Vallejo factory plans to roll out thousands of homes a year

In a towering, cavernous former submarine production building on Vallejo's Mare Island, Factory_OS plans this spring plans to start rolling out the first of what could be thousands of housing units a year at full production.

And the startup builder of multistory multifamily modular housing has its work cut out for it, according to co-founder Rick Holliday, a real estate developer and serial entrepreneur. In the active project pipeline are 1,500 units. Those are projects with permits in hand or the owners are known well enough to move forward into production.

About 20 percent are going to Google's campus south of San Francisco to house employees. Oakland and San Francisco governments have ordered 600 total. And two private developers want 300 for East Bay projects.

The company also has fielded inquiries for another 35,000 units.

'There is a lot of demand from people who want housing built more efficiently and better,' Holliday said.

With 20 planned stations in the Vallejo plant and six to eight workers per station, the production schedule calls for a 1,000-square-foot module, which are called 'volumes,' to go from start to ship-ready completion in five days, Holliday said. Each volume will have two 300- to 500-square-foot apartments.

At full speed, the factory is set to roll out four volumes per day. For the first two years, the projection is 1,000 units a year, and 2,000–3,000 a year thereafter, Holliday said.

The modules have all the finishes and appliances installed before shipment, so all that remains for the site crew to do after preparing the foundation is hoist them into position, 'stitch' the modules together, connect the utilities to the preinstalled wiring and piping, put on a roof, and finish the landscaping.

'We can cut the build time on multifamily housing by 50 percent,' Holliday said. 'What has been taking two years for 100 apartments, we can do in a year or less.'

He claims such factory-built housing can be a better product, because the materials are out of the elements, work has to be more precise to fit together efficiently and quality-control checks can be done more regularly.

The framing is currently wood, but Factory_OS may consider a shift to light-gauge steel studs in a couple of years, Holliday said.

Two years on the drawing board, Factory_OS got the keys to 265,000-square-foot Building 680 at 1245 Nimitz Ave. on July 15. The company inked a deal with United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Jointers of America to provide the woodworkers.

Beside the 120–160 workers at the stations, the plant will have about 40 support employees. The company is hiring for 200 positions in the first six months of operation, with potential of up to 300 with a second shift.

The first dozen and a half carpenters have been getting training on the build stations and helping with the tooling of the plant in building two prototype units. The goal for the startup of the line is the latter half of March, Holliday said.

Though the materials used in the Factory_OS factory and others the union has worked with in California are the same as with conventional construction, the approach to carpentry is different, calling for specialized training, but the work environment is appealing, according to Jay Bradshaw, director of organizing for the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council.

'We have not seen a big change in multifamily residential construction in decades, with the typical being a (concrete) podium and units built on top of it,' Bradshaw said. 'We believe this is coming, not only because it is less expensive but primarily because it is faster, the quality is great and we can deliver housing a lot quicker.'

The labor council has been involved with other factory homebuilding operations, called offsite construction. It has been recruiting workers not only from Solano County but also economically hard-hit neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond.

The organization has set up training programs for factory carpentry at its training centers in California. And it has an eye on future automation of factory homebuilding, Bradshaw said. The international labor organization at its Las Vegas facility offers training in robotics used in carpentry.

'It's not that robots are going to do all the jobs, but there will be more jobs for carpenters, in setting up equipment and programming,' Bradshaw said.

Toward future automation of Factory_OS, the company has formed a strategic partnership with factory homebuilding pioneer Lindbäcks of Sweden. The company has visited the Vallejo factory and is advising it and the union on setup and training.

One pitfall Holliday has seen other offsite builders fall into is automating carpentry too quickly, before the basics of construction in a factory are perfected. Another pitfall is building a plant in a remote location, where clients have to travel more than 10 hours to see projects in progress.

Jeff Quackenbush (, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.

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