For some people, it's not a question of whether American home builders will ever do what builders in markets in Europe, Asia, and South America commonly do, and have done for decades--that is, build most house assemblies off-site in climate-controlled factory conditions with precision tools, software-driven fabrication techniques, robotics, and machine-learning processes.
For some, it's not a question of if, but when.
For some people, it's not a question of eliminating labor or laborers from the process of making homes capable of lasting three or four or five generations, ones that perform at the highest energy, water, air quality and other systems and building envelope levels, and ones that operate safely and efficiency, ones that live comfortably, and ones are attainable to people who make average livings.
For some, it's less a matter of subtracting labor, and more about blending human effort and expertise with technology in ways that draw on the best of both--artisanal knowledge, craftsmanship, insistence on getting it right, accuracy, speed, adaptability, care, etc. etc.--and ways that produce value. The only subtraction to speak of involves taking out of the building and real estate work stream every step that does not ultimately produce value to the home buyer and resident.
So, Walpole, N.H.-based Bensonwood--which hasn't needed convincing that doing the lion's share of architecture, engineering, and construction off-site with people who're both highly skilled in the construction crafts and trained in the use of construction's most sophisticated automated, robotic, software driven, customizable manufacturing equipment is the way to go--is taking a next step in to the future of housing and home construction.
Amidst celebrating the opening of a new 110,000 sq ft. panel fabrication facility in nearby Keene, N.H. to support the expansion of both Bensonwood's custom timberframe home building business and its six-year-old Unity Homes, founder and steward Tedd Benson introduced the "off-site component construction as a service" business model that has been a brainchild of his for some years.
Called Tektoniks, the brand becomes part of a growing infrastructure of off-site building and construction facilities in the United States--Entekra on the West Coast, Blueprint Robotics in the mid-Atlantic, Buddy Raney Construction in Central Florida, Katerra in Arizona, and an entire network of geographically-dispersed Clayton Homes' assembly plants--that reflect a real-time reset of how building materials, products, assemblies, and sub-component level parts and pieces make their way into new homes and communities.
Here's the Tektoniks value proposition to what would be a clientele of builders, general contractors, and architects:
- Lower Cost in Less Time: Scales building efficiencies by removing time and costs from building development and construction, radically transforming the traditional build cycle.
- Sustainable Building: Reduces the environmental impact of construction through less waste by volume optimization and more opportunity for recycling.
- Quality Assurance: Offers a more direct line from design to execution, reducing the possibility for error.
- Off-Site Fabrication: Enables close integration between factory and the construction site; a “montage” method of assembling the precisely manufactured components results in increased productivity and quality control, keeping costs down.
Tedd Benson describes the Tektonics brands like this:
"A new brand to allow architects, builders, CM's, etc to utilize our production directly, rather than through Bensonwood or Unity Homes services. This will be a sort of 'Intel Inside' ingredient concept, where our new brand--offering enclosure systems, timber processing, and millwork components--will add value to other players' brands."
The implications here--and what we see as an acceleration shift of the home building paradigm--are that value lost between a home buying prospect and the seller can be eliminated. Part of that value lost is in a "channel" of procurement where every exchange in the distribution chain adds cost, every hour taken in the critical chain of processes that must be sequenced on a job site vs. done simultaneously in a factory adds cost, and every feature or functionality that a buyer "settles for" rather than chooses adds cost.
The economic equation in what the team at Bensonwood and Unity are up to here is simple. It goes like this: If the people who work on producing a home have the expertise, the tools, and the sense of purpose to generate value for people who buy and live in the new homes, then a business model that eliminates waste and, worse, indifference from the start-to-completion construction process can be profitable. To build better, it's self-evident, it's economically worth it to all stakeholders. So what does "build better" mean? Benson likes to look at measures that pass down from time immemorial, expressed by Roman artillery designer and architect Vitruvius. Durability, function, beauty, and Benson would add, economic attainability, are the essential raw materials of "building better." It means value up and down the chain of events whose outcome is a family living in a home and community.
"Our company culture is clearly our biggest accomplishment and asset. It's also embedded in our modus operandi, infectious, and scalable. The advanced automation enhances the jobs rather than diminishing the value of their work--and certainly not a chance of eliminating anybody."
And advanced automation it is. The new Keene plant features equipment from Germany (wall production line, CNC cutting/shaping), Austria (insulation delivery), and France (Robotic pick-and-feed). In the Walpole facility, they've retooled to reinvigorate the Bensonwood timber processing, to scale up the timber frame and mass timber production. There's a Hundegger Robot Drive and a new Italian Rautech machine for millwork. Both of those machines are 5 Axis robots. Benson notes:
"Taken together, we now have the most advanced capability in the U.S., as it includes closed panel, mechanical pods (coming soon), mass timber processing, and millwork."
What's next focuses on the integration of the supply chain with the construction process, and to that end, Benson will next announce a joint development agreement with CertainTeed/St. Gobain to develop software automation with interface and modularity standards, that aims to help fuse industry fragmentation with the development of a software system to allow plug-and-play systems, and standardized/algorithmic modularity.
We are using the automation to enhance the human jobs," Tedd Benson repeats for emphasis. "As we rely on their knowledge, their caring, and their skills to do everything the machines shouldn't do, and don't do."
For Bensonwood and Unity, housing's future way of "building better" is not a matter of if but when. As in now.