Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Modcoach Visits 5 New England Housing Factories

Last week I joined with 12 others on Yestermorrow School’s tour of 5 factories in Vermont and New Hampshire. Our travel guides were John Connell and Giocondo Susini, Architects, school instructors and principles of Yestermorrow.

Modcoach (orange jacket) and some of my fellow travelers

First I have to say that after 2 days of being crammed into a 15 passenger van we all emerged happy at the end of the trip and a lot of new friendships were made.

Our first stop was Huntington Modular Homes in East Montpelier, VT. Touring their factory was very similar to modular home factories in the Mid-Atlantic region with one big exception...it is more boutique than production. Since this was the first real modular home factory most of my fellow travelers have toured I was glad it was Huntington Homes.

Smaller boutique modular factories spend more time with their customers producing custom homes with more attention to detail than the larger production builders. One can sense the pride in what they build simply by walking the production line and that was especially true at Huntington Homes.

A special tip of the hat to Jason Webster and his staff for filling a need lost in most high production modular home factories.

Another ride in the van brought us to VERMOD in White River Junction, VT. This is without a doubt the most unique little modular factory in the country.

Touring the VERMOD model

The Vermont government wanted to see single wide energy inefficient mobile homes replaced with affordable Net Zero single wide sized IRC modular homes which gave birth to VERMOD.

Our tour started in their single wide modular model home with Ashley Andreas giving us the details of what goes into producing their Net Zero homes. Most of the questions were asked by the Architects in our group which numbered at least 5.

Having a chance to hear first hand the thought and work that went into designing a VERMOD home was very interesting.

The factory is very small with individual bays each just big enough to hold one module built on cribbing. This is not a production facility but rather a workshop where the energy saving magicians work. Fun place.

After a dinner featuring a burrito the size of a small submarine I went back to my hotel room while the youngsters (those under 70) continued to stay up talking about everything system built.

The first stop the next morning was Bensonwood, the Walpole, New Hampshire automated panel plant founded by Tedd Benson, a leading authority on automation building sciences.

I was looking forward to seeing this factory in person and was not disappointed. Instead of a hundred people working, talking, shouting with hammers pounding and saws cutting we encountered a workplace with a staff building panels and roof assemblies using on-floor computers, checking quality assemblies and having their automated machinery work without a break for 8 hours.

Those machines could continue doing their computerized measurements and cuts 24/7 if necessary. Sheets of plywood being lifted into place by robotic arms over there, stud cavities filled with compacted cellulose by a large automated machine over here and as they say..”the beat goes on”.

Our next stop was something from my bucket list, Yankee Barn Homes in Grantham, NH. As a boy I built the most elaborate buildings with my Lincoln Logs and to walk through a factory where skilled woodworkers build homes one at a time by hand was something I will never forget.

Molly Ferrante, Yankee Barn’s Marketing Manager started our tour by showing us the very modern side of their business, their state of the art computer system that allows customers and Yankee Barn sales and engineering staff to create these totally custom homes featuring panels and timber framing.

Then it was off to see the factory. The first building was more workshop than a production floor. Several people worked on wall panels while others worked custom specialty items like cupolas.

She then showed us what I like to call “Santa’s Workshop” where Fir beams weighing hundreds of pounds are stacked like kindling each waiting their turn to be measured, hand cut, routered, numbered and stained knowing they will soon be part of a cabin in ski country, a rural residence or even the huge Boy Scout lodge which is an upcoming project.

On a side note, Santa’s Workshop only has two workers, both skilled timber framers whose workmanship is exemplary. When I asked them if they go to the jobsites to install their work they both pulled out their phones to show me pictures of their installed beams like proud parents showing me their kid’s pictures. That is how you know you have the best people you can get!

The last factory on our whirlwind tour of New England had us at Preferred Building Systems (PBS), a true production modular home factory. Modules at every stage of production welcomed us as we toured the factory.

Bryan Hout, VP of PBS along with George Burge, one of their sales reps, guided us from station to station where material was waiting to be added to the home.

What would have been a noisy factory floor was quiet as we arrived after production closed for the day.

Being a modular home factory means you have to adapt your homes to many different wind, seismic and extreme snow loads. Maybe that’s why they offer 14 different wall panels to choose from. Nothing says snow load like a Vermont Winter.

So thanks to the boys from Yestermorrow School, the group experienced a lot of different types of system built housing in just two days. Everything from a boutique modular plant, to a Net Zero factory, an automated panel plant, a factory building timber framed homes and all the way to a state of the art production modular home factory.

Let’s hope the school continues to offer this tour as it is something you definitely should sign up for in the future.

Gary Fleisher (the Modcoach) is a housing veteran and editor/writer of Modular Home Builder blog for many years. modcoach@gmail.com

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