Contractors rebuilding fire survivors’ homes contend with concrete conundrum

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Fun homebuilding fact: Contractors refer to concrete that is still plastic, or wet, as “mud.”

Mud, incidentally, also may be the name of a builder who finishes a project months behind schedule. It’s a nickname John Farrow was determined to avoid.

He’s the CEO of Santa Rosa-based Farrow Commercial Construction, which is rebuilding 80 homes torched in the North Bay fires of October 2017, including a subdivision in the Fountaingrove neighborhood called The Oaks — four dozen homes that will feature steel frames, stucco exteriors and metal roofs.

“And,” Farrow said, “we’re pouring all our own concrete.”

Wait. What? Since when does a company that builds houses and hotels make its own concrete?

Since late last year, when Farrow finally had enough of being “at the mercy of these concrete guys.” He’d increasingly grown frustrated, seeing projects delayed because of the pent-up demand for concrete.

“These people who lost their homes” — including a number of Farrow’s employees and business partners — “have a fixed amount of (homeowners insurance) assisted-living expenses. When that’s gone, it’s gone. If these people aren’t back into their homes by then, they’re paying out of their own pocket.”

One day last fall, Farrow found himself discussing the shortage with one of his concrete suppliers.

“There’s gotta be a better way,” he was telling Carl Davis, the 74-year-old owner of Carl’s Ready Mix, who chose that moment to mention he was getting ready to retire.

“I said, ‘All right, Carl, what can we do?’ ”

“Buy my plant,” came the reply.

“Done.”

Farrow bought all of Davis’ equipment, and is leasing his land. Thus was born Farrow Ready Mix, and thus one builder solved the problem of how to get his hands on sufficient quantities of the mud without which no construction project can move forward.

Neatly capturing the crux of the challenge faced by the builders is Andy Christopherson, a partner in Synergy Communities, which is doing 90 rebuilds in Coffey Park.

“My surveyor, who stakes my lots for me, comes from Grass Valley,” he said. “Whether we’re talking materials or labor or consultants, you can get everything you need from outside the county. Except for concrete.”

The mud for the foundations and driveways, the sidewalks and shiny garage slabs must come from one of the county’s seven concrete plants. Competition is fierce, and wait times are long. Bigger building companies with longstanding ties to local concrete suppliers — Shamrock Materials, Superior Supply and Northgate Ready Mix are considered the “big three” — are at an advantage.

“Our regular customers probably get a priority,” said Mark Gilbertson, a driver trainer for Northgate, raising his voice on a recent morning to be heard over the whine of a machine pumping concrete into a Coffey Park foundation. “We try to work with them more because they were our bread and butter before (the fires) ever happened.”

Fire victims had a choice: accept the government-sponsored debris removal or pay for their own cleanup — usually with money from their insurance policies. Some 85 percent of the city’s Coffey Park neighborhood residents chose the former.

To expedite the cleanup, the Army Corps of Engineers made an executive decision. Rather than spend precious weeks testing each individual foundation, it would tear out all of them.

“That was unprecedented,” said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange. It was also, he reckoned, “the genesis” of a mad rush on mud.

Demand has slightly slackened since reaching a peak several months ago, as contractors, PG&E and Caltrans — each with huge inventories of rebuilding projects — all vied for concrete. To get their needs met, some of the bigger builders learned how to game the system. They’ll place large orders weeks, even a month, ahead of time. They don’t know where they’re going to need all that mud. They just know they’re going to need it somewhere.

“As long as we schedule it ahead of time, it’s no big deal,” said Christopherson of Synergy Partners. “It’s when you don’t plan for it, that’s when you get hosed.”

Like golfing tee times on weekends, the most coveted slots are in the morning.

“Slabs, stairs, anything with a good finish on it, you want to pour that in the morning, ’cause you’re going to have to babysit it for seven or eight hours.” said Scott Enger, who runs Farrow’s batch plant and is known around the county as a kind of concrete savant.

Foundations, not as high maintenance, can be poured in the afternoon. Whatever the slot, once the decision is made to mix the batch, that concrete has got to go somewhere. Pressure is high to do the job right the first time.

“Your second chance with concrete involves a jackhammer and a pickup, said Enger.

Smaller outfits, contractors from outside the area, have a tough time reserving those primo morning slots.

“I’m from Redding,” said Jordan Fitzgerald, standing on the sidewalk outside his nearly finished rebuild on Hopper Avenue in Coffey Park. “I’m just a little guy, and sometimes we’re left out.”

Troy Soiland, owner of Northgate Ready Mix, makes it a point to cater to customers of all sizes. If a smaller builder has reserved five loads of concrete for a foundation, “we’re not gonna push him back for one of our regulars.” Some of those regulars, he said, “have an attitude about that. But it’s our philosophy that we’ve got to take care of everyone.”

His gaze moved, as he spoke, from the four monitors in his office to the bustling yard of the company’s Windsor batch plant.

“It’s like Grand Central out there today,” Soiland said.

Northgate had eight trucks five years ago and now runs over 20, with more on the way. Petaluma-based Shamrock also has expanded to meet demand.

“There is no question that the construction backlog since the 2017 fires has been quite large, and Shamrock has been able to add jobs because of the increase in work,” the company’s district sales manager John Zimmerman said. Around here, these are boom times for everyone in the concrete biz.

Almost everyone.

“Let’s be clear,” Farrow said. “I’m losing money on the batch plant.”

He’s OK with that. He didn’t buy a concrete factory to make money.

“This isn’t about that,” he said. “It’s about getting concrete to people, getting it to them at a fair price, and getting their homes built on time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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