Prefab framing has saved Japanese builders time and labor. Will Americans buy it?

By Charles Wardell

If you were on site when Dave and Jen Chmielewski joined with four others to frame their Duluth, Minn., home, you would have noticed something missing: noise. Gone was the scream of the circular saw. The only sound that June day was the sporadic thud of hammers as six unskilled, novice builders drove metal connectors into the slotted ends of engineered timbers.

Within a day and a half, these office workers had successfully framed a 1600-square-foot home. "It was like putting a bed frame together, but on a much larger scale," recalls Dave.

The Chmielewskis were the first people in North America to use a prefabricated, post-and-beam framing system from the Shimane, Japan based Kato Sangyo. Called Metalfit, it arrives on site pre-cut and ready to assemble. Because the metal connectors require precisely milled members, the frame consists entirely of glulams. (Dave says that trimming the house was a breeze because it was "so damn square and plumb.")

The alliance

Also present that day was architect James Brew, Kato Sangyo's U.S. point man. The Chmielewskis notwithstanding, Brew's real market is time-pressed contractors. Metalfit was designed to help Japanese builders meet a critical shortage of skilled labor. With U.S. companies facing a similar crunch, he believes it could catch on here.

But not until builders can get it. Metalfit debuted at the International Builders' Show four years ago. Santos Martin, the company's marketing director, says that while many builders expressed interest, Kato Sangyo lacked the manufacturing and distribution needed to serve them. So he went in search of investors, making 15 trips to the United States over the next three years.

Several months after the show, Martin received a letter of interest from Brew, who had seen a short clip about Metalfit in a consumer magazine and immediately grasped its potential. Three weeks later Martin showed up at Brew's office, along with Kato Sangyo president Masao Kato. The meeting lasted just 45 minutes, but the following week Brew got an e-mail inviting him to come to Japan at Kato Sangyo's expense.

James Brew, an American, (left) and Santos Martin, a Spaniard, (middle) are working to bring Masao Kato's (right) made-in-Japan building system to the United States. Photo: Jeff Frey & Associates Photography

Martin and Kato saw Brew as a natural ally. He had a long-time interest in Japanese architecture and had studied the language "for fun." And he had an entrepreneurial streak: Rather than attending architectural school, he apprenticed for seven years then sat for the state exams, passing them in 1987. ("I spent six months in the library, with a baby at home," he recalls.) Just as important was the entrepreneurial bent of Brew's employer, LHB Architects and Engineers in Duluth. "The firm's founders figured out that if people love what they do, they don't mind driving to work in the morning," says Brew. So while the firm does mostly institutional work, "if someone has a love of housing, we find a way for them to be successful."

Brew asked LHB if it would let him explore a partnership with Kato Sangyo. The firm agreed. "I started promoting, speaking, and writing about the system," he recalls. He gave seminars at builder conferences and forged relationships between the people at LHB and Kato Sangyo. "We brought structural engineers and CAD people to Japan to learn the system and get them up to speed for code approval," Brew says. Those people worked with code authorities to develop the needed structural tests. As a result, Brew expects a thumbs up from ICBO by the end of 2002.

The road ahead

Brew's five-year goal is to be selling 1,000 units per year. Revenue from those sales will let him duplicate the high-tech Japanese operation. There, house plans and specs are entered into a special CAD system at the main office, then e-mailed to one of several computerized numeric control machines located around the country.

Assembly required: The Metalfit system consists of steel clips that are used to join precut glulams. They're locked into place by metal dowels inserted in a hole in the side of the post or beam. Photo: Jeff Frey & Associates Photography

At one of these machines--housed in an immaculate, 300-foot-long steel building just north of Tokyo--it takes four hours to cut and drill the frame for a two-bedroom home. Glue-laminated posts and beams are surface planed, cut to length, mortised and drilled for connectors and pins, dadoed for studs, and stamped with a number keyed to the house plans--all without human intervention. Two workers service the machine: One feeds it uncut glulams, while the other unloads and bundles the finished pieces. Everything else happens automatically.

Such a plant would cost at least a million dollars, so for Chmielewskis' house Brew imported a set of less-efficient hand-held cutters. Going forward, LHB and Kato Sangyo may ship precut frames from Japan until they create enough of a market to lure investors.

Meanwhile, Brew needs to sell builders on the system. Lately, he has been visiting them to solicit their opinions. He always asks them under what circumstances they would use the system. "Usually the answer is 'if the customer requests it,'" he says, which tells him that his marketing has to target buyers as well.

He may get help from some encouraging financial analyses. Though Brew hasn't finished verifying the numbers, he says that when a large, national home builder compared Metalfit to stick framing, the installed cost was roughly the same. He believes he has a winner if he can convince builders and buyers they're getting better quality for the same money. "I have enough faith in the system that once people try building with it, they will come back for more."