Villa Field Notes

Ride along on an ADU delivery

Heather Miksch, VP Operations of Villa
June 21st 2024

I’m typically an early bird, but getting up at 3:45 am is early even for me. It’s still dark and the neighborhood completely quiet when I’m out the door at 4:30, leaving behind my very confused beagle. It’s a two hour drive from my home in San Jose, CA to Woodland, CA, just north of Sacramento. But the driving is easy– the traffic is light at this hour. As I cross from 680 E to 80 E around Fairfield, I’m struck by the beauty of the road. Many people view California’s Central Valley as a “drive through” place– a way to get from San Francisco to Tahoe– but doing so misses the majesty of the vast openness– the fog along the delta, the sun rise over the distant Sierras, the mile upon mile of farms and industry and normal people living normal lives.


By 6:30 am, I arrive in Woodland and pull into our storage lot. When Villa’s homes are ready in the factory for pick up, the timing is not always perfect to bring them directly to a customer site. For that reason, our transportation provider owns a small lot, where she pulls the home before our delivery is ready. The lot serves as a staging area for the homes until delivery day. Villa’s homes are all HUD approved. This means that they are built on a metal chassis with wheels. This chassis serves a double-function– it is the primary support system for the home itself, but with wheels added on at the factory, it becomes a trailer for a truck to pull it to its destination. 


Today is pretty exciting– I’m joining Kim, the owner of our transportation company, for a ride-along. Since joining Villa, I have taken many opportunities to get out into the field and see what really happens– I learn much faster when I experience things first hand. We will be delivering one of our 800 sq foot models to its final destination in Sebastopol. The 800 comes in two pieces or “floors”, so there will be two trucks pulling the homes. Four pilot cars will accompany the homes– each home has a pilot car in front and back. There’s a bustle with all the drivers as the group gets ready– the six drivers know their place and the route we’ll take. Bob, Kim’s husband, and Kevin are the two driving the trucks pulling the homes.  A few “Happy Birthdays” to Kim  (how fun to join her on her special day!) and each driver gets into their vehicle. Kim is driving the lead pilot car, and I climb in her truck beside her. 


The road in front of the storage lot is long and flat, allowing Kim to see about a mile in each direction. A field of tomatoes is across the road, reminding us of the agriculture that runs the engine of the Central Valley. Visibility here is important– Kim needs to time the entrance of the trucks onto the road appropriately so that everyone stays together. A CB radio is her primary form of communication with the team. She uses a special channel, channel 35, which is not the open channel that others can hear. She alerts the team behind her when it’s all clear, and the houses start to move. 



As we make our way to highway 80 W, I’m busy asking questions, but trying not to be too distracting. Is that really a CB radio? Do people still use those? What’s the CB channel? What is that big light bar in front of the main truck? Do we all have “oversized load” signs? The CB chit chat with the team is mostly about Mother’s Day, which happened over the weekend. Barbeques and breakfasts and catching up. “Sometimes we chat the whole drive, sometimes it’s quiet,” Kim tells me. I guess that’s true in most offices, too. 


As Kim pulls onto highway 80, though, she is on full alert. As the lead pilot car, her job is to warn the drivers behind her of any issues on the freeway. I see how the pilot cars come together in a well-rehearsed choreography. Their goal– protect the drivers and their loads. As Kim explains the process to me, she is constantly on the radio “Grab a lane, here comes an 18-er” (means, “move over one lane, an 18-wheeler is entering the freeway”). She alerts about cars on the side of the road,and  low hanging trees, which she knows by heart, “There’s this one tree in Napa, it’s famous!” and warnings about K-rails. I had to google that word– it’s a term for a very specific type of Jersey barrier. 


