilding. One Glen Ellen fire victim said he liked the idea of “very sharp designers” making most decisions regarding fixtures and finishes. “I’m not into looking into 20 different versions of a sconce or light switch.”
That resident, who asked not to be named out of concern that his choice of prefab might complicate negotiations with his insurance company, had picked a one-story model from Connect Homes, a Los Angeles company that was founded with the aim of making attractive prefab housing more affordable. The style, with its open layout and expansive glass, updates the midcentury ranch house he lost and is well suited to his 1.5-acre property, he said.
He also praised Connect Homes’ method of transporting modules through the intermodal system, drastically reducing shipping costs. Given a level lot, the price of a house, including design, production, installation and even appliances, ranges from $247,080 for 640 square feet to $826,160 for 3,200 square feet.
For Jane Milotich, also a Glen Ellen fire victim, prefab offers a chance to have a state-of-the-art home. She went to Acre Designs, a startup in Mountain View, California, for a net-zero-energy home “so you practically never have to use a heating system or a cooling system,” she said. Solar panels are included in all homes, and North Bay clients will receive a Tesla Powerwall battery as a standard feature, said Andrew Dickson, Acre Design’s co-founder.
The homes, which cost from $250 to $320 a square foot, are engineered to be shipped flat, like Ikea furniture. This makes them easier to transport up winding roads, but they also require more attention from on-site construction teams.
Milotich imagined the Glen Ellen landscape dotted with new prefab homes from a variety of suppliers. “It would be like the Fountain of Youth for the community,” she said.
But as shiny contemporary buildings spring up in the North Bay, will prefab finally blossom into a viable movement? Allison Arieff, a writer and former editor of Dwell and the author of the 2002 book “Prefab,” doubts it.
“The issue for prefab isn’t aesthetic acceptance,” she said. “We’re way past that.” Nor does speeding up construction — prefab’s major benefit — ultimately matter in a process overburdened with state regulations, she said. “The permitting is the hiccup.”
For Arieff the cost of single-family homes built largely in factories is still too high to create an economy of scale. (She sees prefab put to its best use for multifamily construction.) Or as Dameron, lately of Dwell, put it, “Only the wealthy can afford to employ what is supposed to be a cheap alternative.”
She added, “If you have the good fortune to be in this position, prefab is truly the smartest way to go.”