Builders’ burgeoning construction costs are fueled in part by the framing industry, which has been adversely affected by the soaring price of lumber and a shortage of skilled crews. In a recent survey, framers were noted by NAHB builders as the least available type of labor needed to construct a home. The association found that the share of construction costs for framing and trusses jumped from 13.5% in 2011 to 17% in 2013.
“When the market took a downturn, framers went out and found other jobs and vocations,” says Nancy Mansfield, co-owner of Pacific Wall Systems, a prefab wall provider in Central Point, Ore. “So the labor market for framing dried up.”
This has led some builders to consider pre-built wall systems. Unlike on-site stick framing, which requires experienced workers, it doesn’t take much skill to place a labeled wall in its spot. Much like a truss is used for roofs, wall panels are delivered to the site and craned into place.
Builder Troy Williams of Archer Building Co. in El Dorado Hills, Calif., likens the process to “painting by number,” adding, “I get a delivery and can begin standing walls immediately.” And those walls, Williams says, are built to absolute perfection, leaving behind no jobsite waste.
The concept of pre-building and shipping walls for residential construction is not new: Sears Roebuck and Co. sold more than 70,000 panelized homes prior to 1940. But according to Ed Hudson, director of market research for Home Innovation Research Labs, the concept has bobbed between adoption rates of only 5% and 10% for the past 20 years. However, U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that prefab walls may be catching on in certain regions. In the Mid-Atlantic, the number of panelized/precut homes tripled in 2014; in the East North Central division, that number rose by 70%.
The science behind prefab walls supports their ability to save time and labor: An NAHB Building Systems Council study of two identical 2,600-square-foot homes found that using prefab walls saved 66 ½ hours of labor versus on-site construction. But builders and construction experts warn that cost savings shouldn’t be expected with prefab walls.
“We don’t tell a contractor that he’s going to save money using panels,” Mansfield says. “He’s going to save time,” which, she adds, may lead to financial savings.