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Fading West employee Matthew Nelson wraps a modular home with plastic covering before it is shipped out of the building facility Oct. 28 in Buena Vista. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

BUENA VISTA — Adam Rowlee is keeping close watch as a home takes shape in the first station at the Fading West modular home factory. 

Right now, it’s just a pair of 600-square-foot decks that will be floors for a new home owned by Pedro and Maria Jorge. The parents of three live and work in Telluride. Pedro works in a restaurant. Maria cleans houses and condos. The new home — three bedrooms and three baths with 1,216 square feet in Norwood’s pioneering Pinion Park neighborhood — means the Jorges, who came from Guatemala, can move out of the one-bedroom apartment they share with another family of five. 

The Jorge family’s story gives Rowlee a perspective that spans beyond his workstation and beyond his work day. Watching those floors move through the factory’s 18 stations and become a home for a working family in one of Colorado’s most expensive regions, he says, “is a success that has staying power.”

“When we see not just our day-to-day struggles but what the end result is, it’s more than success on the factory floor,” said Rowlee, Fading West’s first hourly employee, who bought a home with his wife in Buena Vista  seven years ago. “Since then, we’ve been reading about the housing crisis and this opportunity to come up to actually do something about it after years of discussion, it was like, ‘Cool. I want to be a part of this.’”

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The Colorado Sun is following the owners, developer and builders of 24 affordable homes in Norwood’s new Pinion Park community.

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A lot of the employees at the Fading West factory share a similar mission that is bigger than their particular job or even the shrink-wrapped boxes that leave their factory. It’s a mission even bigger than delivering affordable, high-quality homes to families like the Jorges. The Fading West factory is creating a process to deliver thousands of affordable homes to communities across the West and The Colorado Sun is following the homes and the new owners until the Pinion Park project in Norwood is complete.

Soon the Fading West factory will be churning out a new home every 10 days or so. The factory could be the answer to Colorado’s housing crisis, joining a first-of-its-kind effort that includes a nonprofit developer building on free land, philanthropic support, a unique mortgage lending program and lucky locals who secured their affordable homes in a lottery. But there’s a critical step in the development of affordable housing in Colorado that threatens the model: local code and zoning regulations. 

Without getting governments to overhaul decades-old zoning and building regulations, the modular promise of affordability can’t happen, said Fading West founder Charlie Chupp, who has gathered a growing roster of communities and political leaders supporting his push to make modular construction more acceptable among local leaders.

The 24 homes Fading West is sending to Norwood is part of a first-of-its-kind program involving a nonprofit developer building on free land, philanthropic support, a unique mortgage lending program and lucky locals who secured their affordable homes in a lottery.

“This is, in many ways, the future of housing,” Gov. Jared Polis told workers in early November at a celebration of the factory’s first year of operation. “We want to make sure prefabricated housing is part of solving Colorado’s housing crisis. We need to fix it before it gets worse and this is part of the answer.”

When the Fading West factory opened in November 2021, it took about 63 days to move a house from two blank floors to a plastic-wrapped home. A year later, after investment in all kinds of manufacturing technology and almost daily upgrades to the process, the 90-plus workers can build a home in 17 days. By year’s end, it should be down to less than 10 days. If Fading West can support 24-hour shifts — a challenge in not just finding workers but also housing for those workers — the factory could be turning out a new home every five days. 

Reducing production time by 50 days only happens when every person is involved in identifying efficiencies in the process, Fading West project manager Rex King said. 

“When everybody has that mindset, from the guy who is drywalling, to the guy who is framing to senior staff, strategically, it’s a pretty cool group that is always watching for improvements,” King said. “Everyone has to bring feedback. They have to see how the equipment and tools can be improved. The whole of the whole company needs to be working toward those improvements. That’s what’s happening right now.”

Once the decking is on the Jorge home’s top and bottom floors, a 3D laser scanner on a tower above the station beams down marks that designate where workers need to install walls and cut holes for wiring and plumbing. Darryl Yeakley uses a tablet to give the scanner its parameters before it lays out the floor plan.

“Then it goes to Station 2, where they put the walls on where we tell them to. Then it goes on, and they do the electrical and plumbing based on where we tell it,” Yeakley said.

There isn’t a model for this kind of floor scanning or manufacturing, King said. 

