OK, so a $35-per-square-foot target range for construction costs seems to be the goal of production home building going forward into the early stages of a housing rebound. If production home builders are going to get there, they can do so by a) cutting quality, b) hiring cheaper subcontractors, or c) cutting cycle time, reducing waste, and minimizing the damage that can be done by semi-skilled laborers.
I would suspect “c” is the better approach. Which is why a recent news release about Weyerhaeuser's iLevel framing and floor systems caught my attention. The product line has been around for a couple years, but it only recently became the recipient of the first ever “Green Approved” certificates from the NAHB Research Center.
Simply put, the iLevel system comprises precut framing and flooring systems offered by Weyerhaeuser dealers through a suite of software products that design efficient framing materials, minimize waste, control automated saws, and can even automate the supply chain. Data is downloaded from the architectural design systems used by builders and fed into Weyerhaeuser's Javelin CAD system for value engineering (determining what lumber is needed where in the frame) and then on to the company's Stellar software system, which controls the automated NextPhase saws located at Weyerhaeuser dealers. The result is right-sized lumber for the job, and depending on how much automation the builder wants, it is either efficiently organized and sized for the builder to cut on site or, at higher levels of service (and cost), cut to fit and packaged, delivered, and labeled sequentially to allow for step-by-step installation. For the flooring systems, these are called JobPack, and they can be ordered precut for plumbing and electrical lines. Eventually, the iLevel system will add roofing and wall sheathing to the framing packages.
Framing is accomplished the same way it always has been, except that everything fits where it is supposed to, taking waste down to almost nothing. “For a typical floor system, you'd have a pickup truck or a half a dump truck load of drops and scraps and everything else,” says Eric Duger, who owns RIC Structures, a framing contractor in Baldwinsville, N.Y. “With a JobPack, you can put it in a wheelbarrow when you're done. It's a big time saver.”
Whether framing or flooring, the systems go up just the same as standard framing, with one added feature: They fit. “It's not a change in philosophy,” says Luke Fouch, NextPhase project manager. “It just makes it more simple for the entire channel.”
Wendy Minichiello, vice president of residential national accounts for iLevel, says there are three production home builders using the system, and the dealer network includes ProBuild, Stock Building Supply, BMC West, 84 Lumber, and Builders FirstSource.
There is an entry cost. The premium for the packages runs between 5 percent and 15 percent over traditional materials, depending on the level of service chosen by the builder. But time savings can run up to 40 percent.
There also is a degree of skill required. “You are going to need to have people who can read the plans,” says Greg Wells, brand marketing manager for iLevel. “They have to clearly understand how to be a home builder.” But, he adds, “There's more preplanning and less site modification. You might need an increased skill set for the pre-planning stage.”
Itinerant laborers milling about the site in apparent chaos, or an increased skill set for the preplanning stage? Seems like a simple choice to me.