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Mare Island's Factory OS pumps out units to fight housing shortage

Mare Island's Factory OS pumps out units to fight housing shortage

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A massive factory that churned out submarines to help win World War II has been retooled to tackle a new crisis: the shortage of low-cost housing.

Based on Mare Island’s Building 680, Factory OS manufactures housing units that can be hoisted by cranes and stacked like Lego blocks, similar to the units manufactured by a different company for Turley Flats on Pope Street.

Last September, Factory OS pre-assembled 110 units for a West Oakland project. A stick-built project of that size would take about a year to build. Factory OS installed the entire five-story complex in 10 days.

“We can build something as good as if not better than anything you can do on site,” Factory OS co-founder Peter Palmisano told a group of St. Helena city officials and housing advocates who toured the 250,000-square-foot factory on Jan. 10.

The start-up requires a minimum order of 50 units, but Palmisano said he’s willing to make an exception for St. Helena, the town where he’s lived since 1979.

The nonprofit Our Town St. Helena has been in talks with a local family about building affordable units on a St. Helena property. The site might be suitable for 25-35 units.

Factory OS is offering to team up with Our Town on the project. Palmisano said he hopes the city offers relief from various permitting fees, cuts some red tape during the entitlement process, and demonstrates the political will to get some units on the ground.

“There’s a can-do spirit in this community,” he said. “There’s money, there’s intelligence. We just need the will.”

Palmisano is even offering to install a Factory OS unit on his own west-side residential property as a test case, so people can see it for themselves.

The units have a maximum size of 16 feet wide by 72 feet long. Palmisano said he can build them for about $155 per square foot. That includes washers, dryers, lights, water fixtures and kitchen appliances. Even with the additional cost of land preparation and installation, Factory OS’s process is still vastly cheaper than typical Upvalley residential projects.

Since they are built off site, Factory OS units can be installed in a matter of days, minimizing financing costs and the impact on the surrounding neighborhood, Palmisano said.

Mary Stephenson of Our Town St. Helena said units built off-site could provide infill housing all over St. Helena.

“If the community could see this, they would say ‘Oh, this isn’t bad. We could do this,’” Stephenson said.

In addition to managing the development of Meadowood Resort and other major projects, Palmisano served on the board of Bridge Housing Corporation, which developed Hunt’s Grove Apartments, and was a founding board member Our Town St. Helena, which is developing Brenkle Court and recently acquired a property on Pope Street.

Palmisano said he’s worried about a lack of housing for workers and professionals.

“These are the people who are vital to our community,” Palmisano said. “If we’re going to sustain the feeling of our small town … then affordable housing is key.”

Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, City Manager Mark Prestwich, Planning Commissioner Daniel Hale, Senior Planner Aaron Hecock, and Chief Building Official Philip Henry attended the tour, along with representatives of Our Town and Napa Valley Community Housing.

Ellsworth said that with the current council and staff, “this is the perfect opportunity” to try an innovative approach to affordable housing.

Ellsworth said he likes the idea of showing the community a tangible test case to demonstrate that units like Factory OS’s “fit the character of our town.”

“Let’s have the discussion and see what we can do,” he said.

To join an upcoming tour of Factory OS, email mary@ourtownsthelena.org.

You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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