Fully automated home framing is coming to the Central Valley, which could mean big savings for home buyers and builders in the future.
The new Ripon-based business Entekra specializes in off-site wood framing for home construction. The company opened its offices and pilot manufacturing plant in the Central Valley city in early 2017 and has been ramping up its production ever since. Now it has received a $45 million investment to construct a second, larger fully automated plant in either Modesto or Ripon to be finished by this time next year.
Company CEO Gerry McCaughey started Entekra after founding and running a successful automated wood-framing company in Ireland for over 15 years. When he sold Century Homes in 2005, it had grown to be the largest off-site builder in all of Europe, cranking out more than 8,000 homes a year.
McCaughey said while traditional on-site wood framing takes about five workers 17 days to finish, his frames are built in the factory and only take about three days to complete and install. Besides saving time and manpower, he claims the method also reduces on-site waste and increases accuracy as the construction is automated, working off computerized engineering plans.
"I couldn't figure out why this isn't the normal way to build a house here. In Europe it's unheard of to stick frame a house. We want to bring the process of building homes in the U.S. into the 21st Century," he said.
Just don't confuse Entekra with the prefab homes many Americans are already familiar with. The company just does wood framing, including exterior and interior walls and the subfloor, in its plant and then delivers it to the home site where it is assembled with a crane. McCaughey considers his business an engineering company, and not construction or development enterprise.
As such, Entekra has started working with area home builders and construction companies. It's first frame went out last September. They're currently producing two to three a week. But once the new plant is completed, that will grow to 50 to 60 a week.
Shawn Fitzpatrick, the vice president of Fitzpatrick Homes and UC Construction, has been working with Entreka for about a year. They've built 20 houses together so far, and have plans to do more.
"It's a definite step up from other companies that do prefab framing, it's like at least one to two steps up. And you get a nice quality product done in half the time that we normally do this stuff," Fitzpatrick said. "It's one of those things you kind of have to see in action to understand it."
Indeed, one of the company's best selling tools so far is a roughly minute-long, time-lapsed clip of its wood framing being installed on a build site in Turlock. Titled "Four Men and a Crane," it shows the five-hour process of assembling the framework from start to finish on a 2,300 square-foot house.
What also sets Entekra's off-site building process apart is its front-end focus, McCaughey said. Before they start any work schematics are drawn up by a team of Entekra engineers in Ireland. They take in account all the measurements needed for duct work, electricity, plumbing and everything else. Holes are then pre-cut to those exact specifications instead of the current practice of working things out in the field.
"We don't start building before we've figured everything out. We know where every nail in the house is," he said. "This isn't about knocking two pieces of wood together, it's about making the building process more streamlined."
McCaughey said demand outstrips their capacity right now in their 27,000 square-foot plant just off of downtown Ripon on Industrial Avenue. They have partnered with Better Built Truss company, which is right next door, to do their roof trusses at the plant.
The new plant will greatly increase their size and output. The current plant can build 500 house frames a year, the new plant will be able to produce 3,000. The new 200,000-square-foot-plant will also be fully automated, unlike their pilot plant which still relies mainly on traditional manpower. Still, they plan to hire about 200 workers for the new facility, up from their current roster of 20.
The company is deciding between three sites for its new $20 million manufacturing plant, two are in Modesto and one is in Ripon. They are also expanding the existing plant by 50 percent and installing a $1 million automated machine. Once completed, the new and upgraded machines will be able to complete the entire framework for a 2,000-square-foot home in about four hours.
McCaughey said he felt it was important to stay in the Ripon-Modesto area for the new facility because of its prime location for building. The company looks for sites near large agricultural areas with high demand for homes and a high unemployment rate.
"This area has been very good for us," he said. "My dad has the belief that the hardest working people in the world know how to farm."
Still, a more automated factory like McCaughey's means less workers on a site. But instead of killing jobs, he claims it makes existing workers more effective. He said the U.S. is suffering from a skilled labor shortage in construction with more people retiring from the field than entering.
"All of this is based on demand. And it actually does the opposite (of killing jobs)," he said. "We're not reducing manpower, we're making it more efficient."
He also touts the savings to the builders and ultimately home buyers through automated framing. Because of the precision of the machines, there is less chance for human error and a higher quality final product. He calculates daily on-site savings of around $850 a day for the time-savings alone.
His ultimate goal is to become the largest off-site builder in the United States, like he did with his other company for Europe. He already has plans for a Southern California plant in about two years.
"The only thing that has changed in home construction in the U.S. in the last 100 years is the introduction of the skill saw," he said. "But I think in five years time you'll see a drastic change in the way people build homes in America."