Embrace the City Slicker in You: Capitalizing on the Growth of Urban Living


Embrace the City Slicker in You: Capitalizing on the Growth of Urban Living

The problem is they’re not building any more land.

Texas Donut under constructionIf you do a web search for current trends in U.S. urban planning, article after article will discuss similar issues. Urban planners face new challenges as a result of the recent economic downturn, and subsequent sluggish growth. A few examples include: a higher percentage of renters over owners due to foreclosures and defaults; delayed housing purchases by Generation Y; a growing desire for alternative transportation choices and shorter commutes; all coupled with a decreasing availability of urban land.

So, whether you’re talking about traditional infill, or the recent surge in specialized housing (student housing, for example), there is an increasing demand for multi-story urban residences. One company that has been successful at capitalizing on this trend is Trussway Manufacturing, Inc. “You saw a few of them scattered around the country a few years ago,” recalls Dickie Vail, Vice President of Operations for Trussway. “However, in the past two years, it has really picked up. Now everyone’s building them.”

To understand how a component manufacturer can succeed on these types of projects, we need to look at the buildings in greater depth, explore the new challenges and opportunities they represent for component manufacturers, and understand where this trend is headed.

It’s Not an Over-sized Pastry

One building type that is becoming more and more prevalent is called the “Texas Donut.” “The cost of dirt is becoming so high in more and more urban areas, forcing developers to push up as opposed to out,” says Vail. “It used to be two-story projects were the most popular; now, there’s a push for four to six stories.”

The Texas Donut is a common name for a complex of retail, commercial, residential, or mixed-use units wrapped around an above-ground parking garage. These donuts have become popular by solving two issues in one fell swoop. They provide parking in urban areas, which is always in demand, while simultaneously hiding the unsightly garage from the landscape.

“They’ve become very popular for student housing, as urban universities try to build more units close to campus and also provide much-needed parking,” explains Vail. The good news is that, as the demand for these buildings has increased, so has the push for them to be made more efficiently and at a lower cost. As a consequence, many developers are turning to componentized wood construction due to the relatively low cost of the raw material and the reliability of the engineering and pre-fabrication of the framing components.

Texas Donut under construction

While not a full “Texas Donut,” this photo illustrates how the parking garages are hidden from the landscape. (Photo courtesy of Aerial Innovations of Georgia, Inc. ©2010.)

It’s Simple Economics

In addition to lower raw material prices, the intense competition among component manufacturers over the past few years, coupled with efficiencies in production and lower labor costs for installation, created a “perfect storm” of factors that made wood construction of multi-story buildings a no brainer.

“Cost is the biggest factor for the contractor,” said Vail, “followed closely by the speed of construction. By designing and building them with wood structural components, they can build them a lot faster.” 

In addition to a decrease in the amount of time it takes to frame the building, wood construction also allows the contractor to complete the outside of the building quickly. Sheathing and finishing materials can be applied directly to the wood framing, as opposed to finish-outs (i.e., frame-outs, false framing, etc.) required by traditional steel and concrete construction.

Further, using pre-fabricated components, which can be delivered to multiple jobsites right before they’re needed for installation, results in fewer work stoppages for the contractor. “One of the ways we have really added value is by providing just-in-time delivery,” said Vail. While it adds value for the contractor, there’s a simple logistical reason for doing it this way. “There’s no place to offload the components,” explains Vail. “We have to stick to a pretty concise delivery schedule because, most of the time, they have to close down a road while they offload and install the components.”

It’s Not Without Its Challenges

Just-in-time component delivery is not without its challenges. “Frankly, it creates a logistical nightmare,” laughs Vail. “We can’t just deliver a stack of components, roll them off and leave them anymore.” To the contrary, each truckload needs to be stacked in as close to sequential order as possible so that the components can be taken and installed right off the back of the truck. To pull that off, it takes a lot of planning by the production lines to produce and group the right quantity and type of each component so they can be staged, bundled and loaded in the optimal way.

These types of buildings also present several design challenges. “In the 1970s and ‘80s, all the buildings were rectangles,” said Vail. “But now the size and shape of the property is driving the shape of the building.” Add to this the trend of architects trying to make buildings more interesting to look at, and you get buildings with a lot of angles that can be challenging to componentize. “We are helping them do crazy things, frankly, because we can. A building used to have just six to eight truss types. Now that custom look keeps the truss designers working late nights,” said Vail.

“Having so many truss configurations does slow down production, and unfortunately raises our costs,” conceded Vail. “However, it simultaneously brings up our perceived value because the engineering and design is so much more important, which, in turn, strengthens our relationship with that customer, adds to our reputation in the market and gives us more clout during the bid process.”

It’s About the ‘Value Added’

Trussway Rough Openings“Advancements in truss design software have put us in a situation where we can do almost anything,” said Craig Aufderhar, an Executive Account Manager for Trussway who has worked on several of these projects. “So essentially, creativity and physics are our only limiters.” For many of these projects, the component manufacturer can get involved in the project before the plans are even 50 percent completed. This is beneficial for the manufacturer because it means many of the design challenges can be worked out collaboratively on the front end of the process, as opposed to having to make and get approval of changes on the back end. “It also allows us as a company to really differentiate ourselves in the marketplace by offering value-based design,” said Aufderhar.

Component manufacturers can also add benefit by responding to the needs of the contractor. “Some of these buildings have been built to attain certification under a green building standard,” explained Aufderhar. “In those cases, we are able to come back to the contractor with designs that include roof trusses with raised heel heights or thicker wall cavities for better insulation.”

To help contractors achieve additional green building points, as well as address a pressing concern (literally) for framers when building vertically, Trussway designed a unique component they call Trussway Rough Openings (TROs) (see photos). “The TROs are engineered, pre-fabricated components for door and window openings,” explained Aufderhar. “When the framer gets to a point where there is a load bearing opening, they just insert a TRO.” This solution not only eliminates jobsite waste, it guarantees a square opening. “Contractors appreciate them because they make it easier to install doors and windows,” added Aufderhar. “With tighter variances for these openings, you get increased moisture control and energy efficiency.”

Trussway Rough Openings installed

Trussway Rough Openings (TROs) installed on the jobsite help contractors achieve additional green building points.

It’s Better to Lead than Follow

“Despite the challenges these projects represent, we would much rather be at the leading edge of this trend than behind it,” says Vail. Certainly, it appears that Trussway has succeeded at capturing some of the early market share of these kinds of urban residential projects. There doesn’t appear to be any indication this type of construction is going away. In fact, the opposite appears true. It makes sense economically in that a 300-400 unit project can now be contained in two to three buildings, as opposed to 10-12 buildings in the past.

“The old projects were simpler, and you could do more volume,” said Vail. “But these projects give us the opportunity to showcase our best assets: our design capabilities and our flexibility to meet and exceed their needs.” So the lesson here is to showcase your uniqueness as a component manufacturer, embrace this emerging trend, and start building up!

Editor’s Note: This article would not have been possible without the contribution and insight of Joe Kannapell, Senior Vice President of Sales for MiTek USA, Inc. Thank you, Joe.