An article in the Wall Street Journal this month reported that more and more of the nation’s largest home builders are starting to embrace modular housing, — a process they once highly criticized. One of the motivations behind this trend has been the shortage of skilled labor throughout the U.S. housing recovery.
This has made it increasingly difficult for builders to keep up with demand. According to the Labor Department, the number of workers employed in the industry this year is nearly 30% below the peak in 2006.
Modular homes built in factories have generally had a tough time breaking into the U.S. market, but traditional builders are starting to rethink conventional construction processes. Toll Brothers Inc., a pioneer among volume builders in the U.S., introduced the concept of pre-fabricated wall panels and roof trusses in the late 1980s. Executives there have discovered that by assembling walls off site, they can avoid damage that might occur in harsh winter weather conditions, cut down on waste and reduce the number of skilled workers on the home job site. Another proponent of prefabrication construction is Bensonwood, a Walpole, N.H. builder and designer. Ted Benson, Bensonwood’s chief executive, has shifted almost all of his company’s home construction to an indoor factory site since 1970. Since his employees are fluent in design and engineering software, he feels it has resulted in more precise manufacturing of insulated walls and interior settings. These components can be assembled on the home site in less than three days and completely finished within a month. Mr. Benson says, ‘this has resulted in better paying jobs for our employees and its more jobs in America, because you aren’t going to outsource home-building jobs.”
Also, an increasing demand to embed advanced technological features into modular components ahead of time, in a controlled environment, has helped to drive this shift to pre-assembled approaches. Last month, KB Home, unveiled a model home equipped with an energy-efficient kitchen and a rotating audiovisual wall. The wall serves either as a television or video-conferencing system for two adjoining rooms. Joseph Wheeler, an architecture professor at Virginia Tech, worked with KB Home on the design. These high-tech components were all built in the manufacturing plant and then assembled at the home site. Dan Bridleman, senior vice president for sustainability, technology and strategic sourcing at KB Home, says that “automobiles, airplanes and others have been able to utilize these same techniques successfully”, and “ultimately this is about cost, efficiency and speed.”