Why Construction Needs Offsite Framing More Than Ever

Originally published by the following source: SBC MagazineApril 13, 2021
by Jess Lohse


With sky high lumber prices and skilled labor increasingly difficult to find, the construction industry needs offsite framing now more than ever.  I talk with component manufacturers (CMs) and others in the construction industry frequently about the problems facing their businesses.  Alarm bells have been ringing at a higher and higher pitch over the past several months about the cost, and availability, of softwood lumber for framing single-family homes, apartment complexes, and light-frame commercial buildings.   

Unfortunately, lumber has generally been treated like a disposable byproduct of the overall construction process throughout my lifetime.  Framers on jobsites would start cutting into a 14’ 2x4 when a 12’ would suffice if it meant they didn’t have to walk the length of the jobsite to retrieve a more efficient length.  In other words, their time was the highest valued commodity on the jobsite, not the materials they were using.  Construction magazines and websites are riddled with jobsite photos showing overflowing dumpsters of wasted lumber.  Large amounts of wood fiber were discarded due to inefficient planning, poor quality, lack of skilled workers, or damage on site or in shipment. I would argue much of this waste was due to the fact that many involved in the process simply didn’t care, or weren’t properly incentivized to care, about efficient material use.   

A majority of the construction industry affected by soaring lumber costs and lack of capable labor is waiting for something to change.  The hope is that supply catches up with demand and the markets will react accordingly, allowing for more profitable projects and a continuation of the robust construction spending we’ve witnessed recently.  But what if the markets don’t change?  What if elevated costs and constrained labor are the new norms?  If that’s the case, we have a catalyst for procedural change.  No longer can framers, or their general contractors (GCs), afford not to walk the length of the jobsite to find that 12’ board to cut into.  But why is the framer still cutting so much lumber on site?   

The construction industry possesses the knowledge and technology to vastly improve its processes from start to finish.  The problem is the industry is working independent of one another, stuck in traditional frameworks stifling progress with the potential to ease the burden on the entire supply chain.   

Framers should be erecting wall panels and roof and floor trusses built by precision-driven machinery designed to minimize waste in every way. Offsite manufacturing ensures every framing element is designed, fabricated, delivered, and installed to be as material-efficient as possible.   

GCs should seek out framers eager to build with offsite methods so they can have confidence they are employing an efficiency-driven subcontractor focused on minimizing time and material waste in an effort to maximize savings that can be applied to driving down costs.   

I would also argue architects, engineers, and other building designers should be bolden in utilizing these techniques and advocating them in the design phase of every project to ensure easier buildability and greater sustainability going forward.  They should also be employing design techniques and software that streamline the value chain of information throughout the construction process to minimize rework and maximize wood fiber and other raw material efficiency.   

At the same time, CMs need to be telling their stories of what possibilities exist within their current capacities, including the BIM-like software they utilize for design, their utilization of wood fiber, and the labor savings they can drive once their manufactured goods reach the jobsites.  They also need to bust through those capacities and look to the potential within their grasp to continue to drive innovation with the structural framework of every building.   

If a much greater share of the construction industry doesn’t embrace offsite construction soon, how structures are constructed will pivot to alternative methods that leave the current establishment behind.  While it may not happen overnight, it will happen in my lifetime if we don’t take action.  Our needs as a society to build will always remain, but our traditional methods of building are not guaranteed.  If the industry doesn’t embrace offsite framing immediately, it will find alternative solutions that leave us sitting in the pile of sawdust we created.