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Factory Built : A Camarillo housing company makes energy-efficient houses that cost about 25% less than traditional homes.

February 25, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A new, environmentally friendly industry has come to Camarillo. Automated Structures Inc. is building houses that save on energy and take less of a bite out of the planet's forest reserves. The houses look like any other house of the traditional ranch, Spanish or Cape Cod style; they simply cost the consumer about 25% less. The secret is that they're built in a factory and trucked to the lot you've bought.

"We build during escrow," quipped Mike Schimpf, president of the company. Begun in 1990 under the name The Development Group, the firm began assembling homes on sites in Camarillo, Ojai and Newbury Park using components bought from various manufacturers in California and Utah.

In 1992, Automated Structures incorporated and now has 40 people designing and engineering its own line of components at its Los Posas Road headquarters. The assembly is done in a former electronics factory situated up the coast in Paso Robles.

When a developer in Atascadero sells a home "off the sign on an empty lot" as Schimpf put it, an order is then put in to the factory, and "we build the house and the foundations at the same time . . . 60 to 90 days from bare earth to move-in." This speed has an environmental payoff. Factory methods eliminate waste. And these houses are built tight to keep in heat in winter and air conditioning in summer, while allowing fresh air circulation.

Orville Moe, Automated's treasurer, said, "Energy bills are a third less than site-built houses. And at our factory we end up with less than a wheelbarrow of waste wood and even sell those chips to a wallboard manufacturer. A site-built house produces an 8-by-10-by-4 dumpster of cut-off boards."

Moe also estimates that the developer who buys a factory-built house pays $33 per square foot. Building from the ground up would cast $60 for about the same house. And then there is the land cost--Ventura County land is among the costliest in the country--and that's why "an affordable new house" in these parts can't be found for much under $200,000.

We're not talking about the kind of structures that were blown away in last year's Florida hurricane. This is a new kind of building--at least new to California. In some New England and mountain states with small populations, people have begun building the majority of new single family houses this way, according to Automated Builder Magazine.

In 1990, Schimpf put up a two-story Cape Cod residence, which looks quite at home, so to speak, among its $320,000 neighbors. Four major component parts were trucked to the site from Utah to compose a three-bedroom house with formal dining room, all plumbing, heating, air conditioning, wall-to-wall carpets, finished cabinetry, all appliances and a fireplace.

The entire house was assembled on an already laid foundation in six hours.

Altogether it cost owner/realtor Meredith McDonald $274,000, $132,000 of which was for the site.

The Southern California building tradition has always involved working outside in good weather for most of the year, which goes a long way in explaining why, so far, only 8% of new housing in California is built off-site.

"Until 1973, fuel was cheap and we built houses that were energy sieves," said Don O. Carlson of Carpinteria, editor of Automated Builder.

California building codes then began requiring sealed doors and windows and better insulation. "But site-building is building by surprise," Carlson said, noting the problems that on-site builders have with making things fit during the customary six-month, outdoors, multi-contractor process.

"Factory building of houses will quadruple in five years. Even site-builders around the country are buying various factory-built components like wall panels and floor systems," he said.

Recycling is another reason why factory building of homes is good for the environment. Parts such as the drywall panels, made in San Diego by mainline building supply firms such as Louisiana-Pacific, use recycled newspaper. And Los Angeles Metals in L. A. is making steel wall studs and roof assemblies from recycled cans and cars.

Moe says Automated Structures plans to incorporate "engineered building products using straw and epoxy content." This would mean that no trees at all would be cut down to produce such parts as wall panels, which incorporate plumbing, electrical insulation and even arrive painted in the color of your choice. None of this environmental frugality seems to be hurting the sales appeal of factory-built housing. "Our sales graph is spiking upwards" said Schimpf.

Banks are now making regular 30-year loans on these houses, even though they used to be lumped in with "mobile homes," resulting in higher charges.

And even architects are getting into the act, seeking design assignments with manufactured housing firms. The results, so far, visible in Ojai, Atascadero and Newbury Park, are almost indistinguishable from designer houses.

So you can be chic and environmentally responsible at the same time.

* FYI

A good reference on energy- and resource-efficient home building is Automated Builder magazine. Call Don Carlson at 684-7659. To inspect factory-built homes near here call Mike Schimpf at Automated Structures Inc.; but do it before the new energy tax goes into effect and a waiting list forms.

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