Finishing the Burlingame Ranch puzzle piece by piece

The city of Aspen’s decades-long development of an affordable housing subdivision is nearly complete with final phase and pre-fab construction of 79 units

The final phase of the city of Aspen’s Burlingame Ranch housing subdivision is underway, with dozens of pre-fabricated modules currently being delivered from a Boise, Idaho, factory.

The modules are boxes already manufactured that come with everything necessary for a livable home — insulation, drywall, windows, floors, carpet, faucets, water heaters, stoves, bathtubs and showers, washers and dryers, shelving and the kitchen sink.

“The only thing that’s missing is the towel to hang on the towel bar that’s already there,” said Dan Bickes, project superintendent for Shaw Construction, who was on site last week giving a tour. “The interior is where every construction site loses time; you make up time on your structure then lose it on your interior.”

In this instance, the city, Shaw and the modular building manufacturer, Guerdon LLC, are making up time on both sides.

Once delivered on site, the boxes are placed on already-poured foundations via crane and then “stitched” together to make up 79 one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

The entire stitching process takes about 30 minutes, Bickes said.

Crews on the ground connect the modules’ structural, plumbing and electrical systems and wait for the roof trusses and siding to be put on at a later time.

Last week, buildings 10 and 11 were set, which took days versus months in regular construction environments.

“This project, if you took it in a conventional aspect of framing it and everything, it’s almost a three-year project and right now, this is slated for an 18-month project,” Bickes said.

Aspen City Council in 2019 decided to go the pre-fab route to speed up delivery of workforce housing, of which the community has a dearth and is in crisis mode to house people.

Chris Everson, the city’s affordable housing development senior project manager, said the project was scheduled to begin construction in 2022 but elected officials directed staff to get it going in 2021.

“Council’s focus was getting this done instead of waiting,” he said.

Going the pre-fab route doesn’t significantly reduce costs, as there is more work upfront planning and coordinating with the architect, manufacturer, general contractor and the city.

“There’s a lot of coordination on the front end when you are dealing with another party; there’s a huge impact on the schedule and the work,” said Rob Schober, the city’s capital asset director. “When you bring in another big player to the party that has to buy into the schedule, it’s just a different process.”

He estimated that by doing the project in module fashion, there’s a savings of between 8% and 12% on construction and materials.

“What it really gets you is a schedule and not having costs associated with a contractor on site for an extra year,” he said. “In theory, the quality control is easier and should be better because everything is done indoors, everything is done on flat tables with overhead air tools and you don’t have to worry about the weather.”

Guerdon has a 150,000-square-foot plant in Idaho where the city’s Burlingame Ranch units are currently on the production line.

Guerdon has an in-house quality assurance process in which the modules move through about 13 work stations, and each one has to pass a checklist to move to the next one, according to Everson.

After assembly, the modules have plumbing and electrical tests, and are under the state of Colorado third-party building code compliance inspection regulations. The city also has several third-party quality assurance contracts in place and a representative on location at the manufacturing plant.

Schober recently visited the Guerdon plant, which allowed him to make necessary changes to a pro-type for the project.

“It gives you the opportunity to dial it in in-person, make some changes and give a thumbs up, whereas doing it onsite and it’s staggered you don’t really have the opportunity because it’s already done,” he said.

Guerdon has a representative onsite in Aspen, as well.

“I’m here making sure everything is lining up and making sure the product traveled well,” said Robert Gilmore, Guerdon’s site superintendent.

There are eight buildings, some of which are two and three stories.

Bickes said it’s been between 30 and 45 days between production and shipping from the Guerdon plant, and that could be faster but the manufacturing company is experiencing labor shortages much like the rest of industry and is running at 70% capacity.

Bickes said he expects the final modules to be delivered onsite in December and work will continue through the winter, with the project’s infrastructure like decks, stairways and sidewalks and underground utility connections occurring in the spring and summer.

Move-in dates are a moving target as conditions change — with weather, labor shortages and COVID-19 — but are expected in the fall of 2022, Everson said.

There will be 25 one-bedroom units, 17 two-bedroom units, and 37 three-bedroom units on the 8-acre site, which is tucked up against Deer Hill on the highest point of the subdivision, located across from Buttermilk Ski Area.

When completed, this third and final phase will finish out the 258-unit city developed neighborhood that began in the mid-2000s and has cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The third phase is projected to cost $48.8 million, which does not include about $10.8 million in historic sunk costs like land acquisition, outreach, land use approvals and onsite and off-site infrastructure.