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Twenty years from now, after concluding a long and distinguished career in residential building, I can see myself taking my 8 year old grandson to visit the Museum of New Home Construction. Home construction is much more than connecting boards and materials together in a pleasing pattern to create a basic shelter. This museum will have great halls of exhibits that will display how homes have been built through the centuries. While I am sure the first diorama scene will depict cavemen trying to stay warm around a fire; the rest of the exhibits will show how the evolution of materials, architecture, and science combined to create the home I will be living in in 2040. I can’t wait to view that final exhibit with my grandson to see how my future home will be built.
The Evolution of Change
Starting with the colonial period in the U.S., homes were primarily constructed in one of two ways. The selected construction method was based on the owner’s wealth and the availability of natural resources. You either built a log home or a heavy framed home using large timbers. At that time every home was a custom home. There were no building standards. There was no such thing as indoor plumbing, hot water on demand, or electricity. The fireplace was the kitchen or else cooking was done outdoors.
By the mid-1800’s a new method of construction was coming on to the scene. Light framed construction took advantage of a ready supply of trees and the availability of saw mills to cut them into dimensional lumber. It was called light framed construction because it was made of many more but smaller supports in the structure. Building lumber was economical to buy and fast to build. The primary method used was called balloon framing. The next big improvement was a variation of light framed construction called platform framing and it became the dominant way to build a home in the early 1900’s.
Twentieth Century Technology
Let’s put some perspective on changes in home construction technology as compared with just about every other area that impacts your life.
|Transportation||1900 – Horses were the primary mode of travel with automobiles just coming on the scene.||Cars, buses, and trucks transport individuals, large groups of people and freight. Some vehicles can travel over 200 mph and others can transport tons of materials.|
|Air Travel||1900 – It didn’t exist. In 1903 the Wright brothers took the first powered flight.||Jets can travel at multiple times the speed of sound. We have cargo planes that fly military tanks over the oceans.|
|Computers||1900 – Didn’t Exist. In 1946 the Department of Defense introduced ENIAC, the first computer, to the public.||Everyone has a phone, notebook computer, or some form of computing device. When you throw away a singing birthday card you are disposing of more technology than existed before 1985.|
|Space Travel||1900 – Not imagined. In 1961 Kennedy challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon. Man walks on the moon in 1969.||Space Shuttle makes regular space travel possible in the 1980’s. Space station is in place. SpaceX is nearly ready to launch commercial space travel.|
|Home Construction||1900 – Platform framing built outdoors.||2020 – Platform framing built outdoors.|
Take notice of the last line in the exhibit. In over 100 years we are still building homes almost the exact same way. Every other facet of our life has changed almost beyond recognition. We take for granted technologies today that didn’t even exist 50 years ago. Profound changes have been made everywhere in our lives because of great technological advancements except in one key place… the method of how we build the very home we live in.
The Tipping Point
Home construction is going to change in the U.S. It is being driven by the changes in our labor market. The U.S. is in a severe labor shortage. Skilled construction workers are in short supply. Simple economic theory states that if supply goes down and demand goes up that price will increase. Home prices are being driven up because it costs more in labor and material to build homes today. While much of that is driven by the lack of available labor another significant portion is driven because the current process is just inefficient.
The way to lower a home’s price and increase a home’s quality is with the introduction of efficient building systems. The current inefficient building method is based on taking workers, equipment, and tools to the home site daily throughout the construction process. A building system concentrates the construction of components of homes in one location where the workers, tools, and materials can all be located indoors. These finished components are then assembled at the home site. Popular building systems today include modular construction and panelized building methods.
While building systems make up a small portion of the residential construction industry, commercial modular construction has been exploding. The forces are in motion over the coming years for residential systems building methods to grow exponentially. The technology is here and the market is ready. Homes are built better and more cost effectively with modern building systems.
Wrapping up My Day at the Museum
My grandson is just 8 years old. Tyler has never driven down a street with his parents to see a home under construction the way we do it today. He has missed seeing a partially framed house setting out in the rain while the water puddles on the floor. He hasn’t viewed the piles of lumber setting in the front yard stacked beside the big dumpster full of warped and twisted boards and trash. He has only seen clean components of homes come to a home site and be neatly and quickly assembled. He lives in a home that uses no energy, is comfortable year round, and was custom designed around his parent’s style and how he and his parents want to live.
As we near the end of the museum tour Tyler sees a mural on the wall showing a home under construction. It’s labeled: Home Construction Site – circa 2020. My grandson looks up at me and says, ”Paw-Paw, did they really build homes outside when you were growing up?”
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