Monthly Archives: March 2013

Montage Homebuilding

Words matter and the words that are used to identify the current off-site construction methods are insufficient by definition, and tainted by association. Here at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, we have long been uncomfortable with the terms used for off-site building fabrication methods. It’s usually either “modular” or “prefab,” and both have muddy meaning because of the diversity in practice, and both come with some negative baggage. Modular refers to the built volumes that are trucked on the highway like carcasses of beached whales, and prefab mostly connotes a modernist style, with an indeterminate percentage of value-added in off-site value actually accomplished in the prefabrication process.

The segment of the construction industry referenced by those two categories is wholly failing in three significant ways.

1. They represent only 2-5% of the new home construction, and therefore aren’t making much of an impact. The low percentage of actual built product is caused by #2, and is just as well because of the damage inflicted in #3.

2.  Modular and prefab aren’t bringing the sort of fundamental quality and cost improvement to the industry that’s needed. Neither segment is doing enough to use the off-site manufacturing control advantage to bring real and much-needed improvements to the quality of homes.

Modular is a building method in which whole houses or fractional 3D portions of them are constructed indoors instead of outdoors. The factories are predictably huge to house multiple volumes in production, and the process in the factories typically mirrors the on-site process, albeit under roof. Modular building has the benefit of controlling work conditions and the interaction of trade functions, but it also imposes inherent compromise by forcing architectural outcomes to the constraints of highway shipping rules. Inevitably, the widest, longest and tallest commonly trucked loads are modular buildings. They are the bane of the highway system; the ones with the escort cars, flashing lights, flapping building wrap, and often spilling over into both the adjacent lane and the road shoulder.*

Of course, there are some good things happening in the modular building segment, especially in commercial construction, where modules are typically only one aspect of a more extensive off-site strategy, not the entire solution. In addition, there are a few modular homebuilders working to raise the standards for modular building, and I certainly applaud their efforts and hope for their success. It’s sorely needed.

But the bottom line is that modular homebuilding in this country is the industry sector bringing the very worst building standards to consumers. This unfortunate fact infects the whole industry with the consumer preconception of an affordable, but low tier product. It’s the Twinkie of housing: it doesn’t cost much, but it’s not good for you either.

The specialized HUD code for manufactured housing is like one big loophole that you can drive a big modular box through. What is most impressive about these modular “houses” is their uncanny ability to aggregate the very worst, most toxic, self-destructing building materials on the market into one complete package. It is seen as virtuous by some that these homes are “affordable” enough to increase home ownership for lower income people, but it’s really just a bad deal for those who can least afford it.  The homes are typically flimsy, defect-ridden, energy hogs; making the cost of ownership high and the value of the investment low.

Prefab is generally serving the other end of the financial spectrum where cost is less important than style. Dwell Magazine is all about Prefab, for example. These homes are hip, modernist and often associated with particular architects. The consumer perception is that prefab offers contemporary design in a more accessible way, and/or offers green values rather than cost and quality benefits. Of course, there’s no single standard among the prefab companies, but prefab oriented companies typically are only prefabricating a small percentage of the building off-site, leaving most of the conventional construction process and players to build as usual, with only a modest time advantage.  It seems the real important benefit for the consumer is to get the “kit” they want to help ensure the outcome will be as they imagined.

Prefab is a good idea, but it needn’t be about style only, and ought to bring more value to the finished product. It’s not enough.

3.   Finally, the industry segment associated with modular and prefab construction is wholly failing to create good jobs. This is the worst failure in my mind, and gives further insight about #1 and #2. The employee turnover and absentee rates for those sectors of the construction industry is not only worse than the rest of the construction industry (which is in itself very bad compared to other industries), but is (or was, in 2005) worse than ANY other industry at 61%.** This is inexcusable. Nothing good can come out of a building system that depends on low pay, low skills, and bad working conditions to achieve financial success.

Even if I spend more time talking and writing, I still think of myself as a carpenter. That’s where my heart is. My objectives in this business have always been to develop a better way to build. That “better way” must result in much better homes that will bring real quality of life improvements to the occupants, but it also must elevate the builders themselves because the building profession is so critical to our civilization. After all, it’s about how we live.

