A QUIET REVOLUTION IS TAKING place in the home building industry. Impelled by the drive for better quality products, greater efficiency, and more productivity, large builders are changing the way they build their homes. New techniques, new products and materials, and new relationships with trade partners all play a part. Many of the changes individually may be small, producing incremental improvements. But their impact is cumulative, their momentum is growing, and they are changing the face of home building.

Engineered products and pre-fabricated components aren't new. Roof trusses appeared five decades ago. Their use didn't catch on quickly, but today they're used almost exclusively. Likewise, some big builders adopted pre-fabricated components and adapted manufacturing techniques years ago.

Toll Brothers, for instance, began manufacturing many components in its own plant in 1987 after using such items for some years previously.

“We started out building wall panels, then expanded to rough lumber, trusses, windows, and exterior doors,” says Manfred Marotta, vice president of Toll. “The last thing we added to the product line was interior millwork around 1991,” he recalls.

Today, some 65 percent of the company's average home consists of manufactured and pre-fabricated components, Marotta adds, usage that has remained level for years.

BROADER ADOPTION Overall, more builders now use these methods, say industry observers such as Stan Luhr, CEO of Quality Built of Poway, Calif. The company provides quality systems and consulting to some of the nation's largest builders. “I don't have any statistics, but I'd say that [pre-fabrication] is coming online much faster, much more aggressively than I had imagined,” he says. “There is a definite trend among home builders learning some of the tricks that manufacturers have learned over the years.”

Luhr attributes broader adoption of pre-fabricated and manufactured components to, among other things, “the demise of a consistent labor force in construction,” which many builders confirm. Once they begin using components such as panels and trusses, builders generally see a number of benefits, including better product quality, enhanced control, and increased savings.

For Toll Brothers, the major benefits of “going pre-fab versus stick-built are that we have better control over the materials that end up being used for the house and better control over the quality,” Marotta says.

A Salt Lake City builder that recently began the broad use of panels reports similar results. Holmes Homes moved from stick framing to interior and exterior panels in 2001, says Spencer Holmes, co-owner. Labor difficulties initially pushed the company toward panelization. “Our big problem was finding framers,” Holmes says. “There are no big companies in our market, so we were dealing with two- and three-man crews” to be able to frame the company's 200-plus homes a year, he says.

Holmes addressed the challenges by approaching the city's biggest lumber company with a proposal: Build the necessary panels and supply the installation on a turnkey basis. The company accepted. “They bought the equipment and started building 8-foot panels,” Holmes says.