Villa Field Notes

Why prefab construction just makes sense

Heather Miksch, VP Operations of Villa
May 20th 2024

The anomaly of on-site construction

My background is in hardware manufacturing. Prior to joining Villa, I ran customer service and operations teams in capital equipment companies– laboratory automation, chemical analysis, industrial 3d printing, and construction robotics. 


I have been a part of building companies from stealth mode to over $100 million in revenue. I’ve scaled machines from alpha versions to full production, operating in over 20 countries. I’ve had customers throughout the US & Canada, Taiwan, China, Japan, Middle East, Europe, and South America. 


But in all my years in manufacturing, I never built a robot from scratch on a customer site. 


Why not? Well, duh. It wouldn’t make sense. I mean, can you imagine? It would be far too complicated. Hardware companies have well-defined supply chains, with coordinated deliveries, receiving personnel, and inventory systems. The inventory is kitted in the warehouse and delivered to the manufacturing floor presumably “just in time.” The technicians and supervisors are all co-located at the factory. Quality managers conduct in-process audits.  If a technician runs into a problem, a supervisor is just a call away. 


Now imagine if you had to move all of this to a customer site. You would increase the expense of getting your supplies to different locations, technicians would be traveling everywhere, and they would not necessarily have the right tools, parts or escalation personnel as needed. The environment and processes would be uncontrolled. In sum, you would never build a robot from the ground up at a customer’s site. 


But we do it all the time in construction. Building a home from the ground up is very common and is referred to as “stick built.” Villa has taken a different approach. We believe that manufactured houses (houses built in a factory) must be part of the solutions to our country’s housing inventory problem, and this homebuilding method is critical to our mission to be the most cost efficient and fastest housing provider. 

A trip to the factories

With that frame of reference and my background in manufacturing, I visited two of Villa’s manufactured housing suppliers in Southern California. These are companies who make HUD approved manufactured housing.  One factory had over 260,000 square feet of manufacturing space and had been in the industry for decades. They walked me through each step of the process– from making the metal chassis that supports the home, to the framing, walls, utilities, dry wall, and final finishing. At the end, a perfectly built home, complete with appliances, lights, windows, everything– is ready to roll out the door. 


I had so many questions. How do they move the heavy walls from one area to another? (Ceiling hoists.) How do they physically move the home from one process station to the next? (A forklift, rollers on the floor and a lot of oversight.) Where do they keep their inventory? (On site, with easy delivery to the manufacturing floor.) Do they make their own cabinets or purchase pre-built? (They build their own and have access to many different designs.) Do they have flexible capacity on their line? (Yes, they can add another shift or move to weekend work as the work flexes, typically seasonally.) Do they have in-process quality control? (Yes, and the plant GM and service manager walks each home before it is rolled off-line.) 


Home construction is easy for me to understand. You build the foundation, build the floor, then the frame. After framing, you add in utilities–electrical and plumbing. Then comes the “closing up”– the drywall and all the “fun stuff” like tile, flooring, windows.  There are different experts in each area– your electrician is not going to set your tile, and you certainly don’t want your roofers taking care of your plumbing.  In many ways, manufactured housing is the same– the factory is laid out in different stations with technicians trained in specific areas. 


But from a customer standpoint, these two methods are worlds apart. 


I have never built a home from scratch, but my husband and I have renovated our San Jose home from top to bottom over the 15 years we’ve lived here.  There are also many homes in my neighborhood that are undergoing construction. My beagle and I check on them daily during our walks. 


From my viewpoint– that of an operations person with a manufacturing background and as a homeowner and potential customer– here are the major differences:

Prefab vs. Stick Built Process

Reliable materials

In the factory, all of the materials are right there. Having managed inventory in factories for years, I know that getting material on time and in the right place is fundamental to running a successful manufacturing line. You have standard inventory in house, you have measured waste and breakage. Before you start the build, you run a “clear to build” process. 


This means that an inventory planner has reviewed all of the required parts and ensures they are on-site and available and that you can start the build process.  In the field, if you are missing a piece or a part, it’s often not caught until you need it. Then there’s a break in the day for a Home Depot run (for a common part) or worse– you need to put an order in with a wholesale supplier for a more specific part. For instance–you might have received a shipment of broken tile– as we did during a bathroom remodel– that added a good month onto our timeline. 

Faster, more efficient process

In the factory, the technician and the resources are all on site.  If there’s an issue, it’s dealt with immediately.  In the field, technicians are constantly coming and going. How many different trucks have we had in our driveway during our remodels? It is not uncommon to have the GC plus a variety of skilled tradesmen. Each one manages their own schedule and each one run into delays getting to your site. If the technician needs and escalation, they call a supervisor, who might not be able to come by the job site for several days. 


In the factory, if a technician is done with one job early, they can move to another station (if trained) to provide added support to finish off the next section. In the field, if a technician is done early, they pretty much go home. There isn’t another project waiting for them across the street to slide right into. 


And for HUD homes in particular– these are homes that are built to a specific building standard governed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead of calling inspectors at every moment, the home is inspected at the factory and a serialized plaque is placed on the side. Local building inspectors have no jurisdiction over manufactured housing, so the inspection process is much more streamlined. This is certainly unlike the home inspections that happen around the clock with stick-built. For instance, when we remodeled our bathroom and moved our plumbing, we needed a plumbing inspection before they could seal the floor off, then an inspection after they sealed the floor off before we could move to the next steps. 

Less disruption at the building site 

And did I mention the noise & dust? Think of the overall disruption– both to yourself and your neighbors– that comes with stick built homes. All of the power tools used for the framing, all the associated dust from cutting wood and tile to length, and the very dirty process for adding and sanding drywall. In a factory, this all happens away from you– for stick built, this happens in your backyard. 


Of course, the prefab process isn’t totally noise and disruption-free. With Villa, your backyard will be an active construction site for a period of time while we prepare your site, build your foundation, and install your home. But you can expect Villa to spend a fraction of the time in your backyard, kicking up dust and bugging your neighbors, compared to the stick built process. 

Embracing the future of homebuilding

It’s an exciting time to be working at Villa.  There’s a clear problem to be solved, a drastic shortage of attainable homes for the average family, and manufactured homes are a clearly promising solution. In fact, the US is a little slow on the uptake in this area. In the last two years, 24% of new buildings in France had utilized prefab building techniques. In Belgium, it’s 47%. 


The homebuilding revolution is just getting started in America, and it’s both fun and rewarding to be on a team that’s leading the charge.

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