30. The House that Sears Built

Show Notes

How long has prefab been around? Turns out, a pretty long time. This week we dive into a quick history of prefab and go through the reasons why the prefabrication process needs to be used more.

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Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me like he is every week: my brother, Eddie Campbell.

Eddie: Hello, Tyler.

Tyler: Hello, Eddie. Well we've got an awesome show for you today. We are going to be talking about prefab, and all the reasons why we love it. So we're going to jump right into that right now.


Tyler: I know you and I have talked about prefab so many times over the years. I finally just wanted to sit down, let's put it on record, let's have our conversation on prefab.

Eddie: Yeah, let's do it. I feel like this is a buzz anyway. Prefab, modular kitting, what else did we throw out there? I think that covers most of it. That's the buzz. You throw that stuff up on social media right now, and people are like, “What, what?” And they want to share it up and act like they're associated with it.

Tyler: Exactly. Because it's like this “new tech.”

Eddie: Exactly. But is it?

Tyler: It's not.

Eddie: So what did you find that proves that?

Tyler: Alright, so, back in 1908, Sears and Roebuck—ever heard of ‘em?—they had a catalog. And within that catalog, amongst the guns and the dresses and the yo-yos and things like that, there were houses that you could purchase. You could send out an order form and they would send a home to you via railcar, and then you'd have to transport it to site, and you'd put it together. But the thing is, they precut all of the lumber. They had instructions like LEGO so you knew exactly where everything went. And this was back in 1908. That is even a more current form of prefab, even a more current example of prefab, because I'm sure we could go back even further and find more of it.

Eddie: Yeah, I'm sure that we probably could. One of my favorite fun facts that I learned about these is when they were shipped, they would put them in a train car. And I don't know if you remember this, but they would actually seal the door with red wax.

Tyler: Oh yeah, I do remember that.

Eddie: Almost like a real—

Tyler: Like a fancy letter.

Eddie: Yeah. You know, where it was only to be broken by the homeowner. So this boxcar would get there with your home in it, and then you would break open this wax seal to the boxcar and, you know, get your carriage or your Model T or whatever you had and start carting the thing home. I love that.

Tyler: I feel like people associate prefabrication with current tech because of BIM, and that you need BIM in order to do prefab, and that you need— No, you just need common sense to do prefab, you know?

Eddie: Well, why do we lean on BIM though, and why do we lean on— Yes, we do need common sense and we need a reason. We need motivation to prefab.

Tyler: We do, yeah.

Eddie: And there are some. I mean, motivations to prefab: We get things done faster.

Tyler: Yeah. Things are done cleaner and more consistently.

Eddie: That controlled environment matters.

Tyler: Yeah.

Eddie: What about the safety aspects of it?

Tyler: I would say that's probably one of the biggest factors. Because on a job that we're doing currently, we are doing some prefab, and the requirements of the client, they're basically saying “We want to use this because it's safer.” That's one of their main motivations, for the safety factor of it. And I mean, good on you, man. Good on you for doing that.

Eddie: So we know that there are definite advantages to using prefabrication modular construction. Panelization is one I don't think we mentioned earlier in kitting.

Tyler: Well, panelization, too, I think people get kind of skewed.

Eddie: Yeah, like what is panelization? I think we need to probably go into some definitions, and these are going to be loose definitions.

Tyler: Of course.

Eddie: Because I think that they're up for grabs in the industry. But modular construction, we have found from the industrial side of things, can mean very different things to an industrial user than it does to a commercial user. Because there are people that are literally barging like 50, 60 tons of fabricated and assembled steel, with piping and other things outfitted in this module, downriver. And so, a module—we're talking about something that's been fabricated to a certain degree, hopefully almost to completion, if not to completion, for kind of a snap-in type of install when it gets to the site. Now, panelization, I think of walls. That's immediately where my mind goes. So panelizing wall systems so that we can put them in, and again, snap-in type of install when we get to the site.

Tyler: You went on a riff the other day about the definition of stick-built on site as well.

Eddie: Yeah, this is something that I almost wish I could send this to City of Milledgeville here, and the county people, and have them think about this. But in our area, and I'm talking—this isn't a rip on South Georgia and “we've got so many modular homes and trailers and stuff”—no, I mean like Horton Homes, which was a huge supplier of modular and trailer homes, was here. Like, Horton was right up the road from us. And so, there were a lot of these homes. In the same way that the Sears Roebuck houses were kind of centered around that epicenter in Illinois where their yard was, we have a lot of those types of homes here. Well, one of the things that people will write in as a covenant on a piece of property is a “stick-built only” home. And that was my rant. What does stick-built mean, and why can't I bring in something that's panelized, kitted, or modular and have the same amount of quality to it? The reason people write in “stick-built only” is because they are insinuating you're going to build to a certain quality when you build on this site. They're trying to keep somebody from dropping a single-wide trailer in the midst of a neighborhood that is, you know, filled with homes that have been built by bringing the two by sixes to the site and building it out.

