Home Is Where the Heart Is
Farrow Construction Pulls Back from Resort Work to Rebuild its Own Scorched Sonoma and Napa Areas
Each new day for John Farrow starts with reliving the devastating Northern California wildfires, but his role allows him to help with the ongoing recovery.
“The orange flames…the trees were burning. We were in a massive exodus with cars lined up to leave in each neighborhood,” he recalls. It was a devastating scene, even more so for John, who was born and raised there.
The October 2017 wildfires destroyed a quarter of a million acres and 9,000 structures (mostly residences), created $12 billion in damage and killed 44 people. Farrow and his family were among the more fortunate: Their home in the Montecito Heights neighborhood was not destroyed, but his children’s high school was.
Farrow leads Farrow Construction, a Santa Rosa-based company perhaps best known for its repeat customers, including Disney resorts, Bluegreen Vacations and Diamond Resorts.
But that was then. Now the homefront is calling, after suffering the most destructive and costly wildfires in U.S. history. Since the 2017 fires, Farrow has extensively shifted his multistate operations to focus on rebuilding homes in Sonoma and Napa counties. He answered a personal and professional calling to devote an indefinite number of months to rebuilding the area.
It’s a shift in direction, albeit short-term, after nearly 30 years in the general contracting business. Resort work is nice, but home is where the heart is, he admits.
“We knew of about 60 families and friends who lost their homes, so this was a no-brainer for us…the right, correct and responsible thing to do,” Farrow says.
It’s a common misconception that once the fires are out, people quickly rebuild and get back to normal. The multi-month process to build a home is only slightly shortened when building a home in usual circumstances. The property must be gutted of everything, including infrastructural electrical, plumbing and gas; all aspects of design and construction must be achieved. Approvals are still required from city and county officials, not to mention the hundreds of decisions faced by each homeowner.
Pre-construction takes three to six months, and the construction phase lasts anywhere from six to 20 months, Farrow says. Homeowners must stay in hotels, with friends or family or in other alternative housing during the entire rebuilding process. In the wake of the fires, city and county permitting has become more efficient; often, the paperwork that took a few months to process has been done in five days.
Farrow helps to represent several homeowners in the recovery effort. The company is overseeing the extensive work to rebuild 89 homes, both single-family residences and condominiums. He has redirected three-fourths of his 40 employees to the local effort.
Prepared for Rebuilding
While continuing with a handful of commercial projects, Farrow Construction expects to be on hiatus from “business as usual” through the end of 2019. The breadth of commercial work actually helped to prepare the company for so much residential rebuilding. The company has expanded its services over the years to include procurement, architectural design, budgeting, construction management, and interior and exterior refurbishing work as part of its projects in California, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona and Mexico.
The company focused on the commercial sector because, Farrow says, after the U.S. financial crisis of 2007, residential work was less available. Farrow started concentrating on new and refurbished work in the hospitality industry, racking up numerous resort names in his portfolio in the process.
Farrow says he became passionate about construction as a young teen, still in high school when he worked at various job sites after school. While in college, studying business, construction and real estate, in 1990 he launched his company—a natural fit since he enjoyed the actual building as much as the planning to build.
Current work for wildfire recovery requires extensive advanced planning, he says. He lists steps that make up the typical process to rebuild a Sonoma County home: “Clear the lot. Remove debris. Locate existing plans. Do the architecture. CAD redesign. Meet with homeowners. Secure soil and civil engineer approvals. Work with the Title 24 engineer. Do the grading, etc.”
Ingrained in the Community
Farrow himself is no stranger to tackling worthy causes. He gives his time and energies for various community, school and church boards. He has served as soccer and Little League coach, too. In his chosen profession, he is known for specializing in accessibility compliance in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Just like those commitments, his focus on recovery efforts is simple. “It’s not about the accolades,” he says. “It’s about doing our part and rebuilding.”
Farrow now frequently attends informational meetings presented by city and county officials on the rebuilding work, and he communicates regularly with homeowners associations.
This type of commitment and experience is welcome after so many lives were disrupted. Homeowners often still hold jobs that require their attention much of the day, and many have families who keep them busy during nights and weekends.
Farrow also has to navigate an environment that challenges the best construction managers. The need for skilled workers in the area is greater than the number available, given the extent of the destruction. Workers who are brought in need housing, and those options are already stretched to care for local residents displaced by the fires.
Materials to rebuild are also scarce, and prices are 50 to 75 percent higher because of demand, according to Farrow. The total cost of construction, which was about $225 per square foot prior to the wildfires, is now $350 to $400 per square foot.
Farrow has been building homes with steel framing, siding and roofing, which shortens the timeline by three or more months compared with typical materials. Nearly eight out of every 10 projects go that route.
Steel’s biggest selling point is its fire resistance, but Farrow says homeowners also are attracted to other qualities: lower prices, earthquake resistance and miscellaneous reassurances that steel construction offers, including no mold, no rust and no termites. Homeowners insurance, therefore, is also lower.
Farrow’s keen construction skills and compassion for rebuilding his community are evident whether he’s guiding and motivating his own employees or meeting with homeowners.
“We love our communities and are here to help Sonoma and Napa counties rebuild,” he stated in an open letter to the community, just days after the wildfires were extinguished.