Panelized systems have played a transformative role in the residential construction industry for close to a century, pioneered by architects and builders like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose early designs laid the blueprint for 20th century building. Now, panelized systems are commonplace throughout the residential sector. New and improved materials are frequently popping up in home builds across the U.S. and beyond as a growing number of builders test out innovative solutions in a fast-paced industry.
Efficiency is Key
At the very forefront of panelization’s popularity is a desire for efficiency, and a low-maintenance two-day framing process offers just that, according to Ed Binkley, architect and Director of Design for BSB Design.
Binkley has worked on panelized projects since the mid-80s, tackling everything from tiny homes for homeless housing to the concept design of the Bahama Breeze restaurant chain. He attributes the rising success of panelization to its ease of installation, a feature that many builders aren’t willing to pass up as housing demand skyrockets in a frenzied post-pandemic market.
“It's a composite element that comes pretty much pre-assembled to the site, so the panels may cost a little bit more compared to stick frame side by side, but the savings are in the time of construction for the homes. The build time and waste are greatly reduced,” Binkley says. “The value of the system is higher. It's a two to three day process to get the home framed, whereas a conventional system could take three or four weeks, so you're cutting down construction time and that's always a plus.”
Framing and Saving
Composite materials like James Hardie’s Architectural Collection function as the outer skin of framing systems and can cover a large surface area with a simple shiplap joint installation and nail fastening solution in nearly half the time of traditional systems, according to James Hardie. An installation time study of exterior wall finish systems conducted by Home Innovation Research Labs found that “Hardie Architectural panels were installed between 46-61% faster than traditional 1-coat and 3-coat stucco systems, measured in productive-man minutes,” the company says.
Not only does panelization offer a faster installation process compared to traditional materials, but composite siding also provides design flexibility for a range of consumer preferences, making it a top choice among Millennial homeowners. “Younger homeowners are looking to make the exteriors of their homes more modern to reflect evolving design,” says James Hardie, and with versatility and ease of installation, “panels fit nicely into the growing residential trend of mixed-material cladding styles and the contemporary aesthetic that is seen on so many homes.”
Not only are panelized systems customizable and easy to install, but they’re built to last in any environment, from the dry heat of the Sun Belt to the icy winters of the Northeast. Because panel products can be used in tandem with traditional materials, builders can acclimate homes to their natural surroundings. “It'll always come down to detailing to help homeowners protect their homes from the elements,” says Binkley. “The panelized system is very easy to skin with any materials that you want.”
Getting Builders on Board
Also high among the priorities of builders and homeowners is cost effectiveness, another box that panel siding ticks in comparison to materials like softwood lumber, which has been subject to grueling price volatility after hitting a peak of $1,607 per thousand feet of board in May 2021.
Over the past several years, composite panel has become a trusted alternative to traditional materials caught in a post-pandemic supply-chain purgatory. A time of necessary adaptation highlighted the need for industry-wide innovation, according to Binkley, and panelization quickly rose to the occasion. “I think part of the growing popularity has to do with lumber prices and material availability,” Binkley says. “We sometimes don't focus on alternative solutions until we reach a bit of a crisis, and I think that has helped the panelized industry quite a bit.”
Traditional construction practices using lumber, brick, and stucco are becoming increasingly more expensive and require additional hands-on labor to achieve. According to James Hardie, panel products offer a viable alternative. “Panel siding typically comes at a premium from traditional plank looks due to size, distinct aesthetics, and clean edges. However, it can be more economical on the wall than conventional materials such as stucco, brick, and stone due to installation efficiencies.”
The switch to prefab exterior siding comes down to familiarity, particularly as more builders are exposed to composite materials in place of hard-to-come-by building products post-pandemic. “A lot of it goes down to the learning curve and who's willing to step up and try it out,” Binkley says. “I think a lot of the growth just involves education. Builders just need to get more comfortable with the whole process. I'm just a big proponent and I push it any chance I have.”
A burgeoning panelization industry invites builders to go beyond their tried and true to deliver aesthetic appeal as efficiently as possible—on time and on budget. As pressure mounts in a booming housing market, that can translate into time saved and money made, allowing builders to keep the ball rolling, one prefab project at a time.