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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pre-Fab Home Bucks Living Wage Goal

Downward Pressure on Local Construction Wages:
Emeryville Embraces 
Pre-Fab Home Idea
The Planning Department was out in force on Beaudry Street, in support of and witnessing the erection of Emeryville's first prefabricated single family residence last Saturday. A small crowd gathered to watch the spectacle: a crane lowering pre-constructed rooms onto the rapidly growing house.  With this scene in the background, Charlie Bryant, head of the Planning Department, told cameras that Emeryville is supportive of this style of home construction.  Left unsaid by Mr Bryant though is how this style of building is a subversion of living wage policy: This comes at the expense of local Bay Area builders in the custom home building trade.

Middle Class Wealth Transfer
Some have previously argued that this style of building will help keep housing affordable but at $275 per square foot, there's no cost saving, at least not for the owner of the new house.  The contractor on site says the Beaudry Street house will be cheaper than a custom home but the price of $275 per square foot is the same as a comparable custom built house in the Bay Area (regardless of his claims to the contrary).  This style of building is a way to cut out more expensive Bay Area construction laborers since low cost factory workers actually build the houses, the parts being shipped in by truck.  This is just a shift in profit from workers to corporate fat cats and is another point of downward pressure on local tradesman's wages.

Emeryville needs more family friendly housing to be sure but not at the expense of fostering a climate where blue collar people could afford to live here.  This whole idea is counter to oft made claims emanating from City Hall about livability for all.  Our public policy shouldn't be encouraging this sort of wealth transfer especially since Emeryville is already losing working class people.  We should be making a REAL town.

Below is a San Francisco Chronicle article about the new home:

Prefabricated homes go upscale

A module of Simpatico Homes' prefabricated house is lowered into position at the construction site in Emeryville.
EMERYVILLE -- Prefab houses aren't just for trailer parks anymore.
Two Bay Area startups are crafting factory-built homes and rooms for the high-end market, the kind of people who want an architect-designed custom house with all the latest green features.
Simpatico Homes in Emeryville and hybridCore Homes in Santa Rosa both have partnered with architects. Each has a proof-of-concept model home and both are now on the verge of building for clients. They say their approaches cut costs and reduce construction time while incorporating high-quality finishes and designs.
"Within the past few years, we've seen a number of very talented architects become interested in the possibilities of prefabrication to bring architect-level design to people who don't have time or resources to develop a unique design for a custom home," said S. Claire Conroy, editorial director of Residential Architect magazine in Washington.
The two companies take different approaches. Simpatico builds the entire home in a factory as several giant modules that are assembled at the home site. HybridCore factory-builds the house's most complex portion - kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room - then places them on the site and "stick builds" the rest of the home around them.

Market void

"I really love quality architecture and saw a real void in the market for people who want it" but have more limited budgets, said Simpatico founder Seth Krubiner, who grew up in an Eichler home.
Early last Saturday a convoy of flatbed trucks carried five modules from a factory in San Jose to a pre-built home foundation in Emeryville, where Simpatico is erecting its first structure. It will serve as a model house for potential clients and builders to tour, as well as a residence for Krubiner.
A crew of 25 worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. as about a hundred curious neighbors watched giant cranes lift the modules into place as if they were building blocks. By evening, a 2,400-square-foot modern dwelling was in place, the modules bolted to the foundation. It will take another six weeks to "button up" the home, finishing such tasks as tying in the utilities and seaming the modules together with a "marriage line."
All told, construction should take about 18 weeks - 12 in the factory and six on the site. (The foundation was built concurrently with the factory prefabrication.)

Green features

The house incorporates such sustainable features as a solar array to provide all its power, hydronic radiant floor heating, a living green roof and a rainwater catchment system.
"My partners (Swatt Miers Architects) are very established, high-end modern architects who build multimillion-dollar designs," Krubiner said. "We want to take that level and quality of architecture and put it into a system for people who have more modest means. Through prefabrication, we can standardize and make it faster and more affordable."
Chrissy Schwinn and her husband, David Cherry, both self-described fans of prefabrication and of modern architecture, have hired Simpatico to build a four-bedroom house for them and their two young children in Orinda starting this fall.
"It fit our aesthetic and level of customization and our budget," she said. "The house will have a lot of green features, which we wanted. We don't have the final cost, but our hope is that it's about 20 percent less than a custom-built house."
The shorter construction time is another plus, both in having fewer carrying costs on their current house and having less impact on their new neighbors.
For Simpatico's first house in Emeryville, construction costs, excluding land and permits, pencil out at $275 per square foot, Krubiner said, versus about $375 per square foot for a comparable house built from the ground up.
That's still not cheap. But Krubiner said the company can get costs as low as $225 per square foot.
"It takes a lot of scale - multiples of prefab houses - to deliver the economies that are promised by manufacturing houses instead of site-building them," Conroy said.