As we drive, Kim describes her route planning to me. When she gets a job, she logs into the Caltrans website and maps her route. Things that she is looking for are bridges (our homes are about 15’ high, and she needs to watch out for lower bridges) and red routes. Red routes are routes where you are forbidden from driving an oversized load. Additionally, there are timing considerations. Many of the Bay Area towns forbid wide load driving until after 9 am. If she is coming south from Sacramento, she stops on the 205 near North Flynn, just after the Altamont. If she’s coming north from SoCal, she’ll stop in Gilroy, south of highway 152. For our route this morning, we can’t be on highway 101 until 9 am, so we’ll meet the cops on highway 37 and wait until then. She rattles off highways so fast she sounds like the radio traffic reporters. 


For this morning, we are taking Highway 80 W and then following 12 W,  29W, 37 W to 101 north and into Sebastopol. As we get closer to highway 12, Kim is visibly nervous. The area around Fairfield– the 680/80/12 junction is known as a “hot spot”– an area which is unaccountably windy. As I drove in this morning, I noticed a strong breeze in that area– strong enough to buffet my car around. What effect will it have on the homes? Kim tells me that headwinds are no problem, but cross winds are hard– they can catch a house the wrong way and the house can become a kite. We see a windmill right off the Cordelia junction– “The winds are harsh” today, Kim notes. She is on the CB warning her team and ensuring that the trucks move into position to protect each other. We watch them in our rearview mirror as we cross from 80W to 12W. The trucks and pilot cars have positioned themselves as wind breakers, but we can still see wind whipping the plastic on the homes. Kim turns to me, “Aren’t you nervous?” I look at her bemused. “No, you guys are pros. What’s there to be nervous about?”. 


We get through the hotspot slowly, but without incident, and drive through highway 12 in Napa. At the junction with 29,  we actually have to pull over and stop. We could not get both homes and the four pilot cars through a standard red light in time, and didn’t want our group to be separated. From 29, we are in a part of the Bay I’ve never seen before. I’ve never gone from the Sacramento area to Sonoma– as I live in San Jose, when I go to Sonoma, I head up 580 or 101 and either pass Oakland or San Francisco. So this area just north of San Pablo bay is new for me. Highway 37–Sears Point Road– is built on a thin strip of land separating the San Pablo Bay from the Napa River and the San Pablo delta. I can’t imagine what this area must look like in high tide or after a storm. The bridge we need to cross– the Napa River Bridge– has a significant grade as it climbs high over the river, and then dips down again. I look askance at the two trailers pulling our homes. That seems like quite a steep grade for such a load. But, again, the drivers are used to this and carefully and methodically make it over the bridge. 


By now, it’s nearing 9 am and time to meet up with the CHP. If you can’t stay in your lane, which these wide loads cannot as they sometimes have to move over to avoid an overhang, Sonoma and Napa counties require police escorts. “Do I need them?” Kim asks, “No! Do I appreciate them? Absolutely!”. The meeting point is a jump scale just past the bridge. The  “jump scale” is a wide berm where all the trucks can pull over. We spot the six (six!!) police cruisers and everyone takes a lane. “Time for the shake down!” Kim exclaims, and we get out of the truck. 


The officers have been waiting for us. They are from the Golden Gate CHP division and Kim knows them well. She hands them two different permit sets. There were different choices she could make when route planning, so she pulled permits for both and lets CHP decide which way to go. Each jurisdiction that we pass through requires a permit, so she had pulled about sixteen permits for this one delivery. Meanwhile, while the officers are checking her permit sets, insurance, and running background checks on all the drivers, another is measuring the height of the load. We are permitted to 15’, but come in a little under. Accurate height is critical as federal regulation mandates  all overhead wires on four-lane roads must not be lower than 18’ and on 2-lane roads, not lower than 17’. However, it’s still not unusual to see dangling wires in the road– old phone lines that have fallen in a storm and are too low. Part of Kim’s job as the chief pilot car is alerting the team that they are there. The trucks will move into the oncoming lane to avoid them. Bob’s home has a dormer and is a bit higher than Kevin’s. Christian, who is driving Bob’s pilot car, has a long pole with him and he’ll get out of the car as needed to push the low hanging wire out of the way. 


