Prefab-itats For Humanity
In 2018 alone, over 26,000 homes were lost to wildfires in the US. Statistics by the Insurance Information Institute indicate that the top ten states at risk for wildfire are California, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, Oklahoma, Oregon, Montana and Utah. One area in which housing was devastated by wildfire in 2018 was Sonoma County, California. According to the StrXur article, “Prefabricated Habitats for Humanity,” more homes were destroyed there in a single day than had been built in the preceding ten years. That compounded an already critical housing shortage in the state.
In Sonoma County, many residents have decided to rebuild using smarter and more resilient construction. In the midst of this, Sonoma County Habitat for Humanity has helped fulfill some residents’ vision. In 2016, a year before wildfires swept through Sonoma County, its governing board was already investigating the use of prefabricated housing as a solution to its housing shortage. Prefab housing is gaining in popularity worldwide because it brings units to market faster, requires less labor and materials and is cost efficient.
After the 2017 wildfires, Sonoma County faced an immediate need for housing, but the ongoing labor shortage complicated matters for traditional construction methods. Habitat for Humanity (HfH) tackled the problem using prefab housing processes in a pilot project named Harris Village in Santa Rosa. The walls for the houses were built offsite and transported to the construction site. Three new single-family homes at Harris Village were used as a test case for offsite manufacturing. Another, larger pilot project, the Sonoma Wildfire Cottages development used panelized construction from prefab manufacturers to build nine cottages dedicated to wildfire survivors. The results of the pilots were so positive that proponents expect the prefab/modular construction model will replace traditional construction in that region within a decade.
The advisory committee of Sonoma County Habitat for Humanity includes forward-thinking professionals from residential construction and industrialized residential factory operations. Similar prefab construction models are being used by HfH affiliates in Atlanta, Denver and Canada. Fresh on the heels of the successful pilots, HfH began looking into opening a factory to build modular homes as a way to shorten residential construction schedules. Using input from other HfH affiliates in the US and overseas, a model for modular construction was adopted then refined, and the Habitat Center was opened in 2019.
Since HfH uses volunteer labor, this became one of the limiting factors for building homes. HfH needed to find skilled volunteer laborers to keep up with demand. Donated labor is key to keeping HfH costs low and construction schedules short. Fortunately, the Habitat Center has been staffed through a partnership with the North Coast Builders Exchange and North Bay Construction Corps Boot Camp. About 60 members of the Corps from Sonoma and Napa Counties were enlisted to work at the Habitat Center and two other HfH build sites in Sonoma County. In mid-2019, the Santa Rosa Junior College construction training program joined the partnership in an effort to give its students hands-on training in modern construction methods.
HfH faces the same challenges as commercial construction companies in recruiting skilled labor, so volunteers are always needed to expand the capacity for producing residential units. In addition, sponsors and donors are needed to contribute materials, labor and funding. As HfH tries to close the affordability gap for needy homeowners, prefabrication appears to be an ideal solution to fill the bill.
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