Panelized Homes: Factory-Built Components Assembled on Site

A demonstration of how fast the construction of a wooden house by Wausau Homes can be.

This new home consists of panels, roof trusses and other components that are manufactured inside a climate-controlled factory and then assembled on-site. Photo courtesy of Wausau Homes.

Could it be your custom building solution?

“Stick-built” or “panelized”? That’s an important baseline question that anyone who’s contemplating building a new, custom home is likely to encounter.

Put another way: Do you sign up with a local builder who will take your final architectural plans and construct your entire dream house piece by piece on site – from the foundation to the roof and everything inside? That’s the stick built option.

Or do you hire a local builder with the understanding that the vast majority of the components in the house will be manufactured in an all-weather factory, transported to your lot or building site, and assembled from the foundation up by your builder or a contractor? The components may be large – roof trusses, floor and pre-wired wall panels, for example – or as small as custom windows, pre-hung doors and kitchen cabinets.  Much of the work is done using computer-controlled saws and other sophisticated technologies. And all of it moves ahead regardless of the weather.

Panelized construction is highly efficient in terms of materials use and labor. One industry study found that construction of a 2,600 square foot home using panelized systems required 26 percent less lumber, wasted 76 percent less materials and needed just over a third of the man-hours that would be used in a comparable stick-built house.

But which construction approach makes more sense for you, personally? Which offers the potential of saving you money, time and stress? Here’s a quick overview to provide some perspective.

For starters, only a minority of new homes constructed today strictly fit the purist definition of stick-built. Many larger volume or production builders and custom builders use at least a few factory-built components in their projects – you’ve probably seen preassembled roof trusses used frequently in new home communities where the rest of the construction occurs on site

Panelization can eliminate as much as two-thirds of the time needed to build a typical new home – requiring just 90 days instead of 180 to 270 days.Panelization simply takes the manufacturing concept to its logical end: Your custom plans and drawings are engineered and built to your specs in a factory. The major components are built to conform to your local building code requirements and then delivered to your construction site, where a general contractor has prepared the lot and completed the foundation. The house is then erected segment by segment over a period of several days, typically with the help of a crane trucked to the site for that purpose.  Depending on your arrangements, the general contractor may handle custom exterior finishes and oversee installation of certain interior features such as bathroom fixtures.

So why give serious consideration to a panelized construction approach on the new home you’re planning? Lots of reasons.

First and foremost, panelization will save you impressive amounts of time. The main components of your house can be engineered and fabricated in less than a week in most cases – even for highly customized designs. Once they’re trucked to your site, the shell of your house will be up and weather-tight – under a roof, doors and windows in place – in a matter of days. Weather-tight is a particularly important factor because on stick-built sites, lumber and other components can be exposed to the weather, which can cause issues later on in the project such as warping, mold and mildew.

Jay Schuette, president of Wausau Homes, a prominent panel component manufacturer and a member of the National Association of Home Builders’ Panelized Housing Building council, estimates that panelization typically cuts as much as two-thirds off the start-to-finish timing of a typical home project – requiring just 90 days instead of 180 to 270 days.

Wausau Factory where woods are assembled and processed for home construction. A man is working in the woods.Equally important, Schuette points out, is the certainty of promised timelines. Because components are scheduled and manufactured in a protected, high-tech environment, “we’re able to deliver on-time, to-your-specs and at the price that was promised 100 percent of the time,” he said in an interview for New Home Source. There is minimal exposure to the problems that can delay stick-built construction: subcontractor schedules, storms, late deliveries of materials, serious cost overruns.

Deb Johnson, who with her husband Tim, hired Wausau to build a vacation home on Lake Tomahawk in northern Wisconsin, said in an interview that the family carefully compared stick-built with panelization quotes from builders and contractors. Panelization “saved us around 20 percent” on the cost of the entire home, she said, and “we were amazed that they completed the job right to the day” they estimated up front.

Besides efficiencies like these, the precision cutting and fitting that comes with panelization also enhances energy efficiency – reducing future heating and cooling bills. In fact, it is recognized as such in national and international green building certification programs, such as ICC 700 National Green Building Standard.

Okay, you might say, panelization has some advantages. But are there potential issues or downsides that I also need to know about? Of course. Probably the most important: Are you up to the concentrated early decision making – and the commitment to sticking with your designs and specifications – that successful panelized construction requires?

When your home is stick-built, your custom builder can proceed on your project and can more easily make changes along the way if you change your mind – even about significant features. With panelized construction, you’re expected to stick to the plans that you signed off on once they’ve been sent to the factory. Changes are possible, but they’re going to cost you money and time.

Some architects believe that certain traditional home designs, with complex roof lines and other details, are less effectively built in a factory compared with on-site, stick built construction. They suggest that more contemporary designs, with simpler lines, make the most sense for panelized construction.

Component builders like Schuette strongly disagree, however, and insist that “we can do just about any design buyers come to us with” – whether it’s ultra-modern or a reproduction 1896 Victorian.

The bottom line? Both stick-built and panelization are proven construction techniques. Do your research and talk to your builder or architect to help you decide which of these time-tested approaches is the best way to build your new home.

In addition to his articles for NewHomeSource, Ken Harney writes an award-winning, nationally syndicated column on real estate for The Washington Post Writers Group that appears in 90 newspapers.

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