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Habitat for Humanity plans Sonoma County factory for prefab homes

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A leading Sonoma County nonprofit plans to launch a factory this spring where it will build key parts for prefabricated homes, an innovative effort intended to help speed the construction of affordable for-sale housing.

Habitat for Humanity Sonoma County, part of the international faith-based group, plans to open a zero-waste factory that could harness paid and volunteer workers to churn out walls and floors for about 70 prefabricated homes each year, CEO Mike Johnson said. The nonprofit is seeking a warehouse in central Santa Rosa to create such a facility, which would be modeled after a similar Habitat for Humanity factory in Edmonton, Canada, Johnson said.

“We are really committed to doing things differently … We have to lead that effort and do projects in ways that yield a lot more units for a lot less cost and a lot less time,” Johnson said.

That search for a 16,000 to 20,000-square-foot warehouse will begin in January, and Johnson hopes the factory could be operational by the end of March. The Santa Rosa-based group will in coming weeks launch a fundraising campaign to help cover the yet-to-be-determined costs of buying the land, he said.

The factory, which will cost an estimated $500,000 to operate annually, would have the capacity to create walls and floors for a home every two days, Johnson said. Once those components are built and delivered to construction sites, houses could be built in about two weeks, he said.

Habitat for Humanity plans to partner with Napa-based Healthy Buildings, which operates a similar factory, to train workers during the creation of the first round of walls and floors for Duncan Village, a 16-home affordable project in Windsor, Johnson said.

Using the warehouse, the nonprofit aims to significantly ramp up its production, building 600 new homes in Sonoma County in the next eight years, an effort that comes after last October’s fires destroyed more than 5,300 homes here.

Since its founding in 1984, the local group has constructed just over three dozen new homes for families in need.

“It’s really our core mission to provide solid, secure housing for people who are struggling to live and work in the same community,” Johnson said. “This factory will help us get there.

Johnson hopes the nonprofit, which also assists with home repairs, can leverage relationships with local businesses for donations of building supplies. The factory could also produce components for other developers, including the Habitat for Humanity in Butte County, where nearly 14,000 homes were destroyed by the deadly Camp fire, Johnson said.

Revenue from those contracts could help cover operational costs, with the goal of having the factory be self-sustaining within three years, Johnson said.

Leftover materials would be used to build tables, cabinets or other goods that could be sold in the nonprofit’s ReStore home improvement shop.

Habitat for Humanity is also partnering with Santa Rosa Junior College to seek an $8 million federal grant to build a 12,000- square-foot construction and trades training facility on the Petaluma campus, said Nancy Miller, the college’s director of regional adult programs. If funding is awarded next month, construction on the $10 million facility planned for a parking lot in the rear of the campus could kick off this spring, she said.

The training facility could open as early as spring 2021, providing a pathway for between 350 and 500 students to graduate from skilled trade programs each year, making a dent in a critical shortage of skilled labor locally, she said. Habitat for Humanity staff will partner with the college to train students in prefabricated building and construction techniques at the facility,and graduates will complete site-work training on the nonprofit’s housing sites.

“We wanted something that was a practical training program for students, not just building a birdhouse or a shed, but understanding models and construction and putting that back in practice in the community,” Miller said. “The students can be proud of contributing to the rebuilding effort. … We’re hoping it can be a model for recovery in other communities.”

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