Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Robotic Construction the Answer to Labor Shortage. Really?

So what is the residential construction industry doing to adjust to a shortage of skilled labor? There are as many opinions to which new building method or methods will step up to meet our insatiable need to build new homes, hotels, hospitals and other commercial projects as there people you ask.


Site building which has been with us since the dawn of time when sticks were cut, taken to a clearing, bound together with vines and covered with leaves has really not changed much since then. Today site builders clear a plot, have lumber delivered, bind them together with nails, siding and roofing materials. Doesn’t sound like we’ve really come that far in 4,000 years when you hear it stated like this.


The biggest change to the housing industry is not how a house is built but rather where the house is built. The site built home is still the most prevalent after 4 millennium.

So what are other types of new home construction that our industry, modular housing, should be aware of?

Site built housing is absolutely the most prevalent with well over 93% of the total new homes built every year. Modular is second with about 3% of the total. All the other methods fill in the void.

When you look at each type of building method there is a lot of builders mixing different methods. Many site builders and almost all tract builders use factory prefabricated walls with sheathing attached as well as factory built trusses. A lot of modular factories also use prefab trusses delivered to the modular factory by truss manufacturers.


Today there other types of homes and methods of construction that probably weren’t even on the radar 10 years ago. These include shipping container housing, tiny homes built in garages on steel frames, concrete and/or cement 3D printed homes.


There are light gauge steel modular homes and even homes built with thick cardboard walls.

Today a few site builders are even installing specialty modules such as bathrooms, laundry rooms and kitchens into their new homes. These modules are built offsite and delivered just in time for installation.


Now entering the new home market are two new factories with robot-built panelization. Enter Blueprint Robotics in the East and Katerra Homes in the West. Both of these factories take the standard wood panels to the next level.

Instead of waiting for a custom home order to arrive in their engineering departments with each house being a “one off”, they are looking for projects with many units with a limited number of walls and trusses so that the factory can turn out hundreds of similar walls. Great idea but that is not all they do. They also take the next step in building evolution by preinstalling mechanicals in their flatpack units.

Even though each company builds differently and includes different options, both are built to how the Swedes have been building homes for years. Robots take over the repetitive side of construction along with CNC cutters and automated shipping.

Katerra ships the walls to construction sites, where they’re snapped together like Lego bricks. The company’s goal is to build seven more factories within two years, each intended to serve a different geographic area.

On the basis of the $221 million raised to date, Katerra has a valuation of over a billion dollars.

Can Katerra make it work? Its timing is good, given that the supply of undocumented workers might dry up under a Trump administration. They appear to be learning from the experts in Europe and buying their tools instead of reinventing the wheel. They are going after multiple family units where they are less subject to the whims of the rich one-off buyer like Blu Homes is.

Unlike most other panelized or modular factories, Katerra is responsible for its buildings from design to final construction.

This will probably hinder the number of new homes and projects they can build. But who knows, maybe site builders will see what they do and begin buying panels from them. If not, even with their proposed 7 factories, they will just be another Blu Home knockoff wanting to control all phases of the deal from start to finish.

1 comment:

Lindsey Hill said...

I am a roofing contractor at Beltsville, MD Roofing Company and I found your article interesting. I enjoyed it. Keep sharing.