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Wildfire survivors turn to modular homes to accelerate rebuilding

When construction workers raised the white plastic sheet to reveal a portion of his new house, Art Ramirez had to take a closer look.

Clad in a white hard hat, Ramirez strode across his cleared dirt lot to peer inside his nearly finished kitchen, with its white cabinets, quartz countertop and stainless steel refrigerator already in place. The room belongs to one of two 50-foot-long sections of his factory-built house, each part of which was lowered by crane last week onto a concrete foundation on Ramirez’s property in Coffey Park.

Ramirez, a registered nurse, said he’d been thinking for months about the idea of a house assembled in a factory near Sacramento and trucked over in two 30,000-pound sections to Santa Rosa. But, he said, “to see the actual product on site is just crazy.”

The three-bedroom, Craftsman-style house is the first installed in the North Bay burn areas by Santa Rosa-based HybridCore Homes. The houses combine the benefits of factory and on-site construction, company officials said, and can be completed at prices that compare with or beat those of standard, “stick-built” residences.

Such rebuilds require much less local labor and materials — two items that construction industry officials worry could be in short supply as contractors begin rebuilding the first of more than 5,200 homes that burned last fall in Sonoma County during the most devastating wildfires in state history.

“The more we can do off site, the easier it’s going to be to finish it off,” said Kevin Farrell, an architect and one of HybridCore’s founders.

Ramirez’s former house on Skyview Court was one of 1,200 that burned in the Coffey Park neighborhood of northwest Santa Rosa.

He soon set out to find a builder to replace the home. His son knows Farrell’s son, Jeff, who happens to be Hybrid Core’s business manager. He met with the company’s officials and decided to have them build his new residence.

Home building has long been a task undertaken outside of factories.

But today more components are trucked into construction sites ready made, including roof trusses, floor joists and cabinets. And a small portion of residential construction, typically known as modular homes, are built in factories and assembled on-site.

Ramirez said his home will cost about $280 per square foot to build — comparable to or better than prices cited by other builders, he said. And HybridCore will allow him to move in faster, likely by early summer.

“Our goal is to have Art having his Fourth of July barbecue here,” said Jeff Farrell.

He emphasized the company’s prices can vary substantially based upon what the client wants in a home and appliances, but typically the cost will be “the same or better than stick build.”

HybridCore was founded in 2009 and has constructed about 75 single-family homes.

When building its first home in Santa Rosa in 2010, the company used a single core section, a factory-built rectangle that included a finished kitchen, two bathrooms and a master bedroom. The rest of the home, including the garage and two bedrooms, was built on site.

But Ramirez and other fire survivors are opting for designs with two core sections, a home of about 1,480 square feet. With these designs, just the garage and front porch are built on site. The roof and exterior siding are added after the two cores are set about an inch apart onto the foundation.

Bob and Shirley Cheal, who have selected HybridCore to replace their house on Aaron Drive in Santa Rosa’s Hidden Valley neighborhood, said having most of the home constructed in a factory will make for an easier project.

“We don’t have to fight for labor and supplies to build this,” said Bob Cheal, who turned out Thursday with his wife to watch the crane set in place the core sections of Ramirez’s house.

Other companies also are offering new building products and techniques to help fire survivors. They include Windsor-based BamCore, which manufactures a system of load-bearing wall panels created from crushed bamboo. The company maintains the approach is more environmentally friendly, less drafty and less prone to mold than with standard construction.

“It requires less energy and less effort to maintain a healthy and livable environment,” said Zack Zimmerman, BamCore’s director of business development. The company expects to start providing material for a handful of new houses in the burned areas later this year.

Also last week, Kasita of Austin, Texas held open houses at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa for a 352-square-foot accessory dwelling unit. The Kasita can be used as a guest house, rental or granny unit and typically is ready to move into on the day it’s delivered, said Nelson Rudolph, the company’s head of marketing.

HybridCore has received deposits from about 15 homeowners and is working with a total of nearly 30 fire survivors, said Matt Hernandez, the director of operations.

Construction normally takes six to eight months to complete once a contract is signed, said Jeff Farrell. But with the company’s current backlog of work, today he tells fire survivors the process can take nearly 16 months.

Ramirez said he already is looking forward to inviting friends over this summer to see the new place.

“I think it looks great,” he said. “I’m very happy.”