Ron Cauchi, president of Mattamy Homes’ Stelumar Advanced Manufacturing plant, shows off the enormous facility, which can handle the construction of 10 houses at any given time.
Weather problems don’t affect construction since these houses are assembled indoors
It’s a bitter and blustery day on the western edge of Milton; with the wind chill it feels like -18C.
But Brent Bennett is without hat, coat or gloves as he works to install windows and doors in a house under construction.
That’s because Bennett and his co-workers at Mattamy Homes’ Stelumar Advanced Manufacturing plant are building homes indoors, for the nearby Hawthorne Village on the Escarpment site.
Bennett, the lead hand in back framing, has worked in construction for 21 years all over Canada and has had to contend with a variety of conditions, such as “being up to your knees in muck one day on site and then having it all frozen over the next day.
“And we all have to deal with shovelling our driveways, but just imagine having to shovel out a construction site.”
In comparison, he says, building a home in a factory is heaven.
“There are no rain days, no snow days. It’s climate controlled. There’s an advantage to working with dry lumber.”
The cavernous Stelumar facility on Tremaine Rd. south of Derry Rd. produces a new house a day and 10 are in various stages of progress at any one time. Each day at 4 a.m., the moving production line advances the houses – 600,000 pounds worth – to the next work station.
Since it was launched last summer, more than 60 houses have rolled off the Stelumar line and on to waiting foundations. As many as 220 houses a year will be built there over four years.
“Six months ago, this was pretty hot-off-the-press stuff. We didn’t even know if we could do this,” says Stelumar president Ron Cauchi.
There were a few bugs to work out. Initially, the skidding system that moves the homes down the line wasn’t able to handle the weight of 10 houses and needed adjusting, and the roof-hoisting mechanism, which allows for roofs to be fully assembled on the floor and then lifted into place, needed to be developed.
While factory-built homes aren’t a new phenomenon in North America, this facility is a breed apart. Unlike modular builders, which build their homes in sections, then ship the pieces to the site for assembly, the Stelumar homes roll off the line in one piece, with cabinetry, light fixtures, electrical and plumbing systems, and even paint already in place.
“This has nothing to do with modular,” Cauchi says. “These houses are extremely architecturally complex with multiple roof lines, dormers, wraparound porches and lofts.”
Then, there’s the way they are shipped, on a specialized, motorized transporter.
“There’s another difference from modular homes, which are put on a flatbed truck and shipped to a site,” Cauchi says. “This is a pretty complex piece of machinery. It’s like the platform that carries the space shuttle to the launch pad.”
For the one-kilometre, 15-minute journey from factory to building lot, the homes are shipped on a private road within the Mattamy site. The houses could be sent along public roads, Cauchi says, but it would require permits, police escorts and disruption of traffic to accommodate the wide, slow-moving load.
About 200 of 300 homes slated for 36- and 46-foot lots at Hawthorne Village on the Escarpment are being built at Stelumar, and the designs are identical to the homes being built on site. (Homebuyers don’t get to choose whether their homes will be site-built or factory- produced.) Eighteen different models are being produced, each with up to six different elevations.
“There are three, first-floor layouts typically and three choices of second floors, with options like bay or bow kitchen windows and second-floor laundry rooms,” Cauchi says. “It’s pretty darn close to custom building. The choices buyers have are mind-boggling. It’s not at all cookie-cutter manufacturing.”
Cauchi says there are various reasons why Mattamy, the province’s largest builder, has taken to factory building, as well as continuing to construct the conventional way. (Cauchi is quick to add that the site-built homes are of comparable quality.)
“The primary driver is customer satisfaction. It’s (Mattamy CEO) Peter Gilgan’s passion,” Cauchi says. One of the biggest issues with consumers is reliability of closing date, he says, and the factory approach means construction is not affected by weather conditions that cause delays on conventional building sites. “You can keep building even in a blizzard.”
There’s also the issue of quality – in a factory environment, building materials aren’t being exposed to the elements, which may cause lumber to warp. And timing is dead on. Because temperature and humidity can be controlled indoors, drywall mud, for example, dries exactly when it’s supposed to.
The factory approach shaves 70 days off building a house the conventional way â€“ a new home can be turned out from the factory every 11 days. Another two to five weeks are allotted to complete the on-site work, such as bricking the house, steps, porches, hooking up utilities and landscaping. (Building code regulations and weight issues require bricks to be installed on site.)
At the plant, workers have a safe, comfortable environment, don’t have to worry about losing income or making up time due to weather and their tools are in the same location, day after day. The problems of construction site theft are eliminated. And because the workers (100 building crew and 15 office staff) are Mattamy employees, the builder doesn’t have to rely on outside trades.
Currently, it costs more for Mattamy to build the houses indoors than on site, but Cauchi says Stelumar’s mandate is not to cut costs â€“ it’s about improving customer satisfaction and serving as a research and development lab for new technologies and products.
“Today, it operates at a premium but tomorrow, the plan is for a customer satisfaction at neutral cost; to produce the homes at the same cost as on site.”
Mattamy launched a pilot factory in Cambridge a few years ago where homes were built inside an old aircraft hangar.
Those houses were built exactly as they would have been on-site and finished only to the drywall stage before being shipped out. The line didn’t move and trades had to be scheduled, rather than working simultaneously at designated work stations.
Mattamy continues to operate a manufacturing facility in Cambridge, which supplies Milton’s plant with prefabricated wall and floor panels.
The walls are built on 24-inch centres rather than the usual 16, but are stronger because of the rigid polyurethane foam insulation. Value engineering (designing products at the lowest cost while maintaining quality) and computerized design and manufacture allow for optimized load bearing through aligned floor joists, studs and roof trusses, Cauchi says. The timberframe structure itself is more than strong enough to meet requirements. The rigid foam adds a structural strength bonus.
The engineered design also maximizes heating and cooling efficiency as ducts from the basement furnace can be lined up to run straight up to the attic, cutting the distance hot or cool air has to travel.
Rigid foam insulation is usually found only in high-end custom homes, Cauchi says. It would be cost-prohibitive for Mattamy to hire people to spray foam in site-built homes, but the prefabricated panels used in the plant are cheaper. Fewer wall studs and tightly controlling waste mean the Stelumar homes use 25 per cent less lumber. Over the factory’s four-year life span, producing 800 to 900 homes, an estimated 40-hectare woodlot will be saved, Cauchi says.
When Hawthorne Village is finished, the factory will be recycled, disassembled, then set up at another Mattamy site.
Several such factories are in future Mattamy plans, though locations have not yet been announced. Cauchi says they will be large sites with hundreds of lots.
All Hawthorne Village homes are built to Energy Star standard. “In fact, these are better insulated than Energy Star,” he says.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of houses the Mattamy factory can produce annually. Ten are in production at any one time, with one new house produced every 11 days.
Factory size in square feet.
Employees at the plant.
Number of days shaved off conventional site building.
Kilometre between factory and building lots.
Weight in pounds of a fully loaded production line.
Percentage of lumber saved over site-built homes, due to tight control of waste and reduced need for wall studs.
Similar plants Mattamy is considering for the GTA over the next five years. Milton plant will be disassembled and moved to a new site.
Written By: Tracy Hanes of the Toronto Star