“We had a vision and we said, ‘Look, let’s dump a bunch of money into the technology to support the vision,’” King said. 

In the middle of the factory floor is an elevated workspace where walls are assembled and drywalled with screwing machines. Then the walls are hoisted with cranes down to Station 2 where teams place the walls based on the 3D scanner guidance. 

Fading West’s wall setter Brett Boersig uses the controls to move the building walls, lifted by a crane, inside the warehouse, Sept. 27, in Buena Vista. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Later, at Station 3, workers on sliding chairs roll beneath the Jorge home, installing plumbing and wiring conduit. With its exterior and interior walls installed, the structure is lifted by four mobile pneumatic lifts, each capable of hoisting and holding up to 14,000 pounds and all operated in sync with one controller.

In the next few stations, workers build the ceilings and prep the second-floor walls for roof trusses. Workers cut out drywall for light switches and outlets. At Station 4, workers pull wires for electrical and install stairs on the first floor. 

Each station has a lead who oversees all the work at that station, then there are area leads and line leads who guide different tasks at each station.

Workers continue drywall mudding throughout most of the early stations before the homes roll from the rough-in north line to the more trade-specific south line. The jobs get more detailed and specific as the homes move into the final nine stations on the south side of the factory.

In early October, the home of Laura and Brian Knight was winding through the final nine stations. The Knights, who work in Telluride, and their two daughters could be moving into the new home by year’s end. 

Rural Homes is developing a 24-home development called Pinion Park Norwood. The deed-restricted houses are available to buyers who meet income restrictions and may qualify for a $25,000 down payment through a state program. The homes, expected to be priced between $225,000 to $400,000, are expected to be ready for move-in by November 2022. Pictured is the lot getting ready for construction in May. (Provided by Rural Homes)

The weather sheathing on the exterior was installed, and at Station 10, workers were hanging windows and doors. The second-level boxes do not have exterior doors so workers must scramble in through a window opening. 

In the next station the boxes got a second layer of rigid foam insulation. Floors are installed. Fading West installs Andersen Windows on all its homes. Those are hardly the cheapest option. These windows are actually the highest-efficiency windows available for the highest climate where Fading West delivers homes, which, so far, is Leadville. 

Instead of ordering a variety of windows with different efficiencies that meet local building standards in all sorts of climates, Fading West “went with the best and we use it for everything,” said King, noting that ordering one type of window, even the priciest, is the most efficient way to order windows that can take months to build and ship from Andersen factories.

At Stations 11 and 12, the siding is installed to meet customer color requests. The homes are cleaned and painted after workers add texture to the walls. The eaves hanging over the exterior walls are hinged, allowing them to fold up for shipment and out when workers at the site install roof decking and shingles. (Roofs are assembled on site, per transportation rules about the height of the boxes.) Interior finishes are dialed in at these final stations. 

Portions of exterior walls are left bare so workers at the site can bolt on additional sections of the home, like a patio to a deck, a garage or even an extra bedroom. Fading West’s larger, 2,200-square-foot models have two floor boxes and two bolt-on additions, so the whole home is shipped as four modules. 

In the final stage, the home is lifted, draped and wrapped in a shrink wrap that is sealed with a massive heat gun. The shrink wrap has a zippered door so owners can take a final tour before the home is loaded onto special trailers for transport. Fading West also loads the homes with all sorts of materials and equipment in numbered bags for final assembly, like an Ikea dresser, with final siding and roofing materials. 

Fading West employee Tom Petty use the flames to shrink the wrap of a modular home before it is shipped from the building facility, Friday, Oct. 28, in Buena Vista. The modular home factory in the Upper Arkansas River Valley aims to build 700 1,200 square foot homes a year. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Outside the factory, the tightly wrapped homes are elevated on stacked lumber — cribbing — which allows trucks to back a pneumatic trailer that can rise beneath the boxes. The first homes are scheduled to be shipped to Norwood in the second week of November. It will take several weeks to crane the homes onto foundations, install roofing, garages and patios and connect utilities.

EV Studio, a Denver design firm, did the architectural work for the four types of homes offered to Norwood buyers. Montrose contractor Stryker and Co. is handling the onsite construction work. Another crane-operating company will handle the stacking of first and second floors in Norwood.

