Thursday, October 3, 2019

Marketing and Automating an Old Building System

Several decades ago I was introduced to panelized wall construction and manufactured roof trusses. I could build just about any home with these systems.

On day one of building a new home the Precast Foundation was installed, the I-joists and sheathing were delivered and the first floor deck was completed. Day Two saw the second floor i-joists and sheathing installed in the morning and the wall panels put in place by the afternoon.

Day three saw the trusses set into place in the morning using the delivery track’s knuckle crane and the roof sheathing, water barrier and felt finished by the end of the day. The shingles and fascia were completed on day four.

Four days per house. Sometimes I had multiple houses going at the same time but everyone of them were weathered in (windows and doors installed) by day five unless it snowed or rained.

Every single one of those houses are still standing and I’ve talked with many of my customers who tell me they love their homes and thank me for a great job.

Since then nothing has really changed in the panel and truss world except computerized precision cutting and improved automation. Nobody has really revolutionized this segment of the construction industry. Large companies like Builders First Source with factories stretching across the country and smaller factories like Barden Homes are always looking for ways to be more competitive and automated.

But is that enough in today’s market?

Apparently you also need to take all that innovation and automation and build an entire marketing program around it in order to get noticed and attract more investment money from sources that believe all the hype that panelized wall and truss systems just recently appeared on the market.

Marketing with videos, podcasts and elaborate displays showcasing this new way of building homes instead of having every stick of lumber delivered to the jobsite seems to be hitting the mark.

When prefabricated wall and truss companies like Entekra and Katerra promote the “new” way to build on every media platform available including FaceBook, LinkedIn, Instagram and industry podcasts and videos, people new to the construction industry simply swoon over it while huge panel and truss companies with dozens of factories like Builders First Source suddenly appear old fashioned.

But for all the hype about how automated and computer designed panels and trusses have become, it’s still basically the same product I used more than 20 years ago.

One of the biggest marketing statements made is how much time these “new” panels save the builder over stick building. That statement was as true back then as it is today. The one thing that has changed and is really what should be promoted is these new panel and truss plants can supply continuous product to a housing industry that is seeing a huge labor shortage.

If only the modular housing industry would put as much effort into marketing itself as these two panel plants do, people would be swooning over modular with so much enthusiasm we might have to start building new single family modular (SFH) housing factories all over the US.

To some extent that is happening in the commercial side of the modular industry, mostly those areas West of the Mississippi, where huge affordable housing projects and hotels are demanding more and more modular factories to be built.

Meanwhile the SFH modular home industry is struggling to join in this whirlwind growth due mostly to over-regulation, high freight costs, lack of set crews and marketing apathy.

Suppose for just one minute the SFH side of the modular industry caught fire with as much marketing as commercial modular and the panel and truss industry; would we see so much demand that the state’s regulatory agencies would find themselves being the ultimate bottleneck to fueling the economy for single family housing in the US and finally stop trying to hold us back?

Let’s hope it happens soon.

Gary Fleisher is a housing veteran, editor/writer of Modular Home Builder blog and industry speaker/consultant.

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