Building Systems Make Sense for Custom Home Builders, Too

Panelization, modular housing and other forms of systems building can result in better, greener custom homes

January 01, 2009


Tom Stephani
Custom Construction Concepts

Early in my career, I worked for a production home builder, carpentry contracting companies and building component manufacturers. I learned how prefabricated components helped control costs, speed construction and reduce waste. At the same time, the quality of the completed homes was improved. It was definitely a win–win deal.

Later on, when I started my own business, I applied much of what I had learned to the custom building process. Most, if not all, custom builders use prefabricated components in their homes, but when it comes to moving to the next level — using advanced building systems — they head for the hills. The most often cited reasons are that their designs are too complex, quality suppliers aren't readily available, costs are potentially higher and there's a perception of lower quality by consumers. But given today's challenging market and environmentally sensitive landscape, custom builders should take another look at the benefits of building systems.

Essentially, building systems assist in the transfer of the building process from an outdoor, resource-intensive exercise to a quality- and resource-controlled method of building that is protected from the weather. They encompass everything from trusses and panelized walls and floors to structural insulated panels (SIPs), insulated concrete forms (ICFs), log and timberframe packages and modular homes.

Imagine if you ordered a new vehicle from a car dealer and the dealer arranged for the various parts and pieces required for the vehicle to be delivered to your home. Then the dealer would hire independent mechanics to arrive in a predetermined sequence to assemble the vehicle. Occasionally, a representative from the dealer would stop by to check on the progress. This work would be accomplished outdoors, exposed to the elements and potential theft — not a very efficient way to build something as complex and valuable as a new vehicle.

A home is every bit as complex and even more valuable than a vehicle, yet most of us stubbornly stay with the construction methods of the past, simply because we're more comfortable with what we know. But doesn't it make sense to move part, if not all, of the construction process to a controlled environment? Take a tour of a panelization or modular housing factory. You'll be amazed at the precision of the process and the efficiencies in material use. Also, with computerization of the design and cut-list process, virtually any design can be panelized or built as a modular project.

When evaluating costs, it's important to not just look at the price of the package that you are considering. Make sure that you take into account hidden and semi-hidden cost savings. They can include time savings; theft and vandalism reduction; on-site waste reduction; and the value of having a weather-tight shell sooner than if the project were stick-built.

There is no doubt that systems building has its own learning curve. It requires more planning and better management on the builder's part. But the payoff can be a better, greener and more profitable construction project. For more information, visit the Building Systems Councils page at www.nahb.org or the Building Systems magazine site, www.buildingsystems.com.


Author Information
Nationally recognized speaker and trainer Tom Stephani, MIRM, GMB, MCSP and CAPS, specializes in custom homes, infill housing, light commercial projects and developing commercial and residential land. You can reach him at tom@custombuilding.com.

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