Comparison: Pre-Fabricated Wall Panels vs Traditional Wood Framing Part 1

As the construction industry evolves so do its practices, I would like to examine some of the evolution in framing and the lean in the direction of manufacturing. Prefabrication into the construction scene is nothing new but some are not as willing to accept the changes that are happening right before their eyes. The high demand for shorter build times and the lack of trained carpenter is causing builders to look for alternatives to the long tradition of stick framing.

In this blog I would like to compare several side by side builds which have been tracked for cost, waste and time comparison and also go over some of the pros and cons with both stick framing and wall panels. There seems to be some misconceptions that are lurking around. I would like to debunk the 2 biggest myths out there regarding panels:

  1. Manufacturing will be taking money straight out of framers pockets

Although the time that framers will spend at each job site will be decreased exponentially this also opens them up to opportunities to increase their volume.

2. More Expensive

Although the actual panel cost may be more the money saved in labor, waste and material offsets it as you will be able to see in the comparison provided.

Here are some of the many issues that affect the every job site regardless of the wall system:

Flexibility

Being able to have something adapt is a very big positive and one of the largest down falls of panels. With stick framing field changes are not an issue and can happen almost immediately, if the walls require changes with panels it can be costly and may extend build time from delay of the manufacturing process.

  • Weather

With panels weather is not usually an issue production can take place night or day rain, snow or shine. The only time that weather would have an effect would be on the installation. Stick framing has many limitations with weather specially in certain climates.

  • Theft

Being that most of panel construction is done at a plant there are lower chances of theft of building material. While on stick framing leaves expensive materials unsecured at job sites.

  • Material

Material shortages that delay build times in the field are not that uncommon. Panels come in the conveniences of one delivery with rare delays for shortages.

  • Demand

This is one of the largest reason panels are on the raise. With population growth continuing and  the demand for housing growing there are not enough skilled carpenters to meet or keep up with the demand.

Let’s move on to some hard numbers, to further the discussion on cost comparisons:

The first example build I would like to use is “Framing the American Dream” project. This build was put on by the Structural Building Components Association (SBCA). It featured 2 – 2600 square foot homes built simultaneously. One with stick framing and the other with designed wall components. For complete information on this project, click here.

wall-panels-vs-framing-1

The second build was in Alberta, Canada and sponsored by FPInnovations, Forintek Division (a Canadian wood products researcher).  This build was a side by side build of two identical tri-plexes measuring 3100 square feet. For complete information on this project, click here.

wall-panels-vs-framing-2

Although both of these projects were not measured in the same way, you can see the obvious savings. While cost savings are more substantial in the “Framing America Build” both projects were completed in far less time. This allows the contractor to continue on to the next structure, increasing the volume produced in the same given time period.

Depending on location I feel that both of the options are viable. In some markets it may be far less cost to stick frame where as in a different market it may cost substantially more.  Many key factors into play such as:

  • Skilled Labor
  • Waste Reduction
  • Green Building

As evolution continues I look forward to seeing all the new innovations that will come to this industry and further our knowledge and performance. We must remember that will all new innovations, resistance is normal. With the facts at hand, why is the building industry resisting so vehemently?

Christopher Wald – Design Professional

Gould Design, Inc.