When people hear the name “Habitat for Humanity,” they usually envision volunteers donned with hardhats, swinging hammers and raising walls.
While it is true that Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County (Habitat) utilizes volunteers to build its homes, it is now also true that Habitat is building homes in a new way.
During the winter of 2013-14, construction on Coopers Run was thrown nearly eight weeks behind schedule because of an extended stretch of wintery weather that went on for weeks, which not only wreaked havoc on productivity, but created a host of other issues.
“Every time it snowed, it took us three days to dig out,” said Michael Synczyszyn, Habitat’s Director of Construction Operations. “And it doesn’t matter if we get only two inches out at the site, it’s treacherous.”
Synczyszyn is referring to the threat of slips and falls, tools that didn’t work properly, battered materials and cancelled volunteer outings at the site of the recently completed development of seven new townhomes in Wilmington’s north side.
“Everything struggles in the cold weather,” said Synczyszyn. “Even your bones. It’ll beat you up.”
Synczyszyn says that, for an organization that operates year-round, prolonged interruptions in construction work can be costly.
Since late 2012, as a way to combat the unpredictable, Habitat has been exploring the use of modular built homes as a way to not only curtail the instances of weather-related interruptions, but provide another building option for the same cost without adding staffing.
After considering a total of three modular-home builders, Habitat entered into an agreement with Beracah Homes, Inc., to build five of its homes—four in Middletown and one in New Castle.
“In order to increase efficiency, it was important to find a company willing to observe our process rather than try to reinvent it,” said Synczyszyn of the selection process.
Habitat CEO Kevin Smith added that working with modular homes also allows the organization to be an even better steward over the dollars the community gives.
“This is another way to serve more families with the dollars we have without the need to increase staffing and overhead,” Smith said. “We’ve looked at the cost of doing this, and if it would have been more to build than normal, we wouldn’t have done it.”
Beracah Homes, Inc. is a modular-home construction company specializing in custom-designed homes and light commercial projects.
Located in Greenwood, Del., Beracah characterizes itself as “a pioneer in ‘off-site, stick-built’ construction” and began production in the former Nanticoke Homes factory in 2003.
“I was very excited that Habitat approached us,” said Roger Collison, CEO of Beracah Homes. “I know their methodology is to use a lot of on-site labor and volunteers. The process of building modular homes can assist them in doing it faster, better and cheaper.”
A visit to the company’s factory off U.S. Rt. 13 revealed a massive, indoor assembly line that begins with a wood-cutting station, transitions to a team of workers framing and installing drywall and ends with a variety of finish work—“all competed while adhering to same construction codes and guidelines as traditional, on-site builds,” Collison said.
“People are always surprised when they go into the plant,” said Collison. “They really don’t have a good picture of what a modular home looks like or what a Beracah home looks like.”
According to Collison, Beracah reportedly shut down production just one day last winter because of bad weather and, Collison said, that was because the governor had declared a state of emergency.
“We can build whether it’s raining or shine,” Collison said. “The wood and materials don’t get wet, and when it comes out, it’s weather-tight.”
Synczyszyn calculated taking the modular approach to building homes to be comparable to what Habitat has been spending to build with its traditional approach and anticipates a quarter of future projects will be completed this way.
While modular construction is efficient in many ways, Synczyszyn says this approach would not replace the organization’s need for volunteers.
“Habitat is volunteer organization whose mission is to bring people together to build homes, communities and hope,” he said. “We just want to be a good steward of the dollars the community gives us and to serve as many families as possible. [Building modular homes] is another way for us to accomplish this part of our mission.”