Lew Sichelman

The way homebuilders erect and sell their products is changing. 

Sure, so-called “stick building,” in which houses are put together piece by piece at the job site, is still the norm. And most builders are still using model homes to show off their wares in the best light possible. 

But slowly and surely, they are changing the way they do business – some say for the better. 

In Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs, for example, upscale builder Van Metre Homes is toying with putting up townhouses comprised of various modules. And several firms are pushing forward with 3D-printed houses – mostly one-offs, but in at least one case, an entire (albeit small) community. 

Modular construction isn’t new. It is a more efficient way to build because it limits waste under factorylike conditions, and it’s often less expensive. Even so, it accounts for only 3 percent of all new houses, according to the National Association of Home Builders. 

But Van Metre’s experiment takes it to another level. In partnership with Joseph Wheeler, a professor of architecture at Virginia Tech, the builder’s POWERHaus product will include such cutting-edge technology as ductless HVAC systems, energy control panels that track consumption, electric car-charging capabilities and induction cooking that limits the amount of heat that escapes into the house. 

Once the sections are trucked to the site and assembled using Wheeler’s “plug-and-play” concept, solar panels will be added to achieve “net zero” status, in which the units should produce at least as much energy than they consume. 

3D Printing Finds Niche 

Meanwhile, in Richmond, Virginia, a 3D-printed home construction company called Alquist is erecting a 1,550-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two baths. The expected selling price is about $210,000, but energy-saving features are expected to cut utility costs in half (from those of a traditional home). 

The house was built with concrete, extruded row upon row until it reached the prescribed height. That alone is projected to cut costs by 15 percent per square foot. But it was also built in under 15 hours – as opposed to the normal four weeks – and with a crew of just two. In this house, Alquist printed only the exterior walls, but the company said it will also build interior walls in future houses. 

Concrete construction isn’t new, either. But only 8 percent of new houses are concrete-framed, whereas 91 percent are wood-framed, NAHB reports. (The other 1 percent are steel.) Builders shy away from these and other methods largely because they can’t find experienced workers. They also cite cost as an issue. But with the cost of lumber so high, that could be changing. 

Whereas most 3D-printing construction endeavors have focused on urban areas, Alquist is taking particular aim at rural locations – many of which face even greater affordable housing challenges than big cities. The company, which also is working with Habitat for Humanity, intends “to build homes for people who live outside of the places where most funding for housing programs is spent,” said CEO Zachary Mannheimer.  

Elsewhere, ICON, an Austin, Texas-based company that uses a giant 3D printer and concrete as a substrate, has built six such houses in a 51-acre master-planned property. And in Rancho Mirage, California, Mighty Buildings, in conjunction with a local developer, will put up 15 houses that are built in panels. The panels will use a polymer material comparable to synthetic stone and will be assembled at the site. 

“In early 2018, there were no 3D-printed houses in North America,” said ICON CEO Jason Ballard. “Now we’re gearing up for hundreds.” 

Sales Process Shifting, Too 

Selling is changing, too, with at least two major builders going far beyond 360-degree video tours. Now, you can design and buy a house completely online without ever leaving the comfort of your living room. 

With the new reservation system from Taylor Morrison, the nation’s fifth-largest homebuilder, customers can choose a floor plan, select a home site using an interactive map and reserve the house – all online. The tool complements technology that the company unveiled last year, including 3D virtual tours, self-guided tours and an online shopping cart. 

The system “takes the friction out of homebuying,” said CEO Sheryl Palmer. “Consumers crave ease and simplicity, whether they’re purchasing a car, groceries or a new home.” 

Similarly, the Atlanta-based Pulte Group, which has operations in more than 40 markets, is now offering a fully integrated online process where buyers in some of its communities can complete the entire transaction, including securing financing. 

“The events of 2020 dramatically accelerated the transition to online shopping, as more people are purchasing a broader array of products and services than ever before,” said Pulte President Ryan Marshall. The online option lets buyers “purchase their new homes on their own terms and timeline,” he said. 

Added regional president Brandon Jones: “Now the last piece of the online homebuying process is in place: the ability to click and buy.” 

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com. 

New Ways of Homebuilding, Selling Find Openings

by Lew Sichelman time to read: 3 min