Economies of scale

Santa Rosa's hybridCore Homes hopes to achieve those economies of scale by working with giant home builder Champion Home Builders of Troy, Mich., which has 27 factories nationwide and will both build and market the modular cores.
He said the cost savings over complete ground-up construction are about 20 to 30 percent. The company offers 100 floor plans with nine variations and styles of each, such as Mediterranean or Craftsman.
It built a 1,600-square-foot demonstration home in Santa Rosa last fall, with construction costs of $147,000, or $92 per square foot, he said. The home is open for visits by interested clients and developers.
Faber's architecture firm, Farrell Faber, was approached about designing a manufactured home a couple of years ago.
"Typically our firm does high-end stuff, so we weren't interested," he said. "But then we two partners, along with two developers, started playing with the idea, and after numerous studies developed this concept of manufacturing the core of the home."
Now hybridCore is gearing up to build proof-of-concept homes in North Dakota and Maryland that are being considered for large developments. A 213-home project in Santa Rosa is on tap for next spring.
Harold Robinson, who develops homes in Los Altos in the $1 million to $2 million range, hopes to use hybridCore's modules.
"There is a lot of design flexibility, and the final product will look just like a traditional, high-quality custom home," he said. "At the same time you end up getting higher-quality construction and it's a really green way to do construction; there's a lot less waste by building offsite in factories that are controlled environments. Being able to build faster is a big benefit in high-end neighborhoods because the whole construction process has a lower impact."
E-mail Carolyn Said at
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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  1. I can't even believe that you wrote this opinion piece. Your thinking is so backwards it perplexes me. Prefabricated housing represents an advancement in technology. Technological advance throughout history has produced an enormous amount of jobs while contracting some industries. Your argument is tantamount to saying that we shouldn't have adopted the printing press because it put scribes out of work or that we should have not adopted computers because it put typewriter repairmen out of work. If you look at modern history, technological advance has definitely put people out of work, but hit has more than made up for those jobs in other places.

    The costs for prefabricated housing will surely come down drastically as volume increases. We are not at a point yet, where economies of scale have been achieved, but we are getting there quickly.

    Prefabricated housing is about choice and about letting people build homes that are right for them. Some will choose prefab and some won't. If you don't want to put contractors out of work, then we shouldn't let people do home improvement projects themselves. No more owner-builder building permits! Don't be ridiculous.

  2. You would not be able to get that caliber of architecture in a custom home for $275/sf. Prefab homes typically have innovative architecture that would be quite expensive to replicate in a custom home. Construction costs may be similar at this time because the volume just isn't present to drive the cost down yet, but design costs are probably lower for prefab, depending on what level of site preparation is required.

  3. Ahhh, the republican line; it's everywhere, even in the comments section of the Tattler.
    The claims of the inevitability of a collapsing middle class are central to this kind of thinking. It's because we must accept "free trade"... you're backwards if you don't, you understand.
    I've been around long enough to remember when President Reagan said the supply side economic theory, with its promise of wealth tricking down, should be tried; as if it hadn't been in the years before the Great Depression.
    The republican line never ceases to amuse (despite its corrosive ill effects on all but the ultra wealthy).

    To those touting this line here at the Tattler, I ask: How smart is it to subsidize the less fortunate among us in the form of massive housing government give-a-ways all the while increasing their numbers by government policy that leads to their lowered wages?
    Insofar as unfettered capitalism leads to a massive division of wealth, as surely it does, I don't want the government (even the Park Avenue government) supporting this even slightly; it should be silent at the least. How absurd is it that the same government that is supporting this wage lowering housing regime, in words if not in action, gives away millions to help with lower income housing?
    To the republicans and their sycophants here I say if you think Emeryville should be engaged in supporting a business model that takes away middle class jobs, then at least you should not vote for Nora Davis and the rest of the council since they are supportive of actual cash being spent to help lower income people for housing. Even Nora Davis, NORA DAVIS believes this is a proper function of government. Good luck electing candidates that support your republican world view in Emeryville. Alabama might be a better place all told.

    Oh and by the way, I've been in the construction industry for 30 years and I'd like to say; anyone that is willing to have a custom home built (that's nicer even than this Beaudry Street house) and willing to spend $275 per foot, please let me know. I or any number of my contractor friends will be glad to build one for you.

  4. Wow this rag is going down the rabbit hole. Mr Donahue appears to be losing it and thinks he is some sort of Socialist. This opinion piece is crap and I'm way more liberal than you will ever be sir. In fact this "Tattler" is more on par with the lunacy and fantasy world of FOX NEWS. This crap is not journalism. It's propaganda pure and simple.

  5. Perhaps the Tattler is not for you. May I suggest the Chamber of Commerce's 'Emeryville Connection' or the City 'E-news'? I think you'd be happier over there.

  6. Maybe we should have the government retrain the middle class blue collar workers who lose their jobs for the jobs of the future. That's the mantra; so, how well do you think it's been working out?
    So the formula is:
    -The government subsidizes corporations that kills jobs
    -The government pays workers for retraining
    -The government pays for food stamps, subsidized housing and prisons
    Wealth is transferred and the middle class is destroyed. Capital meanwhile moves on to the next market. This is what passes for "free enterprise" as defined by the republicans.

  7. I wouldn't characterize these to be conservative issues. I believe what you have stated above are liberal ideals where the government seems to know what is best for us. Another interesting point I see is that Emeryville is now the home of fancy trailer homes and upscale roach coaches. Compare this to our local government hillbillies. What's up with that?

  8. I'm guessing that this item would not have provoked such comment if the workers who assembled this house in San Jose had instead come up by freeway day after day to assemble the house here in Emeryville.

    Maybe I'm missing something. But the comments so far seem to have missed the desirability of energy-efficient construction of all sorts taking place in the Bay Area--even in a depressed housing market.

  9. What a sad state of affairs. Pre-fab homes are acceptable in areas of the country where the work force doesn't exist to construct homes the "old fashioned way". But construction work is the bed-rock of the American work force (that and cars, but we sold out Detroit years ago).

    Here in the Bay Area they are not needed. Jobs are needed.

    ~William "Michael" Webber

  10. People consider pre-fab homes for a variety of reasons. One is you don't end up with a home that takes twice as long to built at twice the cost of what the contractor told you in the first place. At least with a prefab what it costs is what it costs. I'd take that over contractor rip-off hell anyday.