the science of refining the design of products to optimize them for human use
When you think about what home ergonomics is, the first thing that comes to mind for most is fitting the home to the resident that lives in it… designing the home with the body’s comfort in mind. Have you ever thought about the ergonomics of building a home? Ergonomics plays a major role in determining if your new home is well built or not. Building a home takes the right tools and the ability to use those tools correctly and safely. Quality suffers when contractors and subcontractors can’t perform their job properly. Poor job site ergonomics can lead to a state of “good enough” construction when building code and quality expectations demand “done right” construction.
The Process of Construction in the Field
Home construction is one of the few remaining areas where automation just hasn’t fully reached the industry as a whole. In the 1800’s when you built a home, you built the entire home outdoors. This means the complete construction was done outside and subject to the whims of Mother Nature. When I say everything was built outside, I mean everything. This included building the doors and windows onsite for new homes.
As the population grew in the U.S. and more homes were needed faster, a modern construction industry started to blossom. People started to figure out that it took a more skilled craftsman to build a window or door and that they could build it better and more efficiently in a single location and deliver it to the construction site. However, that still left the majority of the home building process to be done in the field. The automotive industry learned over a 100 years ago that you can’t build a car in a garage or driveway as efficiently and with as high a quality level than when built on a moving assembly line in a factory. Can you imagine buying a car and having the dealer ship all of the parts for delivery to your driveway? That same dealer then sends a couple of guys out a few days later to assemble the car over the next several weeks. That sounds crazy, however that is exactly how homes are still built in most of the U.S. today.
For example, anyone driving by a home under construction will probably remember seeing this scenario: Walls are typically built lying flat on the floor of the home. A bunch of workers are gathered to do their best to lift this heavy, wobbly wall up and into place. Now imagine doing this on a wet or windy day. The wall wobbles around, eventually gets lifted upright, and then is kicked into place and nailed. Then the next wall and the next wall. All the lumber to build the walls are taken from a pile of lumber that is setting in the (muddy) front yard and cut to the correct length (maybe or maybe not), each individual board at a time.
Next comes time to build the roof, then hang the drywall, then finish the trim, etc. Imagine at each stage the tools and materials that have to be taken to a job site. Are the right tools there? Was the right material delivered? Is the work area clean and level? Then add to that the time constraints contractors are under. With all the variables in home building you can now understand why it is so hard to build a good house.
Building in an Environmentally Controlled Factory
Let’s continue with the car analogy. Today you buy a car. You want it customized so it has to be ordered. You pick your colors and the options you want. The factory, in assembly-line fashion, builds it indoors. In the factory the materials are stored indoors. The car, as it is assembled, gets moved to the tools at the next stage in the process. Workers don’t have to lift anything because machines do it. No one has to grunt, wobble, or kick anything into place. Each car can be built with a consistent level of quality.
A modular home factory very much resembles this process. Floors and ceilings are built on jig tables. In construction, a jig is a device that holds a piece of work and guides the tools operating on it. Ergonomically, workers can access all parts of house they are working on easily. When it comes to building walls, wall assemblies are also built on jigs. The factory designs the jig so that nails or screws are applied with the same spacing and same impact at the top of the wall as the ones at the bottom of the wall.
Roof, wall, and floor assemblies are lifted by booms or cranes inside the factory. Walls aren’t wobbled around or man-handled into place. Nails and connections aren’t stressed and loosened just trying put a wall in place. Modules of a house move down an assembly line to the tools needed at that station. Catwalks are in place so that workers aren’t working on wobbly ladders on uneven ground. They are safely at the level they need to be at to perform their job correctly. Work is taking place on the exterior, interior, and ceiling/roof of a module simultaneously. The ergonomics of indoor construction means quality and consistency are enhanced because the craftsmen working on a home can work safely and with the proper tools to do their job indoors (i.e. dry and warm) every day.
Building a Better Home
When it comes time to build a home many start to do their research years in advance. Take the time now to drive around to home sites. Check out a home site on a bad weather day. Observe the obstacles in place that must be overcome. Imagine how hard the construction crew has to work try and provide a home with consistent quality when they are working in the mud, wind, rain, cold or heat. Check out the trucks or vans and see all the tools needed to build a home and that are hauled to the job site every day. Observe the material storage onsite. Is everything in racks, stored level, and protected from the elements?
With modular homes, factories are ergonomically designed to support the construction process. Good ergonomic design means that homes can be built faster, the process provides a higher level of worker safety, and the indoor environment provides for a consistent quality of home to be constructed. After you visit the job site of a nearby home under construction, take a trip to tour a modular home factory. You will be glad you did!