As the numbered balls tumble through the spinner at Ridgway Town Hall next month, it’ll be anyone’s guess whose number will be called in the lottery for the chance to own a home.
Fading West Development, on the other hand, has done its part to eliminate the guessing game about when those homes will be done and ready for move-in.
In a county where the most basic stick-built home can take a year or more to erect, where buyers of those homes are sometimes left to cross their fingers for good weather and no delays in supply shipments, the handful of buyers who will be picked to own a home in the new Wetterhorn Homes development in Ridgway could move in as soon as August.
How is that possible? Picture an automobile assembly line, and you begin to get an idea of how it works inside Fading West’s climate-controlled, 10,000-square-foot factory in Buena Vista. The homes that will make up Wetterhorn Homes have already been built. All that’s left now is for them to be trucked 3 1/2 hours to Ridgway — which could happen within the next week — and assembled.
The nonprofit Rural Homes project is relying on the quicker and more efficient construction process as one way to bring down the costs of the homes, trying to make them affordable for teachers, first responders and others whose incomes can’t keep up with sky-high market-rate home prices in the town where they work.
Applicants who meet income and work requirements will be entered into a lottery, scheduled for June 15. The winners will get their pick of the new homes, which Rural Homes is aiming to have done by late summer and early fall. Applications to enter the lottery close on May 31.
To learn more about how this home construction process works, the Plaindealer toured the Fading West factory earlier this spring. Here’s what we found: *** At Fading West, each box, including the ones bound for Ridgway, can be built in less than two weeks. Once they’re moved onto foundations with cranes, they can be completed and ready for move-in two to three months later.
The increasingly popular construction method aims to improve efficiency, lower costs and reduce waste by building homes nearly to completion under one roof, using a process that repeats itself daily.
That process starts in the mill, where everything from lumber to sheetrock and flooring are cut to size. For a project like Ridgway’s, where there will be three different unit types making up the 14 homes, each set of measurements is repeated multiple times, using the same plans and specifications.
The factory can buy its materials in bulk, at a larger scale than a builder working on individual stick-built homes, another way of cutting costs. In the mill, boxes of cabinets were stacked and waiting for installation, organized by color.
Above the mill, on the mezzanine, workers assemble larger walls and ceilings before they’re picked up with overhead cranes and moved into place, a process referred to as “flying.”
At station one, the boxes start taking shape from the floor up.
Throughout the next several stations, the parts move in a horseshoe shape around the factory: cranes fly in the walls and workers install drywall. An overhead system shoots down lasers so employees can mark where to add electrical and plumbing components.
The boxes can be lifted for installation below the floor when needed, and can be pushed from space to space using air casters.
Insulation and ZIP sheathing, a weatherization barrier on the outside of the house, follow, and by station 13, employees are painting units and putting in flooring. Workers install cabinets and countertops – everything except appliances like refrigerators and ovens – and test the electrical system. Fading West has its own inspectors monitoring quality and compliance, and is subject to regular state inspections.
The homes follow the same International Residential Code requirements that Ouray County requires of stick-built homes. And while they’re built in a factory, they’re not actually “manufactured” homes – that term specifically refers to structures that meet national standards set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which are different from the International Building Code requirements.
Once drivers deliver the modular homes, they’re under the oversight of the local building department. For the Wetterhorn Homes, that means Ridgway still requires building permits , and onsite inspections will happen before they receive certificates of occupancy. *** The goal is to make every movement efficient, to save time and money. Instead of bringing materials out to a construction site, then assembling them there, everything is done inside the controlled environment, and every box is built in the exact same way.
“The process is always the same,” Fading West Project Manager Stephen Elston said.
The only changes are improvements made to the process over time, which have accelerated construction: When the factory opened in November 2021, it took about 60 days or more to complete a home, he said. Now, each box should ideally move twice per day, completing all stations in about nine days.
In March, Fading West completed 38 boxes, or 19 homes. In April, the factory finished its 250th unit, part of a 54-unit apartment complex that will be installed in Breckenridge.
When completed, the boxes are shrinkwrapped for protection, then lifted onto a trailer that pulls them out into the yard outside the factory, waiting to be picked up.
Paul Major, Rural Homes’ project manager, said he hopes they can start shipping as soon as next week, but that’s contingent on a few variables, including getting truckers to the factory for pickup and working with the Colorado Department of Transportation on timing.
That’s because roadwork around the state is making it hard to move the boxes: “Every road in Colorado is under construction,” Major said. The houses can’t take I-70 due to width restrictions, and the backup option, south to Pagosa Springs, was “a terrible idea,” he said, because of the added distance and the challenges of Wolf Creek Pass.
