Sonoma County Habitat for Humanity plans housing factory

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Sonoma County needs a lot of affordable homes, and soon it will have a sizable factory dedicated to turning out such housing rain or shine.

Tim Leach, Sonoma County Habitat for Humanity’s new chairman, announced Friday the nonprofit has signed a three-year lease agreement with SOMO Village, pending a final review by Wells Fargo Bank, for 65,000 square feet of indoor manufacturing and outdoor storage space at 1500 Valley House Drive, Suite 100, Rohnert Park.

The factory, called The Habitat Center, will be an industrialized residential construction and trades training campus. The center will build wall panels and other components for 111 new homes by 2021 using volunteers supervised by experienced trade workers.

The projected production forecast for this zero-waste factory includes building key parts for 15 new Habitat homes this year, followed by 36 in 2020, 60 in 2021 — ramping up to an average of 70 homes annually thereafter.

This center is modeled after similar Habitat for Humanity manufacturing operations in Georgia, Colorado, and Edmonton, Canada. Habitat’s new component factory will have an estimated annual budget of $500,000 and could be self-sustaining in about three years.

The lease is for portions of Building 1500 at SOMO Village includes 33,500 square feet of interior space on the first floor with high ceilings, two large access doors and loading docks. Another 32,500 square feet of fenced space in the adjacent parking area will be converted to store building materials, supplies and finished panels under an overhanging roof.

This initiative is in addition to five other Habitat home building projects underway or in planning stages at Sonoma Wildfire Cottages (nine homes on Medtronic property for fire survivors); Somerset Place in Santa Rosa (10), Green Valley Village in Graton; (two homes started this spring); Duncan Village (groundbreaking in July for 16 affordable homes in Windsor) and Harris Village, a four-home subdivision in Santa Rosa completed in March.

Harris Village was the first local Habitat project to use manufactured wall panels fabricated by Habitat for Humanity construction staff and volunteers during a successful test-of-concept trial of this technique.

Habitat has more than 300 other homes in various pre-development stages at sites in Healdsburg, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and in the Larkfield/Wikiup area, representing half of its 600-home target for 2025.

“Compared with most conventional stick-building construction methods – that involves putting everything together on site — this process places us on the brink of revolutionary change that includes software-drive design incorporated into advanced construction technology applied before sitework begins to accelerate the development timetable,” said Tim Leach, who became chairman of Habitat’s Board of Directors on May 1. “The future of building is here. We’re creating innovative homes for humanity.”

Prior to Habitat, Leach spent 40 years in the banking and finance sector working for a number of Wall Street companies as the chief investment officer for the following banks: US Bank, US Trust Company (now the wealth management division of Bank of America), Wells Fargo Bank and ABN Amro Bank (USA).

He grew up in a construction family and became a licensed general contractor before an initial career on the business side of the agricultural industry. He earned a BS Degree in Ag Science and Management from UC Davis in 1977 and an MBA Degree with an emphasis in finance from UC Berkeley in 1992.

Leach said The Habitat Center’s innovative methods are part of a construction industry modernization wave that has a goal of driving down cost curves by increasing efficiency.

Referred to as “industrialized construction” by market category leaders, this new approach can cut time to completion from months to weeks. Habitat is applying this and other techniques to build homes for families with lower incomes who are not always able to qualify for a traditional mortgage.

“Instead of building traditional single-family homes on lots, our strategy includes reducing the size of the primary residence and designing-in Accessory Dwelling Units, (ADU) as part of the residence or as attachments to each home, “Leach added.

“This primary-dwelling-plus-ADU concept can enable prospective homeowners to qualify for larger mortgages, because having rental property associated with the home purchase increases chances for obtaining a loan, even if the buyer’s personal income is lower than what is usually needed to qualify.”

Moving forward, Habitat plans to partner with sub-developers to obtain project approvals that set aside a percentage of sites for low-cost housing leading to a full pipeline of work extending two years into the future.

Leach said devastation caused by the 2017 wildfires left Sonoma County with far less construction labor than required by traditional methods to rebuild over 5,000 homes lost. These wildfires occurred as the construction industry was beginning to experience the disrupting effects of technological innovation as so many other industries have felt. The transition to new economic realities in the wake of these disasters also involves rethinking how homes are built and by whom.

A key element that will further reduce housing costs involves the use of volunteers engaged in manufactured wall construction. Volunteers come to Habitat from faith-based community congregations, corporate volunteers, donor groups, and as retired individuals with the time and skill sets Habitat needs, as well as experienced construction industry personnel with supervisory and training skills.

Habitat’s SoMo Village factory will also serve as a training site for the next generation of young people seeking to enter construction trades in the North Bay. Furthermore, Santa Rosa Junior College construction program students will attend classes and obtain hands-on experience at Habitat’s factory beginning with the 2019 fall semester. High school seniors in the North Coast Builder’s Exchange North Bay Construction Corps Boot Camp training program for construction workers will also receive real-world experience at The Habitat Center.

“For us, this innovative approach comes with a steep learning curve. We’re partnering with Habitat affiliates across the nation to produce components. We’re also seeking alliances with fire-ravaged area affiliates, such as Habitat for Humanity in Butte County, with an offer to help rebuild homes destroyed in the Camp fire.”

When completed, this factory could also produce manufactured sheds and play houses for children made from lumber left over from home wall construction projects, as well as framed walls for Habitat affiliates across the U.S., with income helping to reduce factory operations costs here in Sonoma County.

“The use of fire-resistant building materials is a critical consideration,” said Larry Arrington, Senior Procurement and Operations Manager for Habitat. Arrington will oversee all day to day operations at The Habitat Center, including component installation coordination with construction crews at all Habitat build sites.

“We’re emphasizing the use of metal roofs and studs in the future, upward facing attic vent louvers to help keep fire embers from entering, along with other noncombustible green building materials, such as those from Gigacrete and other suppliers. Homes we build also include solar panels as a way to reduce energy costs.”

According to Leach, “As a nonprofit organization, our core mission is to deliver much-needed housing faster than before without a profit motive. Today working families at the low end of the income spectrum can’t buy a home in Sonoma County. We are striving to change that. Our motto is We Bring People Together to Build Homes, Communities and Hope because everyone needs a foundation upon which to build a future.”

In addition, he said Habitat sees this new factory as enhancing the Bay Area’s reputation as a center for technical innovation. “Our overarching priority is to build more homes for every dollar raised.”

A preopening celebration is being planned at The Habitat Center on June 21 from 4:30 to 7:00 p.m., including the 2019 North Bay Construction Corps Graduation (at 4:30) followed by The Habitat Center preview.

Since the national organization was founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has helped 13.2 million people find strength, stability and independence through the provision of safe, decent and affordable shelter. There are some 1,300 Habitat affiliates in 70 countries worldwide, including over 1000 in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Nationwide, Habitat is one of the largest builders in the U.S. In Sonoma County, Habitat for Humanity is celebrating its 35th year of serving local residents and bringing people together.

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