This Old House and An Industry in Transition
While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the home building industry, I have been watching This Old House for nearly 30 years. As an outsider looking in, what has always struck me, contrary to what the name of the show might imply, is that the show has never been scared of new technology. Whether it is new techniques, new tools or new materials, This Old House has always embraced the latest building trends within the industry. A line from their opening credits is, “We can do better than this.”
This season, they are trying something even more radical. For the first time in the show’s history, a new home will be built. What’s even more interesting is that rather than use traditional framing and finishing techniques, the 3,000 square foot home will be completely pre-engineered in a factory in Vermont and then assembled onsite. This sneak peak explains just what they are doing.
Fans of American architecture may know this is not the first time that quality, pre-fabricated wooden homes have been built in the U.S. The most famous prior example is probably the Sears Catalog Homes which began using pre-fab lumber in 1916.
Precut and fitted lumber, an innovation pioneered by Aladdin, was first offered by Sears in 1916. Prior to 1916, the prospective home builder had to cut their Sears-supplied lumber to appropriate lengths. These pre-1916 houses are not generally considered to be “kit houses” but do fall under the definition of a “catalog house”. Construction of a house with pre-cut lumber reduced construction time by up to 40% according to Sears. Sears’s use of “balloon style” framing systems did not require a team of skilled carpenters, as did previous methods. Balloon frames were built faster and generally only required one carpenter. This system used precut timber of mostly standard sizes (2″x4″ and 2″x8″) for framing.
The first episode of the season can be found here. In the second episode, there’s a remarkable moment when the manager of the factory in Vermont says that all of the rafters will be cut within 30 minutes using machines and be accurate to 1/32 of an inch. Tom Silva, master carpenter for This Old House admits it would take two members of his crew members eight hours to duplicate the work and they would not be as accurate. In a later episode the head of their framing team says that these pre-fab homes are now about 50% of their business.
So what do these homes mean to home buyers? In the Boston area, traditional construction would run $300/square foot. This pre-fab home runs $240/square foot. That’s a savings of $180,000. Of course, at $720,000, this is still an expensive home, but obviously the math scales in both directions depending on the size of the home.
As a devoted fan of This Old House I have been struck by just how un-concerned the participants seem to be about these new changes to home-building. Knowing a little bit about the history of home construction I can only assume they are conditioned to roll with the punches in an industry that is always evolving. Thinking about the risks for stateside jobs, obviously some of this pre-fab work could go overseas, but the transportation costs for shipping all of that material could eliminate some of the cost savings for customers.
All told, the home industry is yet another example of technology rapidly changing the world we live in. It’s fascinating to watch the way it responds and what it means for consumers.