How Home Building Is Changing for the First Time in 100 Years
By Adam Davidson
Unlike the majority of industries that have changed over recent decades—mostly due to new technology—the processes for constructing a new home have not changed in more than 100 years—until now.
Up until this point, residential builders have followed a standardized set of building practices in order to produce reliable products while still containing costs and meeting nationwide building codes. Beginning with framing and working through the installation of doors, windows, roofing, siding and electrical, plumbing and HVAC fixtures, the steps taken have followed a consistent order and have all been conducted on the jobsite.
However, due to a variety of factors causing new home prices to skyrocket across the country, residential builders are seeking new ways to produce more cost-efficient products more quickly than ever before, without sacrificing quality and the amenities that homeowners value most.
What’s driving these changes?
For starters, the residential construction industry is facing a severe shortage of skilled laborers. Whether this shortage stems from younger generations being more interested in working with computers than doing manual labor outdoors, or the mindset of some young adults that they’ll only be successful if they earn a college degree, the lack of skilled workers has made it difficult for builders to fully staff job sites. Because of an increased demand for the workers who are available, pay rates for these roles have also skyrocketed, making the cost of hiring higher than ever before.
Another problem causing home builders headaches is a shortage of truck drivers who are able to deliver materials to job sites quickly, to keep construction crews on track to meet rapid deadlines. Delays in materials delivery can cause major setbacks for projects on tight schedules, which, in turn, delays the selling process.
Rising material costs are another cause for concern. These price increases stem from a variety of factors, including most recently the lumber tariffs that were imposed last December on softwood lumber products (spruce, fir and pine) coming from Canada. The current historic boom in new home construction in the U.S. has also led to a higher demand for materials, making them more difficult to obtain quickly from regular suppliers. With lot costs also rising, the demand for less expensive home options has also increased, especially close to major metro areas.
While not a be-all, end-all solution, new building techniques can increase the speed of construction while reducing the cost of the final product and the number of skilled workers necessary to complete it. Below are three new residential building techniques we’ve seen gaining traction.
With this technique, sections of homes are manufactured in off-site factories and then shipped to the building site, where they are assembled into a house. Pre-fab homes require fewer workers on job sites, as their pieces only need to be assembled when they reach the site and not measured and cut to size. This also reduces the skill level needed, since the majority of the work has already been completed.
Other benefits of this method include:
- Mitigation of factors such as weather delays and contractor scheduling issues, which can significantly delay project completion;
- A safer workspace for laborers, since most of the work takes place inside a controlled environment;
- A reduction in material costs, as pre-fab manufacturers can often receive discounts when buying materials in bulk;
- A more eco-friendly building method, as extra materials can be recycled in-house and stored for use on other projects;
- Better quality control, due to products being manufactured at a consistent quality through a controlled process;
- Less time required to build a home; and
- A more cost-efficient process, as components can be altered and interchanged to meet various budgets.
Downsides to this method include potential issues with the transportation of pieces to job sites, as sections may end up damaged in the process or have a delayed delivery due to driver schedules. Homeowners may also find a range of hidden costs associated with building a pre-fab home, as the cost of the land itself and the hookup of utilities such as water, electricity, gas and sewage are often not included in the paper price of a pre-fab constructed home.
Another hot topic in the construction industry is the use of 3D printers on job sites. With this method, 3D printers construct pieces in layers using durable materials, such as concrete. Depending on the intricacy of the design, this approach can churn out new homes in less than 24 hours, for a fraction of the cost it takes to build a home through standard processes, which typically take six to seven months to complete.
Other pros of this method include less labor and cheaper materials. This process is also a more eco-friendly way to construct new homes, as no waste is produced during printing, and there’s no need to transport materials to and from job sites—all of the printing can be completed on the lot itself. The use of concrete often produces homes that are more durable, which can help them withstand weather events such as hurricanes, leading to longer-lasting and safer homes. Printing also offers more shape and design possibilities, so not all walls have to be linear.
This method is currently being used to construct smaller (up to 800 square feet) homes in low-income countries where affordable housing options are needed. But with the right enhancements in the technology, this method could become a popular way to construct everyday production homes and even custom homes.
Of course, the major downside to this method as it currently stands is that 3D printers of this scale cost several million dollars each. The surface quality of a printed home’s walls are also not as smooth, and a potential unsafe level of toxicity may be present in some printed materials, as demonstrated by researchers at the University of California, Riverside.
Perhaps the strategy gaining the most traction in today’s residential construction is the use of framing packages. With this method, all of the wood pieces needed for framing a home are pre-cut to size, bundled and labeled before being shipped from the manufacturer to job sites. Options include roof trusses, precast walls and panelized floors, and packages are accompanied by building plans to show workers where each piece fits. This method reduces the need for carpenters onsite and increases the safety of onsite workers, as fewer tools need to be used. Having the pieces pre-assembled also speeds up the framing process, leading to higher profit margins for builders. With all of the added benefits this option provides, we can’t think of any reasons not to take advantage it.
While these new methods are just starting to gain traction in the U.S., they hold promise for even further innovation and development in the residential building industry. As builders begin implementing these technologies and working through the strengths and weaknesses of each, new strategies are likely to evolve, producing higher-quality, more cost-efficient homes at a faster pace than ever before.
Adam Davidson is the president, CEO and founder of Davidson Homes, a leading builder of quality new homes in the southeast. For more information, visit www.davidsonhomesllc.com.