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Civil grand jury backs plans for union-staffed modular housing factory in SF

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An example of a modular building project in Havre, France. (Shutterstock)

San Francisco should launch a union-staffed modular housing factory to lower construction costs and speed up development, a civil grand jury report recommended Thursday.

Saying The City needs to try new methods to address the housing crisis, the civil grand jury examined modular construction, which is when prefabricated units are assembled in factories and then transported to the site where they are assembled. Meanwhile, other site work can occur simultaneously, such as laying the foundation, saving both time and money.

The report noted that modular construction has had a “slow start” in San Francisco, but is a wise strategy as available construction workers are decreasing in number and construction costs continue to rise.

But the report acknowledged there are several challenges, including issues with labor unions and building inspections.

Some labor unions have opposed modular housing to protect union workers and honor existing union contracts.

“Some of these unions (plumbing, sheet metal workers, electricians) have existing contracts that forbid them from working with components that were not manufactured with the participation of their union members,” the report said. “When those unions can’t participate in a project, it becomes a non-union project, and that keeps the other unions from working there as well.”

But an exception was recently made for homeless housing. The Carpenters Union recently signed an exclusive labor contract with Vallejo-based Factory OS, a modular unit factory, for the Mayor’s Office of Housing financed project at 1068 Mission St.

Modular construction is also being considered for another homeless housing development at Mission Bay Block 9 by the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure.

SEE RELATED: SF turns to modular construction of Mission Bay homeless housing to expedite project

Another concern raised was compliance with building codes. The report notes that inspections of prefabricated units occur at the factories and are currently done by state inspectors. “Since modular unit interiors are finished when they arrive at the construction site, city inspectors can’t inspect the plumbing, wiring, and construction integrity,” the report said. “This is a cause for some concern if San Francisco inspectors are not present at the factory.”

The report notes that city inspectors may have to visit the factories to ensure compliance with local building codes.

But ultimately, the report recommends The City should address both the union and inspection challenges by creating its own modular construction factory in San Francisco.

“Units built in such a factory would be subject to local building codes and would have City inspections. The units would be built within the parameters of existing union contracts, and city-sponsored modular projects would be able to proceed as fully unionized work sites,” the report said. “This may be the only way forward for modular construction of City-sponsored residential projects in San Francisco.”

The recommendation is in keeping with an announcement in January by then Acting Mayor London Breed, currently mayor-elect, of a modular construction working group with labor unions and city staff who would hire a consultant and “develop a business plan for a modular housing production facility.”

“Most current trade union skills could translate to a factory setting, but someone who has been trained and has worked only in a factory will not have the same skills as a current trade union journeyman,” the report said. “Unions, developers, and The City will have to negotiate these changes.”

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