Can Modular Homes Rebuild Paradise Post-Camp Fire?

It wasn’t the merriest of Christmases for the residents of Paradise, California whose homes burned down in the Camp Fire last November. Close to 14,000 residences were destroyed, including 13,696 single family homes and 287 multi-family buildings, according to Cal Fire, the state’s department of forestry and fire protection.

In a state already plagued by a severe housing shortage, high housing costs and homelessness, this latest disaster adds to a problematic trifecta. For those seeking to rebuild, possibly in a nearby community that didn’t lose so many of its businesses and social services, a shortage of construction labor adds to the challenges they face in getting into new homes.

Marianne Cusato knows what they’re going through. Though she’s been designing houses for more than 20 years and teaching in the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, she’s probably best known for the award-winning Katrina Cottages she created after that hurricane hammered the Gulf Coast in 2005.  “It takes years to rebuild, and that could mean living in a travel trailer through another season,” she observes. Whether that season includes hurricanes or wildfires, “We design permanent buildings that could be used in the short term as emergency housing, and in the long run as an accessory dwelling unit, or even the first piece of a larger home.”

Given that California recently liberalized its laws on ADUs, ‘Camp Fire Cottages’ could potentially solve both short- and long-term housing issues for Paradise residents by going up quickly and providing additional housing in the future. “When the FEMA trailers are finished being used for emergency housing, they can only be sent to a landfill,” Cusato points out. “When the cottages are finished being used as emergency housing, they have a long life and increase in value over time.  We called the concept ‘Temp to Perm.’ It’s a permanent structure used for a temporary purpose.”

Cusato worked with Sonoma County after the wine country fires in 2017 and notes that modular homes can be built to California’s rigorous earthquake, wildland-urban interface and environmental codes. “Building safe and dignified cottages is an investment in the future of a community,” she comments. These compact, modular homes are built off-site, trucked in and hooked up to foundations and utilities. “The key to timing is getting permits. Once we have permission to build, units can start arriving on site in as soon as 30 days; depending on the construction techniques, it can take anywhere from two to twelve weeks to finish the units on site,” Cusato says.

Homeowners can potentially use their insurance money to get rebuilt faster with modular construction even without a larger community program. Sheri Koones, author of Prefabulous Small Houses and five previous books on modular homes, says, “Prefab houses can certainly be built faster than on-site housing. Prefab construction is not restricted by weather conditions and relying on independent contractors.” Most factories employ a full-time staff of workers who can complete a modular home regardless of issues at the installation site.  Depending on the factory, houses can be produced in a week or less, Koones reports. That isn’t the whole process, of course, as the home still needs to be transported to the site, and tradespeople are needed on site to connect it to its foundation and utilities.

“Each state has its own restrictions on taking modulars along highways and that can hold up the time schedule,” the author cautions. “The schedule will depend on coordination of those jobs, plus the time it takes to get permits in the particular location. Other factors will be how busy the manufacturer is and how much of the house will be completed in the factory. In some cases, modular houses are delivered practically complete and that will generally save a good deal of time in the overall completion.” As Cusato pointed out, modular homes are quite capable of meeting state and local codes. In fact, Koones cites FEMA studies that showed modular homes faring better in Hurricane Andrew than their site-built counterparts.

In addition to being faster, prefab homes can be more affordable, too, Koones says. “In general, it is said that modular homes cost about 15 percent less to build than on-site construction.” Are you sacrificing style for speed and cost savings? There are certainly budget modular builders who fit the tacky cliché. But, as the Katrina and wine country cottages showed, you can build to local aesthetics and have a lasting property enhancement.

Prefab homes can be modern, stylish and sustainable.PREFABULOUS SMALL HOUSES, S. KOONES, (C) TAUNTON PRESS/PHOTOGRAPHER: JUAN ALICANTE

California Modulars, which specializes in prefab ADUs, serves the Northern California region impacted by the Camp Fire. While offering fire survivors fee reductions, complimentary site visits and feasibility assessments will help those households, company president Roy Krautstrunk points to one of the biggest benefits of prefab construction: “With our homes, you don’t have to start from scratch and go through a lengthy design process with countless decisions to make.” Anyone who has been through a new construction or large remodel project knows what that’s like. Not having to make those decisions while rebuilding your life after a devastating fire can be especially helpful.

Modular homes can streamline the design and building process.CALIFORNIA MODULARS

“There are many additional reasons to build prefab,” Koones shares. “In addition to the time and money factor, there is the professionalism of factory workers who do this every day, and their work is checked and rechecked along the process. There is also far less disruption to the surrounding neighborhood, and materials are not compromised along the way.” (Nor are they likely to be stolen, as happens sometimes on traditional construction sites.)

Can prefabs help rebuild Paradise? Potentially. “As a society we are unprepared to meet the increasing demand for emergency housing after a disaster and we need to get better,” Cusato declares. “The silver lining is that the disaster, while tragic, can also be the catalyst to streamline the approvals process and bring much needed funding into an area.”