Benefits of Off-Site Building

There are convincing arguments to be made in favor of prefabricated housing.
By Frank Anton

When it comes to prefabricated housing and its potential to revolutionize the housing industry, I’ve never been a true believer. Maybe it’s because of that month during winter 1972 when I worked in a modular housing factory in Vermont: 10-hour shifts, two 15-minute breaks, and a half-hour for lunch (all punched into a time clock) for barely a living wage. Or maybe it’s because of all the bad-looking manufactured homes I see along old Route 30 in Pennsylvania when driving to visit my mother in Pittsburgh. Then again, it’s maybe because I can’t give up the all-American notion that real craftsmen—skilled, committed, and rugged—and not desultory line workers build site-built housing, and that’s how it always should be.

In any case, to say I was skeptical about the supposed benefits of building houses in a factory was an understatement. But I’m no longer skeptical after hearing Gerard McCaughey speak in May at BUILDER’s Housing Leadership Summit, a conference for the nation’s largest home builders. McCaughey is founder, CEO, and chairman of Entekra, which, as he describes it, is an off-site builder (aka prefabricator) of houses and commercial buildings. Entekra’s current manufacturing plant is in Ripon, California, and is capable of shipping product to about a 50- to 100-mile radius of the plant. Here’s how McCaughey changed my mind:

  • He showed photos of houses he’s built. No matter the style—some were traditional, others contemporary—they were all good looking. And he said he’s never been given a plan that he couldn’t build.
  • He shared pictures of his factory. It was clean and looked like a good place to work. (And I didn’t see any time clocks.)
  • He provided proof that by building off-site he could reduce cycle time, costs, waste, and injury-related workers comp.

All good arguments for rethinking prefabricated housing. But it was a question he asked and its unspoken but obvious answer that really won me over: Would you buy a new car from a dealer if he told you all the parts would be delivered piecemeal to your front lawn? The engine one day, a rear fender the next, and so on. You get the what-should-be-familiar picture of what looks like a construction site. All those parts will be exposed to the elements, subject to damage and easy prey for opportunistic thieves.

Next, three guys you don’t know who don’t really work for the dealer show up and begin working, until it starts to rain. The next day, four other guys are supposed to show up, but, hey, it’s the first day of hunting season. This will go on for about six months, maybe longer.

So, would you buy a car from that dealer? I think you know the answer. (Hint: No)

Maybe it’s time to consider the merits to you and your home buyers of building off-site by talking to an off-site builder and weighing your options. Maybe, like me, you’ll come away convinced that off-site building really might be a better way to build.

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