When I started writing about tech for Big Builder, I focused primarily on home automation, quite the rage then as the housing boom made everyone feel like a full-on Crestron home-control system was a necessity. It is only fitting that the last column be about home automation?as in home building automation.

As this last issue goes to press, the U.S. Labor Department is nosing around the payroll records of several big builders, looking for violations of wage and hour laws. Since most big builder staff is skilled and/or professional, the probe is looking into workers who are hired by subcontractors who are not skilled or professional and therefore covered by these laws. The fear is that the Labor Department is fishing for a way to legally reclassify the laborers who work for subs as joint employees of the builders, which could then be organized by unions and threaten construction sites with shutdowns if they don't get what they want.

Fact is, laborers are increasingly unnecessary. Subs hire them because a) they are cheap and b) the subs themselves do not comprehend the very real benefits of engineering in home building. Not the modular stuff that's built in a factory, but homes that are designed, spec-ed, marketed, fitted with options, and assembled from pre-built materials. Best look now to find ways to eliminate the need for laborers before the Labor Department can turn them into a powerful voting bloc that can shut down a job site and decimate margins with unreasonable demands.

Photo: Courtesy MITEK

Over the years, I've written about several architecturally correct 3-D Building Information Modeling (BIM) systems, which are the first step in the process of automation. I've also written about Weyerhaeuser's use of software and its iLevel system brand to pre-cut framing and joists to fit, the next step. And I've written about Simpad, a BIM system that is now combined into a suite of software at MiTek that also includes Sapphire, a viewing program that allows builders to share their architectural drawings and all they include with suppliers, or as MiTek calls them CMs, for component manufacturers. This is the next step on the road to what Terry Nicholson, senior vice president/ global software for MiTek at its Chesterfield, Mo., headquarters, calls "a fully engineered house."

Tom Manenti, MiTek's CEO, puts it this way. The home building process as it has traditionally been known "is a complex process. We all know it's almost organized chaos. We bring clarity to that ... [in part by] linking the entire supply chain." It does so by working with more than 900 CMs, which in turn work with builders to design, engineer, deliver, and install the myriad components that go into a house.

"The process begins with the builder, but very quickly becomes the responsibility of the CM," says Nicholson. What that does is reduce labor (particularly laborers), speed up cycle time, improve quality and efficiency, minimize change orders, reduce material theft, ensure code compliance, and make the whole process more profitable.

Photo: Courtesy MITEK

It does, of course, come at a cost, but that cost must be weighed against all the benefits instead of a direct comparison of components between engineered and stick.

Manenti also points out another advantage of engineering. "I am hearing more and more that skilled labor is getting hard to find. People have retired or moved to other industries" during the housing downturn.

Dick Marriott, MiTek's president, however, off ers what sounds like the best pitch of all for engineered home building. "Everything fits," he says.