spacer search
Our newest project; California's first affordable carbon neutral home & transportation system. See for a look at the design review approved plans...
Main Menu
Contact Us
About Us
Home arrow Blog arrow 4/21/07-When your ship comes in, a prefab house could be on it

4/21/07-When your ship comes in, a prefab house could be on it PDF Print E-mail
Written by Susan Fornoff, Chronicle Staff Writer   
Saturday, 21 April 2007

12 inch thick, factory built walls sent from Austria to build green home in Walnut Creek, but read on, there's a factory now closer to home, in Nevada...

Neighbors of Jeff and Shannon Neve's quickly rising two-story house in a 20-year-old Walnut Creek neighborhood can say, "That place went up practically overnight." And they can say, "They don't build houses like they used to." They might also say, "That's a sure sign of shoddy workmanship," but on that they would be wrong.

The Neves' three-bedroom, 3 1/2-bathroom, soon-to-be home indeed went up practically overnight because it was indeed not built in the old stick-by-stick way, but was assembled from factory-built, 12-inch-thick wood panels -- which is why carpenter Gordon Shelton said he'd love to have a house just like it, and carpenter Tom Walls said, "I can't think of a house made of wood that could be stronger."

On a work site fragrant with the smell of freshly cut wood and refreshingly clear of construction debris, architect Gordon Pierce recounted how he came to know and love the European building process patented as the Thoma Holz100 system -- first for its swiftness, then for its greenness. (Pierce, a prominent Vail, Colo., design advocate, is also father of Shannon Neve, and now he is president of Pure Wood Solutions, which is building the Neves' house to drum up domestic interest in the Holz100 system.)

"What attracted me initially was the speed of construction," said Pierce. "In ski country, it's great to be able to get a building up in a couple of days instead of a couple of months."

That's true of a lot of the prefab methods catching on today, however. And what ultimately led Pierce and his wife, Peggy, to bring the Thoma Holz100 system to Walnut Creek was the environmental sensibility of using sustainable wood -- in this case, fast- and easy-growing European larch -- in a way that requires no glues, finishes or other chemicals. Various sizes of lumber are layered vertically, horizontally and diagonally to form the solid panels. Then dried wooden dowels are strategically pressed through drilled holes; because the dowels have only 5 to 7 percent moisture, they soak up moisture from the lumber (which is 12 to 14 percent moisture) and expand inside the panels to secure the structure.

"Normally the panels come in 30-foot lengths," Peggy Pierce said. "But we had to import these from Austria in shipping containers because we don't have a factory here yet, and that limited the panels to 8 feet."

Each panel was marked for easy assembly, which she said could be done in three days with experienced workers. The local carpenters were rookies at this sort of construction, so it took five days.

"It's different for us," Walls said. "We don't have to bend over and pound a bunch of nails, which is nice. It's also great not having to deal with insulation."

At that, Walls' fellow workers wrinkled their noses and nodded. Test results have given the wood panels high marks for insulation, and also, surprisingly, for fire resistance -- better than common 2-by-4 construction, but also better than steel and brick buildings.

"I'd say this sounds like a very high-end home they're building," said prefab expert Sheri Koones, author of two books on the subject, including the new "Prefabulous."

Koones, in a telephone interview from her home in Greenwich, Conn., said that most of us get prefab confused with manufactured housing; the latter is a category covered under much less rigid U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development codes, as opposed to the stricter state and local codes that modern prefabs (including panelized, modular and five other types of systems) meet.

"People think of cheap, low-end houses that are never placed on foundations, but that's manufactured housing," Koones said. "People have thought about prefab as an inexpensive option because there hasn't been a lot of information out there. They're thought of as little boxes that are really inexpensive -- then people see the houses in my book and say, 'Wow.'

"One of the things the industry as a whole has to get over is the stigma attached to prefab housing. I was at a luncheon recently with a group of Realtors who asked, 'What do we tell people when we've got a prefab house on the market? Do we say it's as good as a stick-built house?' I say, 'No, you tell them it's better.' This is really a superior way of building a house."

