Assembly Line Homebuilding in CA

Originally published by: Orange County RegisterApril 2, 2012

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COSTA MESA – Wheels churning, a Gradall crane hoists a prefabricated wall into the air and positions it in place at the corner of a concrete slab.

Framers Sergio Torres and Chris Wagstaff level the wall, secure it with nail guns, then move on to the next panel.

Numbers scrawled across the slab show the position for each corresponding wall panel, stacked to the side of what will soon be a 2,016-square-foot house on the corner of a residential Costa Mesa street. Each comes with windows, plumbing and wiring in place, waiting to be unfurled and connected.

Watch a video of a house being built the new way.

The workers follow a choreographed plan, erecting a new wall every seven minutes. Each panel fits over pipes protruding from the concrete, snapping into place like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

In just over 1½ hours, they have set up nearly half the walls and positioned the first roof section into place.

"It's like Lego kits," said a beaming Eric VanDerHeyden, executive vice president for the builder, RSI Development of Newport Beach. "What's cool about this is, at the end of the day, the whole first floor will be framed out, including the interior walls.

"What we do in a day would normally take seven to 10 days."

The Costa Mesa house – one of two RSI is building at Santa Ana Avenue and 22nd Street – is the latest home to be built by the successful cabinet maker-turned-homebuilder.

As producer of kitchen and bath cabinets sold by Home Depot, Lowes and homebuilders throughout the West, company founder Ron Simon wanted to find a way to make homes affordable for working people like those on his assembly lines.

And since he already ran factories with millions of square feet, Simon chose to apply manufacturing techniques to homebuilding.

His company hired a crew of engineers and spent several years building and tearing down about 60 homes to develop its process.

"The key to this system is the level of engineering that goes into it," VanDerHeyden said.

Engineers use 3D models to design everything from where attic vents go to the precise location of every outlet, every vent pipe and every piece of reinforced steel bar. VanDerHeyden calls it "precision building."

"You couldn't do this if you built everything by hand," he said. "That 3D model is fed into a machine that cuts all the lumber to length, cuts all the panels to length and drills all the holes in the exact position they need to be drilled."

The key benefit is lower construction costs. RSI officials maintain they build homes for about 30 percent less than traditional, site-built homes.

New homes start at $141,000 for a 2,548-square-foot house – land not included. Company officials maintain they can build a new house for less than the cost of remodeling an old one.

Nine affordable homes built in conjunction with Buena Park are priced at less than $400,000 in a neighborhood with comparable homes selling for $500,000, they say.

Other benefits are less wasted time and materials and a reduced impact on the neighborhoods since homes are assembled quicker and with less noise. RSI's crews have drills, a crane, hammers and nail guns. But there are no saws.

RSI has developed eight floor plans so far, company officials say. A typical home gets built in about 70 days.

The company isn't alone. Numerous press accounts reported that modular, factory-built or panelized homes are gaining wider acceptance, especially as a way to build more affordable or more environmentally friendly homes.

Writer Sheri Koones, who wrote about prefab homes in her book, "Prefabulous + Sustainable," argued last week that factory-built homes are comparable to site-built ones, if not superior.

"After having written several books on the subject – filled with evidence of the beauty and diversity of prefab – I thought we had moved past the bias that prefab is synonymous with double-wides," she wrote in an article titled, "Why Your Next Home Should Be Prefab."

RSI has built 140 houses under "The New House" brand so far. Its 103-home development in Menifee sold out within 10 months of its October 2010 launch – no small feat in this sluggish housing market.

The company has built more than a dozen homes in existing neighborhoods in Orange County, with plans to build on 29 other lots in Orange County. And it has nearly 120 more homes in the works in the Inland Empire cities of San Jacinto and Beaumont.

Jess Maxcy, president of the California Manufactured Housing Institute, noted that more and more components used by traditional homebuilders are prefabricated in factories. They include cabinets, roof trusses and bath modules.

"Their sites are becoming more and more assembly points than constructions points," Maxcy said. "I think (a home) that's built in a factory's got better quality."

Maxcy added that prefab is a worldwide phenomenon dating back to the '40s and '50s. Unless RSI has "some trade secret," it's not unique in the prefab world.

But company founder Simon has said that he plans to invest $100 million in making RSI's process "a game changer."

"We're just in our infancy," VanDerHeyden said. "But we really think this will change America. We think it will change homebuilding."


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