By Pat Curry. Paul Shoopman had had enough. He was tired of the inconsistent quality of lumber that was ending up in his homes and the way materials were damaged when they sat on a job site. He was frustrated by the cost he incurred when correcting framing errors and the delays experienced when the wrong materials were delivered. He was concerned about the callbacks that required opening walls after the customers had moved in.
Those were the kinds of issues he faced in the mid-1990s when he decided to open a panel and truss division. The 67,000-square-foot plant and warehouse opened in 1997 to manufacture the entire house, "up to and including the felt that goes under the shingles."
The goal was greater quality control, says Shoopman, president, who founded Indianapolis-based Dura Builders in 1971 and which last year built 600 homes priced from $100,000 to $200,000. What has come of it, however, was more than Shoopman might have imagined.
What began as a way to control quality quickly proved to have so many benefits; it saves the company an estimated $5,000 per house and slashes cycle time in half, from an already-fast 110 days to a roaring pace of 55 days. It also has proven to be an important marketing tool, as a showcase for buyers as well as a tool of assurance in addressing more recent industry concerns about potential mold problems.
The savings come from several areas, Shoopman says. Dura buys all its own lumber, stores it inside or under dry exterior storage, and builds its wall panels and trusses, effectively eliminating problems such as bowed wall studs. Templates guide the assembly of the pre-constructed panels.
By buying lumber in volume, they can purchase futures and get improved pricing. Framing time on a home dropped from an average of seven to nine days to one and a half to two days. The consistent quality of the materials has helped the company build loyalty among its trade contractors. The speed of construction (the plant crews can build all the components for three houses in a single 10-hour shift) reduces warehousing costs and the interest carrying costs on the land. Plant efficiencies reduced the need for management by two-thirds. Plus, the up-front quality cut service costs.
Then there are insurance savings. In 24 years of using an outside warranty company, Shoopman says, Dura has never had a structural claim.
"It's definitely a whole lot easier to do insurance pricing as a company," Shoopman says. "It's a lot more pleasant meeting and a lot easier to get quotes. When they ask you if you've had any claims filed on your insurance carrier and you say 'No,' they look at you and say, 'Let us ask you that again.' "
If there's been a problem with having the division, it's been in convincing consumers that the system produces a better home, says Dura's sales manager Tom Larkins.
"Many builders in central Indiana are looking at 120 to 150 days for panel and truss," he says. "Because there's such a huge time difference, we have to educate [buyers] that we won't leave the windows out."
Larkins says he plays up the construction schedule and the quality of the process as a key point in the company's advertising and collateral materials. It's a "huge, huge" part of the presentation in the sales center, and is promoted as a differentiator in the market. Sales reps frequently take buyers on a tour of the plant to explain the process, especially if they're on the fence about buying.
"This panel and truss plant gives us something to be proud of," he says. "They can see what's inside. By being able to show them the quality we put into the framing, it sets us apart. It gives them a real nice comfort level."
For the same reason, the company also has opened the plant to local real estate agents.
"It's so different and unique, the tour has made the difference in the number of customers Realtors have brought us," he says. "They're much more comfortable after that. They look at us as a quality builder instead of a production builder."
As an added benefit, the tours allow the company to highlight how the process cuts the risk of mold, Larkins says. Dura uses marine-grade Styrofoam on the exterior walls to seal out moisture, and the indoor assembly and reduced construction time cut the amount of time that wood is exposed to the weather.
The plant also has helped the company earn a significant award. Since signing on with 2-10 Home Buyer's Warranty nine years ago, the company has been recognized as one of its Diamond Builders for its record of being claims-free, as well as for its efficiency, effectiveness, financial stability, and distinguished design development. Only 38 of approximately 15,000 builders the company warrants nationwide have earned the designation. The status is used in Dura's marketing efforts as independent verification of its position as a quality builder.
For anyone considering building a manufacturing facility, Shoopman offers this advice: build new and do it yourself. Dura did its own floor plans and layouts, strategically placing piers and columns to facilitate faster production. "If you buy or rent an existing building, you have to go around a dozen columns," he says. "We don't have to move [a component], pick it up, or shift it from one side to the other. It's all a straight motion."
He also recommends buying extra ground for future expansion (they have an additional 2-1/2 acres), and to make the necessary investments in plant equipment to handle the volume.
"You have to be prepared to make the financial commitment," he says. "It doesn't make any sense to have the world's best truss press if you don't have a computerized saw. If you cut it all by hand, you'll be in trouble."
Perhaps the most important benefit of the division, Shoopman says, is the control it gives the company over its future.
"It's a luxury we sometimes forget about, to be able to physically be out in your own back yard and direct your destiny with what you produce instead of being number 14 on someone else's to-do list."