Fading West will shepherd the whole process. One of the challenges in the home construction business has been a lack of communication among architects, developers, contractors and site planners. 

“Getting all those people in the room talking about this process from start to finish, that may be Fading West’s greatest accomplishment,” Eric Schaefer, Fading West’s head of sales, said. “I’m not sure that’s ever been done before.” 

There’s still an open seat at the affordable housing table for City Hall, said Chupp, who created the Fading West manufactured housing plan after a career building kiosks for Starbucks. 

Fading West Development CEO Charlie Chupp from inside the 110,000 square foot home construction factory Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Buena Vista, CO. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

He’s working out the kinks for building a sturdy, efficient home. Philanthropic groups have enabled the nonprofit developer, Rural Homes, to build streets and infrastructure for three communities, including Norwood’s Pinion Park. Counties and municipalities are donating land for homes. Banks have tapped federal programs to lend money to buyers. The ability to quickly deliver affordable homes is taking shape. 

But none of it will work without reforming the entitlement process. Every community he works with requires long, expensive local review with local leaders who maybe think of wheeled trailer homes when they hear “modular housing.” 

When Chupp first started planning the initial 90 homes at his affordable housing project in Buena Vista, called The Farm, he found 11 rules in Buena Vista’s town code that made his affordability mission impossible. The largest obstacle to delivering a two-bedroom home for $210,000 was a ban on shared-wall townhomes. The town’s limit on the height of buildings, the required lot sizes and rules about where homes had to be on lots, “every little piece of it,” threatened the possibility of affordable homes, Chupp said. 

“I told staff, if you are willing to make these changes to the R3 (residential) zoning, we will get started and make it happen,” he said. “But without these changes, this is a waste of time and you will never have affordability.”

The government leaders making up the rules … that limit density and modular construction “are destroying the hopes” of residents who need homes, Chupp said.

“That’s blunt, but it needs to be said. When you go to these towns and they drag out the entire process and make you go through public approval after public approval after public approval and they don’t allow density that allows affordability, it just destroys towns and guts communities,” he said. 

Fading West is developing 52 units next to Summit County’s Justice Center in Breckenridge. The project, a partnership between Summit County and the town, will be three stories, which required some adjustments to town building codes.

The path to making those adjustments stemmed from 2021’s House Bill 1271, which created three funding programs offering communities planning grants, incentive grants and an affordable housing toolkit. In its first year, the housing legislation delivered $18.7 million in incentive grants that enabled 20 communities to kick-start development of affordable housing. Summit County’s Justice Center Workforce Housing Project got $2 million from the fund. 

That legislation and funding “is an incredibly effective model” for helping communities fast-track development of affordable housing, said Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue.

Colorado should “put 1271 on steroids,” she said. 

A tractor pulls a new modular home, wrapped in protective covering, from the Fading West building facility, Oct. 28, in Buena Vista. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Put more money into technical assistance and put more money into capital and then put more strings on that” to encourage communities to work quickly and efficiently to accommodate higher-density affordable housing, she said. 

While she’s a fan of entitlement reform, Pogue sees value in the community involvement processes that allow residents a chance to voice concerns. 

“It does take way too long, but think of the flip side and the opportunities for communities to participate in the process for developing land, which is a finite resource and once it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said. 

Many communities are upgrading and improving the development process with tools that encourage higher density units at more attainable prices. 

But there is a fine line between encouraging community participation and scripting rules that enable opponents of development to kill higher-density, affordable projects, said Joseph Teipel, Buena Vista’s planning director, who is working to accommodate modular construction in the town’s planned 65-unit Carbonate Street community

“The codes can be changed. But when you have someone using those codes to say ‘This is the right project but the wrong spot,’ there is no code to fix that,” Teipel said. “How our codes enable NIMBYs needs to be paid attention to.”

Polis said HB 1271 — along with legislation directing $40 million to support modular housing factories in Colorado — is a first step, “but we need to look at doing more.”

“We have a real housing problem in this state and … I view it as an inter-jurisdictional problem and therefore one that the state needs to step in on. We can’t simply say that local governments will solve this on their own,” Polis said in an interview. “The state needs to absolutely play a role in removing barriers to the quantity of housing and artificial costs and additions that serve against the purpose of reducing the cost of housing across the state.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com Email: jason@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jasonblevins