Tyler: And fair enough.

Eddie: Yeah. Get the materials, get the framer, everything comes out. But the argument was, what does stick-built mean? If I build the wall on site and lift it into place, that’s stick-built. I've still built a chunk of it and lifted it in place. But that’s stick-built because all the sticks showed up and then the framers showed up and I put it together. Well, what if I figured out a way of carrying that two blocks down the road to a little, you know, plot of land that I deemed was better for actually putting the walls together because I had more room. Maybe I have a tight site or something and I just want to be able to put them on a trailer and bring them right on down and build them. Still stick-built, right? I think most people would buy that. Well what if it's not two blocks? What if it's two miles? What if it's not two miles, what if it's twenty? What if it's coming out of Atlanta? What if it's two hundred miles? So you really, you have to stop and think, well at what point was that not stick-built? And many of the modular homes use the basics of what builders use already to assemble their product. And that's the rant for me, is you're putting kind of a really sorry covenant on a piece of property by saying “stick-built only,” because now you have inhibited the progression of modular construction, prefab, panelization, and things that could be very useful.

Tyler: Well, because there's a stigma around it for sure. The reason that that covenant exists is because there's a stigma around prefab. A lot of people, if I say prefab—if you're in the residential markets specifically—you're thinking of mobile homes; which, they're built to be affordable, you know, think about that. They are built to be cheap and reachable for a lot of people.

Eddie: That's where the Sears houses—

Tyler: That's their purpose, but the funny thing is, these Sears houses, in comparison to these mobile homes, a lot of them are still standing. If you live in an old home that was built from 1908 to 1940, do some digging. Like, this could be one of these houses still standing.

Eddie: Yeah, there were, what, like 78,000 of these?

Tyler: 70,000.

Eddie: 70,000. And looking at these, I mean, I've got the catalog in front of me right now. You can look up Sears Homes and they've got an archive of them if you want to see the different models.

Tyler: They’re pretty.

Eddie: And they've got these cool names to them and they are, they're very pretty. They've got the Chelsea, the Hamilton. This looks like something that I feel like I might find out on a nice piece of property in the country.

Tyler: Stick-built, yeah.

Eddie: That's right. And so, for the most part, I would think that you could put these homes together and most people would not be able to tell the difference.

Tyler: Yeah.

Eddie: Now, these came out with a very specific set of instructions. That was another thing that I thought was kind of cool about this, was Sears told the owner—and a lot of these were put together, not by a contractor, but by the owner, even in a kind of barn raising type of bit, like, “Come on everybody and help me out.”—so they would come with an instruction booklet, “Do this, now do this,” LEGO style. And they would say very specifically, “Do not listen to the advice of anybody else or deviate from the instructions that are in this book.” So in other words, if a contractor that came down the road—

Tyler: “Oh, I know how to do this better.”

Eddie: Yeah. They're like, “No, no, you're going to do it the way the instructions tell you.” I have for years as a steel detailer wanted to kind of hone in and fashion our product after LEGO instructions, because I think that LEGO instructions are really what we're after when it comes to telling an erector how to put something together.

Tyler: It's geared so that the barrier for entry is very low.

Eddie: Yeah, you know, you’ve got some sets that can be put together by a seven-year-old, and some that need a twelve-year-old.

Tyler: Yeah. I mean if we can get to twelve-year-old on our drawings, I think we're doing really good. Because I mean, what's the number one gripe? Oh, you didn't show this—

Eddie: Missing information. It's not intuitive, which is really what you're after. You're not trying to dumb it down for the sake of dumbing it down. You're trying to make the information accessible and intuitive.

Tyler: And that's the benefit of prefab, is that you get to do these things over and over again.

Eddie: Yeah. And I want to turn back, because before we just blow on beyond this, I think it's very important: There's a reason why we go back to BIM a lot and we're like, “Oh, we've got BIM now. We can do a lot of this prefab stuff.” What Sears did was, they planned well and there were not like three of these models that you buy. There were like hundreds of different models of homes that you could buy from Sears and they all were planned. They were so well-planned that they were telling people, “Don't deviate from the plans and the instructions, do them like we show you.” BIM is planning tool. You know, we're enabling people to plan better on the front end. And so where maybe Sears had to build a full prototype to get the full effect of all of the 3D, and then they could kind of hone and then ship the actual final product—we can do that digitally now. And so there is no doubt in my mind that we have better tools to be able to do this. But when it comes down to it, it's planning. And I'll go back to our buddy Sam Perosa and say, we shouldn't use BIM as a crutch, and that BIM is not what enables prefab. BIM helps prefab. BIM helps us build with modular means.

