In life, we use the term night and day difference to refer to opposites, things that are completely different. We also use terms such as left or right, in or out, up or down, etc. All of these can also characterize the choices you make. You can either go left or right. Just as when you build your new home, you have choices. Many home buyers let someone else make those choices for them because they don’t know any better or any different. In most cases, homeowners are letting their home builder choose how their new home is built, so that means they are typically getting a home built the traditional way, the old way. But why are you letting your builder go left when you can direct them to go right? As a home buyer, you have a choice. Explore offsite modular construction and what that means.
The Evolution of Home Construction
While many builders resist new approaches to construction, they have been actually doing it for years. In the 1800’s, everything was built on the home site. This included windows and doors. Eventually, builders determined that windows and doors could be more efficiently and cost-effectively built indoors in a factory and then delivered to the site. This concept grew to include more and more components that were historically built onsite.
Smart home buyers are discovering modular homes and then digging a little deeper. They are learning that a modular home IS NOT a mobile home. While mobile/manufactured homes are built in a factory, they serve a specific purpose for creating affordable housing and are built much differently to serve that purpose. When smart home buyers really do their research, they are finding that modular construction (or off-site construction) is the way that home building will be done in the future. The home construction industry itself is changing. Major home building companies across the country are scrambling to convert the way that they build, and for a good reason.
The Sun is Going Down on the Traditional Way of Building
The term “stick-built” is really a term that traditional builders use to “fake” quality. It is really a diversionary tactic; it confuses the issue. A home built offsite, in a factory is also stick built. It is built by putting a collection of wood framing “sticks” together to frame a home. It just happens to be built offsite and then delivered to the site, where a collection of modules are assembled in hours or days into a virtually completed home. If a homebuyer would just take a few minutes to compare the differences in their mind it would become obvious very quickly why stick building indoors is much better then stick building outdoors. Have you been to a jobsite? Mud, wind, heat, cold, rain… they all add up to horrible conditions to cut “sticks” to the right length, the same length, every time. Now, do you think different workers can place and fasten them consistently and correctly every time in those exact conditions? It’s virtually impossible. Now visualize a factory, any factory. And now imagine jigs, saws, and workers in the dry, on level concrete floors doing the exact same thing with automated nail guns and fastening machines.
While many still subscribe to the thought that the old way is the least risky way, that just isn’t true. The traditional approach just isn’t the best way to manage risk when building a custom home today. Subcontractors are busy and suffering from an extreme lack of skilled labor. When you add the unpredictability of weather to their already precarious position of waiting to see who actually shows up to work each morning at a job site, each morning becomes a roll of the dice.
That same issue trickles down to everyone in the construction chain. Did the truck driver show up on Monday morning to deliver the load of lumber needed for the framing crew to get started? Did the trim get delivered for the trim carpenters to get started? Today, why are we still doing home construction the same old way it has been done for almost 200 years?
New Ways are Better Ways
There are several off-site methods of construction. One that is used by many production builders is panelized construction. What this means is that the skeleton of a home, the home’s framing, is broken down into panels (i.e. pieces or components) that are built on jigs or automated machines. These panels typically include walls and floors that are pre-assembled off-site and then trucked to the home site. There, they are assembled and then roof trusses are added. Instead of a home’s frame being built onsite, one stick at a time, the home is actually assembled by placing the prefabricated panels together. This can save several days in the process and lead to better quality. However, everything else still has to get done onsite. An average home can save 2-3 days in the build schedule using prefabricated open panels.
Modular construction means more, if not most, of the pieces used to build a home, are pre-assembled off-site. Sub-components and components are assembled into modules. These large modules are then shipped to a home site on carriers by large trucks and assembled in LEGO-like fashion on a foundation (that could also have been prefabricated off-site). What modular construction does is reduce or eliminate many of the risks in construction. These include:
- Schedule Risks – By building modules indoors at the same time the excavation and foundation is being completed at the site, the overall construction schedule is reduced. Subcontractor availability and weather can be removed as a primary cause of delay.
- Scope Creep/Change Orders – When building outside over a long period of time a home buyer see things that they want to change or wants different (i.e. more expensive) items than the contractor for. It is not uncommon for a custom home built onsite to cost 30% more than the original contracted amount.
- Weather Issues – By moving much of the construction to a manufacturing setting, what would normally take months can be completed in days. The weathers impact on schedule, while not eliminated, can be greatly reduced.
- Reduce Skilled Labor Dependencies – By turning construction into a manufacturing process, unskilled labor can be trained and then closely supervised. This means quality is improved while using the available labor that is concentrated in one location to construct many homes.
It’s Night and Day, Left or Right, Right or _______ ?
When it comes down to it, you have to choose how your new home will be built. The internet is a powerful force. Do your research. Of course, you will find builders that talk about how “stick” built construction is better than modular construction. What do you expect them to say? They are afraid to learn new and better ways to build. That is why construction productivity has been stuck at a 1% improvement in 20 years. Yes, that’s right. The lowest of any industry. Essentially no improvement in 20 years!
Do you really think that you can cut, place, and fasten every stick, every 2×6 in a home better while standing in the cold, in the rain, and in the mud better than you can while on a level concrete floor, in a factory, with a roof over your head? Read that last sentence again. It actually sounds crazy, but that is the way home construction has happened for almost 200 years. We finally have a better way to build. There is not just a night and day difference between building methods. In the near future, it will become the difference between the right and ______ way to build homes. Modular just means more!