After the officers have completed their “shake down”, we are ready to go. The police cars pull out in front of and in between the load. Golden Gate division doesn’t want us to “convoy”, meaning the second truck will wait for twenty minutes after the first one leaves. Kim has called ahead to Matt, the Villa construction manager at the delivery site, to ask which part of the home he wants first. “The one with the kitchen” is Matt’s response. So Kevin moves ahead into traffic and we take off. 


Having the police escort is luxurious! Suddenly, the road is entirely ours. The police clear any other vehicles in our path. While not really needed on highway 101, they become indispensable as we get off the highway south of Santa Rosa and turn west towards Sebastopol on smaller rural streets. The flat agriculture fields of the Central Valley have given way to the gently rolling hills of Sonoma, dotted with happy cows. Suddenly, Kim gets a call on the CB. One of the tires has blown on the house. We slowly pull over from traffic. Gosh, I think. This is going to cause a bigger delay and Matt and our C47 contractor (the California contractor license required for installing manufactured housing) are waiting. But much to my surprise, the team is as equipped to deal with a flat as any NASCAR pit stop. Jumping down from the truck and grabbing an air house, Kevin has the tire changed, and we are back on the road in under six minutes. “At eight minutes, he wouldn’t have a job,” Kim says, only partially joking. 


While we drive, Kim explains to me the driver’s log book. Under US DOT regulations, all trucks are equipped with a computerized log book. The log book tracks the time stamps and mileage on each truck. Drivers can drive for 11 hours and work for 15. After that time, the log book will shut the truck down, forcing the driver to rest. The log book starts up again as soon as you turn on the truck. Kim’s log books and her company are audited every two years by the CHP commercial division– they check everything– her log book, her DOT license, emissions records, drug testing and company records. It’s possible that truckers are by far the safest vehicles and drivers on the road. 


Entering downtown Sebastopol proves to be a challenge. These small country towns are simply not built for oversized loads. The CHP leading our house takes a wrong turn. Suddenly, we need to turn around in the middle of the street. Kim expertly blocks a side street with her truck to allow the trailer truck to turn into an intersection, back up and then turn back on the street we came up on. We have held up traffic for only a few minutes, but it’s been extremely gratifying to have the CHP with us. 


By this time, we are wending our way out of town and to the client site. Low hanging lines are everywhere– even I can tell that they are not at the required 17’ and the last few miles are the slowest as we work to avoid them. By this time, the first home has caught up with us, so we are moving together through the rest of town. 


Finally, we reach the customer site, a little before 11 am. It’s taken us over four hours from Woodland to Sebastopol– a drive that normally would take 90 minutes. But between the slower speeds on the highways, the traffic on Napa bridge, and stopping for CHP, the time adds up. 


Matt and Darren, our contractor, warmly greet us. They all know Kim and the team, and I let them know it’s Kim’s birthday. Matt has breakfast burritos set up in the back of his Villa’s pick up truck. The CHP officers are especially grateful for that. But while CHP is busy having breakfast, Kim’s team is uncoupling the houses one at a time from the trailers and attaching them to Darren’s house cat. The House cat is a robotically controlled machine developed specifically to pull manufactured homes into location. The building site is about a quarter mile down the road. The house cats slowly pull the home down the road, much to the entertainment of the neighbors. 


And just like that, once the homes are released, Kim’s job is done.  The pilot cars take off– they aren’t needed anymore– then Bob and Kevin leave, too. I say good-bye to Matt and jump back in Kim’s truck. The ride back is a breeze– I didn’t check the time, but it seems that without two trailers hauling homes behind her, Kim is a very efficient driver (Bob might say “aggressive”), and we seem to make it back to Woodland in record time. Still time for Kim to start her “day job”– pulling permits and creating schedules for upcoming deliveries– and hopefully time to enjoy her birthday, too!


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