Tyler: It starts the conversation with the experts, right? So you can build this model out and then have people come around the table and look at it with you. And that's really when it gets advantageous. You know, it's back to our conversation with Eric Reinholdt—like, well, we'll just keep going back into these different conversations we've had—but he is an architect. He curates. He gathers information and he talks to people who are knowledgeable in specific subjects and topics, and he integrates that into his BIM. All of that planning is in the model. And so, prefab in a lot of ways is a way to facilitate some of that planning. You've got to do the head-scratching upfront.

Eddie: So planning is huge.

Tyler: Right.

Eddie: I think another thing that comes into play here is accuracy and tolerances. And this is something else that I think some of our resources like ACI, AISC, different governing entities that are saying that standard tolerances dictate that “you are allowed to be this much out.” They're going to have to start thinking about things again, because the tools that we now have, and the means and methods that we now have, dictate that we should be able to hit stricter tolerances. And prefab, modular kitting, panelization—all heavily rely on tolerance. And it's a lack thereof, really is the tipping point for, “I don't want to put all that together because I'll have more latitude to adjust.”

Tyler: You've got the tools in the shop to make sure that you're meeting those tolerances.

Eddie: Right. And that's a controlled environment. So the shop tolerances should be just, like, down to the gnat's eyelash. But the field tolerances are the trick, because if I'm bringing a panel out, and that panel has to be snapped in, and those snaps are off—you know, if it has to be anchored down, but those anchors are off—if it's relying on other trades and those trades are off, then I've got a problem. So, you know, if I'm bringing out rack after rack after rack of cable tray, that already has something in it, I've put together long runs of complex cable tray or piping or whatever that may be, but then I'm fixing that to something else, I have to have some sort of means of being able to adjust in the field. So that field adjustment is something we need to take into consideration when it comes to our connections. Like how do we snap together? But it also needs to be taken in consideration that tolerances need to get tighter. I think we have the means for doing this, because again, the means and methods, the tooling is getting better because we can verify things now. We have so many ways— like scaled robotics. We'll throw another one out there: Stuart Maggs. I'm going back to him and now we were doing site verification of how close we are to the tolerances and intended build.

Tyler: And yeah, even back to another one, Ben Blumer, going back there and verifying what a stair tread looks like before you install the flooring on it. There's so much technology that's coming out right now to facilitate prefab that it's almost a shame that we don't do it more.

Eddie: You know, we're going to have to name this episode, “Everything we've learned from all the people.”

Tyler: Yeah, really.

Eddie: It's like one after another after another, but it really is like, when you get them all together, it's like this patchwork quilt of all of these different things, because everybody has a little bit different place in the world. They're all doing a little bit different thing and hitting a little bit different facet of the industry. And so, I mean, we talked about this stuff with Josh Bone. You know, Clifton Harness is laying the foundations of this stuff with what he's doing. Kimon Onuma is talking about databases, this stuff through the VA and the other entities, or BIM storm. I mean this is absolutely like we're swirling around it and swirling around it and swirling around it. But as an industry, other than a lot of buzz, we really haven't quite landed there.

Tyler: Why do you think that is?

Eddie: I fear that it has come from fear. I think that we are, as an industry—yes, we're obstinate. Yes, we have a hard time changing, but at the same time we want to earn a buck and we want to do it better. And if you show me a better way, like you give me a better tool, I’d be like, “Man, that's awesome.” You know, I want to use that better saw. You show me something that works a lot, and well, I want to use it. So I don't think we're all obstinate to a fault.

Tyler: But those are tools. This is more concept.

Eddie: This is method. And what we won't do is go back as an industry and kind of slow down to plan. Because we're afraid if we slow down to plan that that time will never be seen back. We're also afraid of having to make these suggestions to owners and potentially having the owner fly because somebody else just, they're willing to just beat it out because, let's face it, not all owners give a crap.

Tyler: They want it the cheapest way possible and the best they can get it.