For all three of the above reasons, we don’t think the modular and prefab are terms that come close to describing our off-site oriented methodology, our values, or our long term mission. We are lowering costs, raising quality, reducing energy requirements, removing defects, compressing time, increasing inhabitant control and living environment adaptability.  And to ensure that it all just gets better and better, we are committed to creating good jobs.

The narrow definitions, fuzzy mission, and erratic outcomes of modular and prefab are inadequate and too limiting. In addition, their typical work cultures take the industry in the wrong direction. We have a different philosophy and a different process. It’s smarter than modular and more complete than prefab. In our process, we are trying to pack as much completeness and value as possible into a discrete number of building elements that can result in an efficient, quick, uncompromised, on-site assembled home. In essence, the special “recipe” of our method is intended to raise the standards in every dimension, including the work culture in the once noble profession of building.

Now we need a name for it.

With an insight provided by my friend Scott Hedges, we have decided to use the Swedish term for off-site building. It’s a word that cuts across languages. Its reference to building means substantially the same thing in German, and it has similar connotations in French, Japanese and English. As we have benefited from direct influence and technology from all of those countries to develop our work culture and building process, we might as well blend in some of the language as well.

That Swedish word is “montage,” and it means “assemble.” Montage is also a close synonym for assemble in English. In fact, one of the definitions is a good description of our building process: “.. combination of disparate elements that forms … a unified whole.” In Sweden, an off-site built home is called a “montagehus,” which directly translates to “assembly house.” In Germany, the process of building a house with off-site assemblies is called “montage,” and the crew doing the work is also the “montage” crew. Following the Swedes and Germans, we could use the English word “assembly,” but it would be equally difficult to put into practice and doesn’t sound as nice.

Besides, the Swedes have a right to ownership of the appropriate word for this construction method. The vast majority of their homes are built the montage way, and their build quality and performance standards are incredibly high, arguably the best commonly built standard of residential construction in the world.  It’s well understood in Sweden that Montagehus is how you get that quality.

Therefore, at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, we humbly adopt montage for our design and construction system, with its hard-won association of achieving the highest possible standards through a system of construction that is an efficient, quality-focused assembly process. We also think it’s a better term because the essence of our process is, in fact, assembly, or montage. First we montage (assemble) the designs from a library of virtual “Lego” elements; then we montage (assemble) the CNC-cut (Computer Numerical Control) parts and pieces in our production studio into the same elements (structural members, panels, cartridges, pods, modules, etc); and finally, we montage (assemble) the elements on the site to create the completed building.

So Montage it is. Montage building is the basis of the best world standard for residential construction, and that’s where we’re planting our flag too.

We imagine the adoption of montage will lead to a variety of usages:

“A montage house”

“Montage home”

“Montage construction”

“Montage building”

“Montage crew”

…and we hope something like..

“I won’t settle for less than montage quality.”

The most important thing is that we have a different term to help us distinguish the quality of building and the quality of job that are essential to the Bensonwood history and the Unity vision. These two objectives lean on each other for success. You can’t create good jobs with a bad product. Good jobs only pair with the creation of good products. And the reverse is true as well. Good, industry disrupting products cannot be created unless the people doing the work have good jobs (with good pay, benefits and working conditions) that require discipline, skills, knowledge and a dedication to constant improvement.

It’s past time to disrupt the stale homebuilding paradigm. The process should invite people in, not lock them out; should be fun, not scary; certain, not risky; life improving, not stress-inducing; empowering, not dependency-increasing; a safe and healthy sanctuary, not a health threat and a daily burden. Homes should be spas of comfort and security that are a joy and honor to build. That’s our mission. And we think it’s not different than the desire all people have to create their own “nest,” to have personal control of the place where they live. That’s embedded in our DNA and a human right.

It’s time for montage homebuilding.


* As a bicyclist, I’ve had close calls with these monsters in the past. I now worry that they’ll be coming after me purposely.

** In an industry sponsored study (MHRA 2005), they found that Manufactured Housing in the USA, has absenteeism that is 6%, twice that of the overall industrialized sector; and the level of employee turnover is 61%- far greater than any other industry (e.g. 28% in construction and 17% in manufacturing).