Koones says prefabs are generally more energy-efficient because factories can work more carefully and meet specs more precisely than workers on-site. There's less construction waste, she said -- in the case of Holz100, the wood waste is turned into pellets that fuel the factory -- and less likelihood of mold.

But are they less expensive? Not necessarily. Koones said that in some markets, including the Bay Area, labor costs so much that factory-built components could save 15 percent of construction costs, but in markets where labor is inexpensive, a prefab could actually prove more costly than a stick-built house. (Dollar amounts vary depending on the scale and finishes of a project.)

Usually, though, saving time means saving money, which has been the case for Forma, a Danville maker of homes using a Swedish panel system. Chief executive Michael Murray says Forma has a $4 million backlog, of 50 to 55 homes.

"Our system frames in a more conventional manner, with probably a third of the wood (as Pure Wood Solutions)," Murray said. "They're for two different markets -- theirs for vacation homes and rural applications, ours for larger numbers of homes. They're both fast. The approach is the same. Ours is cheaper. It's a mass-market kind of thing. Once it's up, it looks like any other custom home -- except that the quality is better."

Murray has said that Forma's system could reduce construction costs by 10 percent, especially now that it has a factory in Fernley, Nev. He wanted to put the factory in Stockton, but said operations would have cost an extra $250,000 a year in California, primarily because of workers' compensation insurance. Still, Fernley beats Estonia, where the panels were made for a Danville house that Forma built in 2004. And it beats Washington and British Columbia, where other Bay Area prefab enthusiasts have found factories.

For the Neves' Walnut Creek house, shipping from Austria added $50,000 to Pure Wood Solutions' costs (which, Gordon Pierce said, will not be entirely ascertained until the project is finished). Oh, and it certainly detracted from the green appeal of the project.

"I've already had a magazine call and tell me that all of the fossil fuel we used to ship the panels negated the energy we saved by building this way," Pierce said. "But the goal is to use this project to help get a factory built here."

Forma's Murray speculated that the system will appeal to a niche market, "people who really love wood." The panels can even be left unfinished for interior walls, and Peggy Pierce, the Neves' interior design consultant, is inclined to do that in places.

"We're also going to do some plaster, some milk paint, some washes, keeping things as green as possible," she said.

From the outside, though, the house won't look very different from the rest of the quiet cul-de-sac near Rossmoor by August, when Jeff, Shannon and the kids move in. In the meantime, it'll give the neighbors something to talk about.

Pretty, proud and prefab
It's clear from the title that Sheri Koones' new book isn't going to tell us that there's something wrong with the resurrection of prefabricated home building. "Prefabulous" (Taunton Press; 218 pages; $25) glorifies the technique by showing beautiful homes that even an expert would not guess had been built, in pieces or in whole, in factories.

That's OK -- as Koones tells it, this can be a cheaper and greener way to build than stick by stick. She does explain the various systems of prefab -- including modular, panelized, SIPs, concrete, steel and log -- and gives pluses and minuses for each.

Locally, readers of Sunset magazine will recognize architect Michelle Kaufmann's "Breezehouse," a modular prototype for indoor-outdoor living that she did for Sunset two summers ago that was well suited to its Menlo Park location. (Look for the prefab specialist Kaufmann on the Sundance Channel's "Big Ideas for a Small Planet: Build," a documentary series airing several times next week, beginning Tuesday night.)

And Katherine Pfaff's panelized house in Point Richmond, designed by David Marlatt and manufactured at Canada's Nelson Homes, looks gorgeous on its concrete and steel piers over the San Francisco Bay.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 22 April 2007 )
Green Building Resources
Buildin Design & Construction
Common Sense Design, resource page
Environmental Building News
Frank Lloyd Wright
Get into Green, at the National Building Musem
Green Affordable Housing
Green Building Community.Com
Green Sage
International Initiative for sustainable built environment
LEED for Homes, energy certification from the USGBC
List of recycled building products from the Ca.Integratd waste management board
Marin County Green Building Program
Marin Max Reuse
National Renewable Energy Labratory Homepage
Oikos Green Building Source

(C) 2023
Joomla! is Free Software released under the GNU/GPL License.