Eddie: Right. Yeah. Another comes from, who are you being advised by? And so if I've got somebody that has done it a certain way for years and years and years, and they are the one that's in direct advisement—

Tyler: (coughs) Architects. (coughs)

Eddie: Not all architects are created the same, but many of them that are kind of the the dyed-in-the-wool architect of the construction management era, have the design, bid, build methodology so ingrained. And if they have an owner cozy up to them— Because who do I go to when I need to build something? It's an old question. But a new question, I think, once upon a time, it was like if I need to get something designed and built, I'll go to an architect. And then the architect's going to tell me how the process is going to go. Now there are a lot of other people vying for that. There are a lot of different ways of delivering a project that are vying for the attention of owners. But what kind of skin will the owner have? How savvy will the owner be? Are they going to push the project in that direction? And then a billion other factors that keep people from moving, because if I'm the only crazy out there that’s saying, “Hey, we need to do it a different way, hey we need to do it a different way,” and everybody else is like, “Shut up and get in line,” there's kind of a choice that has to be made. I've either got to go and find my tribe and just keep searching until I find people that want to do it my way, or I just shut up and get back in line and continue to make money.

Tyler: That's what most people have opted to do.

Eddie: Most people have opted for that.

Tyler: Yeah. Well I, I get the fear. That makes a lot of sense. You know, if I'm out in the world and I’m a GC and it's either I do it the traditional method—the traditional way, the design, bid, build way—or I lose this project and I potentially lose everything else that I've worked on and worked for in business, or put that at risk, to go out and chase this idea. I get that. It is. It is scary. But you know, we've got to step out in faith, because as we said, this stuff isn't new. It's been done for centuries. For some reason there's a fear though.

Eddie: I think a lot of things work that way. You know, we abandon one thing to chase something new and then, you know, years later we look back and go, “Oh man, there were merits in that thing we abandoned.” So self-performance, self-performing GCs, were much more prevalent before the wave of construction management came through in, let's say, like 70s and 80s; and as a result of construction management, self-performance kind of went away. There weren't as many self-performing contractors, where before that day, contractors had a lot more in-house as far as their capacity to actually build a thing and not just manage. They weren't just managers of construction that didn't know much about each individual trade. A lot of times they had these tradesmen working for them. So, I mean, in some ways we've seen that rehoused, where we've seen people look at that and go, “Oh wait, you know, we could come up with a self-performing asset within our company and that could be really good for us.” So it's funny how we'll look back and see the merits of things we've already done. It's also funny how if we're not students of history, we'll think of a thing and think it's the first time somebody’s thought of a thing. Which I think is kind of the big point in this episode is, everybody's celebrating all of these buzzwords—the modular, the prefab, the kitting, the panelization—and everybody's throwing it on social media as quickly and as often as they can, because, hey, everybody celebrates that.

Tyler: Everybody gets the most likes out of that stuff for sure.

Eddie: That's right. And then it's not all that new. I'm sorry, but we are not the most intelligent generation of people that have ever been born. We simply have different tools.

Tyler: Keep in mind, we landed on the moon in 1969. You know, like with slide rules and computers that are less powerful than the phone that you have in your hand or in your pocket right now.

Eddie: Or, coming up to that, computers that when you were talking about computers, you meant a person.

Tyler: Yeah. And they still existed. Go watch the movie Hidden Figures.

Eddie: Oh yeah, great movie. And so I don't think that we should get arrogant about who we are, how intelligent we are, how we do things. Because it really is, it is the ultimate arrogance to think that we are that much smarter than that generation going by. We are not.

Tyler: And don't you— Just kind of another riff here is that, you know, don't you feel like that's kinda been passed down because of the managers, in a lot of ways? I'm sick of seeing “manager.” Be a freaking builder. That's what you are. If you don't know how to build, then we got a problem. So that's, that's the push that I feel like you and I have always had together. And that's something that we inherited from Dad. Dad taught us, and Poppy, you know? Like these are the things that we grew up on, is that architects were the master builder at one point. We've lost that. It's gone. You ask an architect to put a dog house together, they'd probably go, “Uhhh.” And it— That's not going to be every architect.

Eddie: You’re stepping on toes now, boy.

Tyler: No, I'm stepping on toes, I realize that. That is not going to be every architect, I realize it. But there is a vast majority out there that are like that, that came out of school saying “I want to be an architect” and don't know how to build. So if you are that person, great, there's so much for you to learn, but you've got to ask and stop being arrogant about it. You know? And so I just want to urge people to stop living in fear on this stuff. Start exploring, you know, look back in history, see how it was done then. There's so many cool things that we could be doing now if we just had the cajones to do them.

Eddie: Well okay, so we've hit planning now. The next thing: Collaboration. Favorite word.

Tyler: But also our least favorite word.

Eddie: Right? How do we get away from the rah-rah, team go, BS collaboration?

