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…