“We frankly had to ask some favors of CDOT, and they’re helping us out,” Major said, allowing them to use U.S. Highway 50 – which is also currently under construction at Little Blue Canyon.
Once the boxes make it to Ridgway, they’ll be staged at the Ouray County Fairgrounds until the foundations are ready, thanks to an agreement with the county.
“Our plan is to have the foundations ready for setting the houses in very early July,” Major said, “and then it’s a sprint.” *** The first boxes for a different Rural Homes affordable housing project, Pinion Park started arriving in Norwood in November, after a long journey stymied by construction that sent them over Vail Pass, then through Grand Junction and Gateway.
“Gateway thought they were being invaded,” Major said.
Through the winter, they were craned into place on foundations, then completed with roofs, garages, and other finishing touches.
In good weather, workers can frame up 1.5 roofs per day, Rural Homes’ owner’s representative Sheamus Croke said, though that was a challenge working through the winter and early spring.
In Norwood, the town issued the first certificate of occupancy in March, and the last of the 24 homes passed its inspection in late April.
Major expects the process will move faster in Ridgway, in part due to one simple factor: the weather. In Norwood, Stryker and Company was working through the winter, and fighting snow and wind to put the modular units on foundations and add roofs, garages and porches.
“The subcontractors were out there working through blizzards and snowstorms, in very tough conditions,” Major said. “It was a long winter.”
Working in the summer, with better weather and longer days, should improve the efficiency in Ridgway, he said.
Delays at the factory also slowed Norwood’s installation process. That won’t be the case in Ridgway, because those homes are already complete and ready to go.
Major said that was a key lesson from the first round of construction: Make sure the factory’s sequence and timing aligns with the on-site work.
Under the current schedule, buyers could move in August and September into homes that are ready to furnish, with all appliances already installed, as well as heat pumps and mini-splits. The homes are all electric – and they’re equipped with solar panels as part of a new pilot program with San Miguel Power Association and the Colorado Clean Energy Fund. Residents will pay off the solar system over time as part of their monthly SMPA bill.
With homes taking about 10 days to be built in the factory, then another two months to 90 days for completion, that’s still far faster than stick-built construction, which can take upwards of a year.
Neither the town of Ridgway nor the county formally track the average time of completion from building permits to certificates of occupancy, but Ouray County Building Inspector Genevieve Shope said a review going back to 2020 showed it takes at least a year. The fastest completion in that time period was a 2,100-square-foot stick-built home that took 13 months, she said, while the longest was 54 months for a 2,500-squarefoot home.
One local building company, Blackthorn Custom Builders in Ouray, said the quickest they could complete a small and simple stick-built home is about 10 months. Co-owner Billie Doone said that would be the absolute minimum, and getting supplies delivered can cause delays and slow down the process. Most of their houses average closer to 12 to 13 months, she said. *** The homes are expected to range in price from about $275,000 to $459,000, with some reserved for buyers on the lower end of the income limits. The largest and most expensive units, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and detached garages, will still come in below market-rate options in Ouray County. In the first four months of 2023, the median sales price for a townhome or condo in the county was $770,000, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors.
The prices are tied to the annual Area Median Income amounts, which are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Previous estimates for prices were based on the 2022 AMI numbers, but the new 2023 limits were released last week, allowing some slightly higher earners to qualify. The median family income for a household of four increased from $87,900 last year to $89,100; the cap for eligibility for the Wetterhorn Homes is 120% of AMI, which will increase accordingly.
In Norwood, the smaller units sold first, and demand lagged for the larger, pricier units. Rural Homes ultimately ran a second round of the lottery, this time for buyers who didn’t meet the requirement to work in the town.
A second round of the lottery could potentially run in Ridgway if the same situation repeats itself, and there are homes left over after the first round. That means people who don’t meet the requirement to work within town boundaries should still submit applications this month, if they want to be considered for the second-tier lottery if one happens.
And while there will be 14 homes in the neighborhood, there could end up being just 13 for sale. The town of Ridgway has the first right of refusal to purchase one home, as a condition of the development agreement approved last summer. The town has waived thousands of dollars in fees for the project, and will be able to purchase a home to rent to qualifying employees, or to offer an employee the first chance at purchasing.
After applications close on May 31, a list of qualified applicants will be posted before the June 15 selection day. Information about entering the lottery, including the income restrictions and work requirements, can be found at wetterhornhomesridgway. co.