Tyler: “Here’s your T-shirt, we're a team now.”

Eddie: Yeah, how do we get from that, which we've talked about this in the past, like where the subcontractor is going from job site to job site to job site hearing, “Hey, you're on our team.” And the guy's like, “Man, I thought I was on that other team.” You know, “I thought I was on the last four teams that I went to those job site meetings for and heard the same speech out of somebody who is, you know, no offense, but 25 years old, that is parroting the thing that somebody told him to say in the job site trailer.”

Tyler: I’m 27, and I do not take offense to this, because I know it's true.

Eddie: Well, that guy that's been there and has been kicking around job sites for 30 years doesn't give a crap. He does not care. He’s heard it a billion times. How do we tip the scales from that? Just hokey, stupid, “let's build a team”—that nobody believes in, really—type of collaboration, to, “I want an actual collaborative effort from design, owner included.” So owner, architect, engineers.

Tyler: I want to go back to something that Dad talked about a couple months ago. He and I had a conversation about this sort of thing: Build a team. Find people that you work well with and build that team. Marry up with them. You know, he talked about back in the day where if he needed some electrical done, he knew who he was going to because he knew he could trust that person. Because they went from job to job. They really got good working together. So that collaboration comes with working together often, which is why I think prefab is— That's another pro for prefab right there. You know, ‘cause these people are working together and collaborating with each other every single day.

Eddie: Well that was Colwill.

Tyler: And they're still buddies.

Eddie: They're still hanging out.

Tyler: And you know, Dad still has Mike Hudgins who is, you know, a carpenter and superintendent. Like this dude knows his crap, and they're still buddies to this day. It goes beyond work, right?

Eddie: It does go beyond work.

Tyler: You're building friendships with people.

Eddie: Which can't be artificial, by the way.

Tyler: Yeah. That's when you're buying value. That's when you're buying value.

Eddie: I hear that. The collaboration aspect of this is an absolute necessity to make it happen when it needs to happen. What we figured out, I mean, we've seen companies spring up out of the thought that they're going to be an all-encompassing builder for this, right? So I mean, whether that's Skender or Katerra or any of the other buzz companies we could throw out, you know—

Tyler: ABC, 123, yeah.

Eddie: They're out there, right? And they're doing this thing. And they've gotten a team of people together in-house that process and they're now becoming a different place for an owner to go and get a building. They're a one-stop shop. And that's really cool. Most of the industry is much more fragmented than that. And I don't know if I believe that all building everywhere is going to go to companies that are just like that.

Tyler: No, it definitely won't.

Eddie: This is a giant industry with a lot of different needs, and not all of the needs fit that build.

Tyler: Because owners have friends that they trust over those bigger companies as well.

Eddie: Deal is, though, that all of this modular talk, prefab, and everything like that—it has to go back to the planning phase.

Tyler: It has to.

Eddie: Which is a collaborative effort between the different designers and engineers and owner and all of the things that they're trying to bake together. This has to be done earlier. And unless we're willing to invest in more value—Ajibade Aibinu—more value, we are not going to get where we need to get from a prefab standpoint because we won't have planned for it. You can't backwards reverse engineer this back into a process. It wasn't built for it. It needs to be thought about on the front end. You have to start there. And if you haven't started there, trying to shove it back in doesn't work all that well. The client that you were speaking of has basically mandated— We have an owner that's saying, “I want you to build these by modular means. You have to. You have to. This is a project requirement.” But the problem was, is they let their architect and engineer go and do all of the normal design stuff without a single thought given to the modular means of construction. Nobody was consulted, nobody was brought in, nobody was talked to. But now the mandate comes. We love modular construction.

Tyler: It’s stuff like that that gets us up in the morning for sure.

Eddie: My recommendation though, on this project, was basically, yeah, build it by conventional means because that is the best way to do everything you need to do based on what the engineer has given me. And everybody went, “No, but we can't, we have to do modular ‘cause they said so.” And you go, “Yeah, but that's not the most efficient means to do this anymore unless you go all the way back to design and change the design.” And the engineer's going, “I don't have fee for that.” You know, the architect’s like, “Why do I need to redesign everything?” There's also another thing, like, there's this “getting in each other's kitchen” mentality that comes out. That, like, “I'm getting up in your business, and you're getting up in mine, and we're having to come to each other,” because collaboration is not just a pull. It's push and pull. This works like any other relationship. We've got to work together and we got to give a little. If you’re going to take, you gotta give a little, and we don't want to do that. We've got a process, we got a thing we do, we don't want to change it, here we are. This is me. I'm stuck in the mud.