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Polls Done 13 Months Apart Show Covid Is Nudging Builders Toward Off-Site Construction

Like scientists tracking a slow-moving glacier, a leading pollster of America's builders is seeing signs that contractors' views are warming when it comes to off-site construction.

The research by Ed Hudson, director of market research at the Home Innovation Research Labs, suggests there's been only a small rise in the percentage of builders who plan to increase their use of building envelope components that come out of a factory rather than straight from a timber mill. But it is noticeable. Here are the results of two surveys, conducted in August 2019 and September 2020, in which builders were asked to indicate whether they planned to increase use of certain building techniques in the next five years.

Of these materials, only trusses are widely used now; the Home Innovation Research Labs estimates trusses support about 62% of the area of new roofs for single-family homes constructed each year. For the others, the percentage growth shown above would represent significant gains.

While the numbers are up, the September survey of builders by Hudson and his team found only 19% of respondents felt more favorably about off-site construction than they did before the pandemic. Nine percent were less interested in off-site, and 72% reported no change.

Why? Poll questions in April and September give possible reasons.

In April, Hudson's team asked builders what they thought the best long-term solution was to deal with skilled construction labor shortages. Here's a slide he created for a recent presentation in which he summarized what they said:

At that point, only 7% felt off-site construction was an answer. But by September, builders had experienced a summer of stronger-than-expected demand, lumber prices that had more than doubled, and even more challenges getting crews to work efficiently. By September, it appears more builders were beginning to see off-site construction methods as a way to solve some dire problems:

Among the reasons why some were more favorable:

* It's easier to maintain social distancing with fewer crews and smaller crews.

* Construction cycle time shrinks.

* There are fewer vendors to deal with, and some supply chain disruptions recede.

Those who were less favorable said adopting off-site techniques could increase uncertainty and give them less flexibility to respond to issues and less control over the construction process.

"Surprisingly, only 6% of builders responded that lack of skilled labor would be the key driver; the same number that said improved quality would be key to continuing with, or switching to, offsite methods," Hudson wrote in an Oct. 6 report.

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