Panelization: Advancing to Meet the Market

If you’re like most builders and construction industry professionals, you got into the construction business because you like the reward that comes from working with your hands combined with the satisfaction of creating something both beautiful and useful.

That attitude has led many craftsmen into the construction field. It might surprise you to learn that it’s resulted in some of the most innovative advances in panelization as well.

When metal truss plates were introduced for the residential market in the 1950s, builders were fairly quick to see the advantages, and these factory-manufactured trusses became common practice for both floors and roofs. But as manufacturers expanded their product line, panelization became associated with “prefab” home building, and most builders resisted it, despite its time and cost advantages, in favor of the custom method of stick framing.

Panelization has changed dramatically in the past few years, and both multifamily and custom single-family home builders are realizing the benefits it offers.

“I’ve been in the components business since 1984,” says Rick Parrino of Plum Building Systems, “and the technology we implement now allows us to do more and create details in-shop that we couldn’t even five or ten years ago.”

The same interest in customization and creative design that attracts builders to the industry keeps components manufacturers developing new ways to meet customer tastes and design trends.

Carla West of Beisser Components agrees. “The technology is there now to do a variety of components, not just walls. We can do stairways, floor panels, and special-feature components like arches and other ceiling features.”

Compared with a decade ago, the panelization industry has developed improved computer-aided design (CAD) software programs and drafting tools that allow builders and designers to create more intricate architectural features. Those features can then be built in the shop to higher-quality standards than could be maintained on-site.

“We used to work predominantly with repeat-production, multifamily projects,” West explains. “But with our ability to customize features and adapt our product to an individual builder’s style, our market with single-family and custom builders has grown to nearly 70 percent of our business.”

With its computerized design and manufacturing capabilities, panelization has evolved far beyond the prefab market of its early years. In fact, in 2012 the National Association of Home Builders rated complete home panelization as the fastest-growing segment of the residential construction market. And the list of its benefits is growing, too.

Reduced Construction Time

Using traditional framing, a 2,000-square-foot home can take from 8 to 14 days to construct. With panelization, the same project can be completed in a day or two. Iowa’s unpredictable weather typically plays havoc with stick-built framing schedules, and panelization can help minimize that concern.

West says, “Panelization isn’t necessarily cheaper than stick framing, though it can be, but it streamlines the process. The bottom-line cost efficiency and wiser use of materials and time can make a significant difference. And the time saved almost always results in a better bottom line.”

Fewer Staff Requirements

As the economy—and the housing market—took a downturn, many skilled craftsmen were forced to find employment in other fields. As the market improves, those same craftsmen aren’t always returning to the construction industry. Various industry studies have indicated anywhere from 25 to 70 percent of builders currently face a shortage of experienced laborers.

With panelization, a builder would need a smaller staff of framers for a shorter period of time on each project. And the detailed manufacturer markings make assembly easier.

Improved Efficiency

Not only does panelization make the framing process more streamlined, it results in a more efficient production process as well.
“Our design and manufacturing systems are so precise that there is much less waste when compared to stick framing,” West says. “That makes for a greener job site as well as a more cost-effective project.”

Reduced Supplier List

Rather than relying on materials and schedules for multiple suppliers, a builder can use one source for a host of items.

“Many builders are used to coming to us for trusses and standard components,” Parrino says. “And with the technological developments in design software and equipment, we can provide so much more these days, from wall panels to stair systems.”

Not only does this reduce the number of vendors that a builder must coordinate with, it can smooth the construction process because so many of the components are produced in one location and ready to install when they arrive on site.

Extended Building Season

Because panel framing can be completed in a fraction of the time it takes to stick-frame a home, builders rarely have to contend with weather delays. And the speed of the framing process allows projects to be completed nearly year-round, so interior finish can proceed more quickly as well.
“The biggest change since I entered the business is in the requirements of today’s homes,” Parrino says. “The designs are fancier with hip roofs, tray ceilings, architectural wall features. It would be impossible to build these with prebuilt panels if we didn’t have the technological improvements we have.”

Not only can panelization meet the demand, the options available are almost limitless.