A Builder’s Path Towards Offsite Framing

Relationships with structural framing suppliers determine the deliverance of each project

By Jess Lohse

Builders have faced an unprecedented number of challenges over the last several months. In a short time, they have transitioned from supply chain issues holding back production due to overwhelming demand, to wondering how many homes they will be able to sell thanks to climbing interest rates. Recent memories of the inability to source framing materials understandably contributes to fears of how to efficiently deliver homes at affordable price points. Obviously, relationships remain critical through this changing environment. A year ago, strong relationships with structural framing suppliers likely ensured availability of product. Today, those same relationships will likely determine whether a project can be delivered within budget.

Last year at the International Builders Show (IBS), I sat in on a presentation highlighting the benefits of offsite framing. At the conclusion of the presentation, a builder asked how he could transition his company away from traditionally-framed structures and better embrace offsite framing. The presenter didn’t have a great answer other than the builder should already be using offsite practices. I could sense the builder’s frustration as he was trying to embrace the premise of the session but needed guidance in how to move his current portfolio of projects towards a better way to frame. 

That interaction caused me to think through the issue in greater depth. It’s one thing for prognosticators to advocate for a solution, but without a plan on how to implement that solution the hyperbole amounts to nothing more than hot air. So how do builders actually transition their established practices towards offsite framing techniques? It starts with relationships and building a team-like atmosphere with your suppliers and subcontractors. 

The journey from site-built to fully offsite framing can be thought of as a continuum. On one side is a fully stick-framed structure and on the other is a fully componentized project benefiting from all of today’s offsite techniques. Most builders find themselves somewhere on this continuum, some hedged towards the stick-framed end and some leaning towards the offsite side. I view this continuum as a roadmap towards adopting offsite solutions, but before a builder can make progress on their journey, they need to evaluate exactly where they are at on the continuum.

Do you embrace roof trusses? Do you embrace engineered floor solutions? Do you utilize floor cassettes? Do you have experience with wall panels? Are you reaping the benefits of a fully integrated offsite approach? 

Depending on how many different structural framing components a builder is utilizing will determine how far they have to travel and who they need to bring along on their journey. Almost every subcontractor/trade somehow connects to the structural framework of a house. Are each of those trades familiar with the benefits components like roof and floor trusses and wall panels can provide to them? The answer to that question determines how far the builder has to travel along the continuum towards a fully offsite solution. 

This typically doesn’t, and most of the time can’t, happen all at once. If a builder is already utilizing roof trusses but not floor trusses, they should start substituting floor trusses for their status quo method and after a number of projects have a conversation with their HVAC, plumbing and electrical trades. Do they prefer the floor trusses to the solid sawn or I-joists? Do they recognize the efficiency of drilling fewer holes, having more direct runs and generating less mess to clean up on the jobsite? Do they have a component manufacturer (CM) in their area that produces floor cassettes, and if so, do they work with framers who understand how to install them to gain efficiencies in cycle times, and will they communicate opportunities for improvement through an open feedback loop to the CM? Does the builder utilize a masonry contractor that is willing to establish and meet tighter tolerances to literally create a better foundation for everything built on top of it? 

Once a builder has established these relationships, they are in a better place to fully embrace offsite framing techniques. It’s very much like forming a team of like-minded partners who understand that offsite framing is a completely different framing solution with a unique business model that promises tremendous upside potential and benefits for all players involved. 

Jess Lohse is the Executive Director of Structural Building Components Association, an international trade organization representing truss and wall panel manufacturers. 

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