In Pembroke, prefabrication is speeding up building construction

Everyone agrees that New Hampshire, like most industrialized countries, needs more housing. Everyone also agrees that it is difficult to find enough skilled craftsmen to build the housing and that the result is too expensive.

A partial solution exists, however: prefabrication, or construction of the different parts of the structure in the factory and assembly on site. In single-family dwellings this is rare and carries the unfair stigma of low-rent trailers, but for apartment buildings it is becoming more common.

“For anything 100,000 square feet and above, prefab will make a lot of sense,” said John Tauriello, president and CEO of Wallace Building Products.

The 21-year-old company builds roof trusses at a factory in Pembroke and wall panels at a factory in Danbury, with a small design office in Claremont. Most of the time, they assemble them on the site of apartments or commercial buildings, thus creating the framework of the building which, in traditional “stick” construction, would have been assembled, piece by piece, by construction workers outside.

Like everyone else, their business has been mowed down by the pandemic — hotel construction in particular has disappeared — but demand for multi-family housing hasn’t dropped at all. They faced disruptions in supply chains as sawmills cut output, with lumber and plywood prices rising up to four times, but continued.

“We probably framed about 2 million square feet last year. At least 75% to 80% of that was multi-family,” Tauriello said. “He’s the driver right now.”

Business is good, he said, for a reason that will resonate with almost anyone who needs to hire staff.

“What’s driving the overall growth of prefab, especially here in New England, is the availability of construction labor and the skill levels of the workforce. If you consider someone who was building a house or commercial building 20 years ago, you might have four skilled carpenters and one helper. … Today you have maybe a few people who are skilled carpenters and half a dozen helpers,” he said. “You need people who can read drawings, understand sequencing, etc., and they’re hard to find.

“One way to mitigate that is prefab.”

Not fully automated

A visit to the Pembroke factory shows the essence of prefabrication. A large fabrication shop filled with conveyor belts, cranes and loading areas allows a relatively small team to build trusses – those triangular cross-brace support systems for roofing – in an assembly line-like process .

“When I started at Wallace, we were building sticks under a roof. We had scroll saws, nail guns, chop saws – basically the same kind of tools you would see on a job site. Today we basically extrude walls,” Tauriello said.

About 10 people work in Pembroke and the company is hiring. The larger Danbury site, which manufactures walls, has about 20 people in manufacturing and is more automated.

“We prefabricate minor and major sub-components. A major subcomponent can be an entire window opening, while a minor subcomponent can be a single cut jamb. The operator loads the components into the extrusion machine, making sure they are square. “The machine reads from a CAD (computer aided design) drawing and tells the operator what is needed next. … The operator puts the components in place, makes sure they are square and snug, and when it’s ready, presses the buttons with both hands for added safety. (The machine) nails the section and drives it forward.

After inspection, the wall goes to an automated machine that nails over plywood if it is an exterior wall.

It’s not fully automated, he says. Human supervision in the field is necessary. Asked about robots like those used in car assembly lines, Tauriello was dubious.

“Not in this industry, where the economy is right now. Robots are very expensive and it’s slow,” he said. “I’m sure robotic manufacturing will eventually become more important, but the the timber frame market just isn’t there yet.”

But there are advantages to using some automation and CNC machines to help trained employees.

“It shortens the construction time. The faster you can get your project to the point where it’s generating revenue, the better,” Tauriello said. “It takes fewer carpenters to interpret the drawings on site, and there’s a lot less waste in the process.”

Company history

Wallace Building Products was founded by Bill Wallace in 2001 in Danbury. Tauriello bought it in 2012 and refocused on commercial and multifamily. “It grew to about 10 times the size when I bought the business,” he said.

Annual sales are between $40 million and $50 million, with 50 people directly employed and up to 250 people indirectly involved at any given time, including contractors who assemble framework at construction sites.

In 2021, the company formed an Employee Stock Ownership Plan or ESOP, and is on track to be 100% employee owned. This program gives shares of the company to employees once they have worked there long enough. An ESOP is similar to a retirement program with tax advantages for the company and workers, and is often created as an incentive to attract and retain employees. There are approximately 180 ESOP companies in New England; the biggest in New Hampshire is probably Hypertherm in Lebanon.

As for the future, Tauriello said he thinks the dire housing crisis is forcing communities to question why it’s so hard to build apartments in New Hampshire, which of course would be good for Wallace.

“I think local governments are becoming more lenient, with more consideration for increasing density.”

Edward N. Arrington