Driving Efficiency in Challenging Times with Structural Building Components

By Jess Lohse

Builders and developers continue to face unprecedented challenges as increased interest rates pressure housing affordability. Current rate levels jeopardize many multifamily housing projects and have many builders working to “do more with less” on single family projects. Times like these cause builders to revert to basics and analyze procurement and construction techniques. It may be tempting to apply pressure to subcontractors and suppliers to increase their scope of work while minimizing their price; better value can be found in soliciting their thoughts for efficiency and improvements to better impact overall total cost of construction.

Component manufacturers (CMs) are an important supplier often overlooked in the construction process. They primarily manufacture roof trusses, floor trusses, and wall panels among other products that drive framing efficiency like stair cubes or sub-components. Often a step away from the builder or developer in turnkey framing solutions (framer supplies materials and labor) or two-step lumber-building material (LBM) markets, they contain a tremendous amount of structural knowledge and solutions that can drive project efficiencies. 

CM technicians typically model 2D plans in a 3D virtual environment to accurately design structural roof, floor, and wall solutions. Their early interaction with plans often identifies potential problem areas not realized earlier in the design process. Additionally, they recognize opportunities to more effectively deploy structural solutions that can drive down costs and speed up installation. Roof trusses are a naturally efficient solution with their use of triangulation to resist loads. With IRC projects, CMs can properly size headers in wall panels to avoid over-built and expensive generic solutions while specifying the proper number of critical studs to form proper load paths. Floor truss end conditions can minimize or even remove expensive hanger requirements of alternative floor solutions. 

SBCA’s Framing the American Dream project, a time-motion study comparing traditional stick framing techniques to component driven solutions, found effective techniques centered on floor panels or cassettes. Floor systems are generally difficult to frame and sheath on-site and require significant coordination from on-site labor. Shifting that labor to a manufacturing environment saves time and quickly moves projects forward. With floor cassettes, the process becomes about “dropping in” the floor system, squaring, and moving to the next phase of the project.

Wall panels, in general, were developed to mimic exactly what occurs in the field with stick framing techniques. While proper design can eliminate studs and ensure proper conditions for wall intersections, a closer analysis reveals the true value of utilizing panels. When built in a manufacturing environment, wall panels undergo a more precise QC process to ensure nailing patterns are met, both in connecting structural elements and required sheathing patterns. This may sound straight forward and irrelevant until you’ve had a job red-tagged for improper nail patterns, depths, and locations. Beyond this, window and door performance is enhanced with precise rough opening tolerances. Remember, efficiency isn’t all about what is streamlined with materials and labor, but also in the problems that are avoided. 

Roof trusses offer increased efficiency compared to stick framed alternatives. They often replace 2×10 rafters and 2×6 joists with 2x4s connected by metal plates that utilize triangulation to distribute loads. Roof trusses are generally accepted as the most practical roof framing solution, but have you ever looked at how they are delivered? They typically arrive stacked as a bundle. An installer that works with their CM can request trusses be stacked, or sequenced, in the order to which they will be installed, saving significant time on-site. It’s a nuanced request, but well worth it to anyone who has spent time looking for a specific truss.

Additional value is created through the modeling process. CMs use sophisticated tools that create data required to perform material and labor takeoffs. While this isn’t unique compared to others who model structures, the accuracy required of CMs is unique. After all, if a wall panel or truss is off by 1/2” (or less) it is considered incorrect. Add this cumulative level of precision throughout a project – the result is a highly accurate model capable of delivering material estimates within tight tolerances. This results in more accurate deliveries from LBMs and fewer additional deliveries and returns later in the project. 

So how does a builder or developer begin to leverage these efficiencies found through a CM? It starts with a relationship and open communication. Not all these activities will be included in the rock-bottom price for individual components, but once a working relationship is established, the CM will be more than willing to deliver these ideas, and more, to drive efficiency throughout your projects and ensure a win-win relationship focused on minimizing the total cost of construction. 

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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