Vaughan Buckley came to the United States from his native Australia in 2006, when he was 18 years old. He started his career in hotel management, which turned out to be good preparation for his eventual transition into custom home building. “There’s a lot of similarities” in managing a hotel and a jobsite, he says, such as the attention to detail and customer service each demands.
Buckley started as a stick builder in 2008. But he quickly realized that the three or four homes he was building per year in urban Philadelphia weren’t generating the revenue he needed as a single operator.
After experimenting with panelized construction, Buckley, who owns and runs Vaughan Buckley Custom Homes, settled on modular construction, which will allow him to finish at least 15 houses in 2013, and generate $3.5 million to $4 million.
Urban infill presents myriad challenges to modular building, not the least of which being the transportation of long modules on flatbed trucks through a city’s maze. “On our second set, there was a large oak tree in the way of one of the turns,” recalls Buckley in an interview with BUILDER last week. “On the other side were power lines.” And the supplier had sent the modules on a truck that didn’t have the appropriate turning radius.
Buckley had to store the modules at a nearby Navy holding yard for three weeks while his crews took down some of the power lines. Now in his fourth year of law school at Temple University, Buckley says he knows the right city agencies to contact to get the necessary clearance for that kind of work. And his legal training recently paid off when he was able to ward off the city’s health department that wanted to impose a $25,000 fine on one of his demolition sites, which the city inspector claimed, incorrectly, was out of code.
City building is never easy. Streets and bus lanes sometimes have to be closed. Unions need to be placated (Buckley uses union framers). And when it comes to modular construction, most important is the logistical planning required to safely move sections of a completed house into an open space that’s often in between existing buildings surrounded by wires, trees, cars, utility and lighting poles, sidewalks and, of course, people.
When his crews are digging out a foundation next to an existing building using big equipment, the crane might be as little as 18 inches from power lines and 4 inches from chimneys. And fitting modules into tight spaces can be an even bigger test when the existing buildings on each side aren’t plumb.
Buckley has had to train many of his subcontractors to build with modules. He prefers using remodeling crews because, he says, they are more flexible when there is little tolerance in setting modules or pouring foundations across a 40-foot span.
Choosing a module supplier turned out to be an adventure for Buckley, too. Several companies he looked at were, in his estimation, “financially unstable,” including some that went under. Buckley finally chose Ritz-Craft, which he recalls was the “least familiar” with urban infill of any of the suppliers he considered. “But they came through on everything they said they would. Now, I see them as an extension of my company.”
Buckley still focuses on custom homes that start at 1,100 square feet. But when he spoke with BUILDER, his company was a week away from completing a 10,000-square-foot apartment building that required setting 12 modules over two days.
Buckley has never gone back to stick-built construction, and claims to have never lost a customer to a stick-built home “once we’ve gotten them in the door.” He believes his company would double its business next year, and he would like to expand into period-style and restoration work.
In mid July, Buckley signed documents to join forces with another local builder who will take over construction management for his business so Buckley—who also has a master’s degree in international business—can concentrate on cultivating investors to grow his business.
John Caulfield is a senior editor for BUILDER.