Contractors rebuilding fire survivors’ homes contend with concrete conundrum
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.
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.