Monday, December 5, 2011

Mare Island landmark building now home to Blu Homes

FAIRFIELD — Workers once built parts for submarines in massive, historic Building 680 on Mare Island, before the Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed in 1996.

Now workers will build prefabricated homes there, homes that are energy-efficient, constructed using green methods and designed so they virtually fold up for convenient shipping to their foundation. Long-vacant Building 680 is getting a new tenant in Blu Homes.

“That is now our crown-jewel plant,” Blu Homes co-founder Maura McCarthy said. “This plant is the biggest plant we have. Ironically, even though it’s a beautiful, old historic building, it’s going to be an extremely modern plant.”

The Navy constructed the building at the dawn of World War II and made it big. The structure is 257,750 square feet and has a central bay that is the equivalent of 10 stories tall.

And Building 680 is more than just another Mare Island industrial building for an additional reason. It has a sign at its top saying “Mare Island Naval Shipyard” that can be seen from the other side of Mare Island Strait along the Vallejo waterfront, giving it a high profile.

But the days of building propellers and periscopes there are gone. Blu Homes will be constructing homes that have most everything in place prior to shipping, from the electrical and plumbing systems to the cabinets.

These homes range in price from about $166,000 to $495,000 and more. They come with names such as the Element and Breezehouse. They have steel frames, high ceilings and lots of windows.

Don’t think of the relatively simple-looking prefab homes that get hauled down the freeways in two halves. These are fancier buildings.

“The name ‘Blu’ comes from the idea of building something that’s beautiful and green,” McCarthy said. “These houses are like the Lexus hybrid. They are high-quality, really durable.”

After being built at the plant in six to eight weeks, the homes are folded almost like origami, trucked to a foundation and then unfolded, McCarthy said.

A video posted at shows how this works. The home sections arrive at a site looking like rectangular boxes. A crane then unfolds parts of the box, revealing a house with a far different shape over the course of a couple of days.

Blu Homes looked at some 25 sites in various states before settling on Building 680. One thing the Mare Island building had in its favor was its sheer size and height.

“We need to be able to build a two-story building,” McCarthy said.

Then there’s its location. The plant will be industrial, but use high-tech software. McCarthy said Mare Island is near to Silicon Valley and that such other possible plant locations as Arizona don’t have “the type of powerhouse brain trust” that can be found in the Bay Area.

Plus, Tom Steyer encouraged Blu Homes to locate in California, McCarthy said. Steyer is founder of Farallon Capitol Management and co-founder of OneCaliforniaBank, as well as an environmentalist.

Blu Homes might employ 50 or so workers on Mare Island, but could ultimately offer hundreds of jobs, McCarthy said.

“It all depends on demand,” she said. “Everybody is suffering a little bit in housing right now. The good news is this kind of housing is a bright spot in the housing industry.”

And Building 680 is now a bright spot in Mare Island’s ongoing, time-consuming and often painful rebirth after the naval shipyard got shuttered 15 years ago.

Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or