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Chantilly, Virginia

Pulte Homes: Snap and Fit

Pulte Homes is a successful business, to put it mildly. With operations in 45 U.S. markets, Argentina, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, Pulte was just ranked 12th on Business Week's list of 50 best-performing companies. The nation's second largest homebuilder is a Fortune 500 company, has been honored as "America's Best Builder" by the National Home Builders Association, and was named Professional Builder Magazine's 2002 Builder of the Year.

Pulte has used the traditional stick building method to build more than 400,000 homes for 50 years. But in January, Pulte Homes started experimenting with computerized factory building. The company has erected a factory in Chantilly, Virginia, about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C., to build the region's next wave of Pulte Homes.

So why would such a successful builder change its construction methods? Pulte says that in a computerized factory environment, it can build better-performing homes quicker and at less expense.

"There haven't been many changes in building over the past 50 years," Chuck Chippero, general manager and designer of the new factory, told the Washington Post. "Here, we're putting the house together like Legos."

Factory production is used for sections of the home's envelope, including subflooring, foundation walls, and interior and exterior walls. By pouring the concrete sections in the factory, Pulte can ensure a stronger foundation, while exterior walls can be made uniform with structurally insulated panels. For the floors, Pulte uses steel webs for joists and larger sheets of plywood to reduce seams, which means less warping and squeaking. Once all the parts are completed, the shell is assembled on site in three to seven days, depending on the size of the structure.

Building in a controlled environment has many advantages. Pulte can manage the crew better, ensuring uniformity in the product before it is shipped to the site. Since pieces are cut to a standard size for each home, less material is wasted. No time is lost to bad weather and because machines can do a lot of the work, there is less dependence on skilled labor. Chippero says the lack of skilled labor is a big reason why Pulte decided to venture into factory-built components.

While Pulte will not divulge the costs of building the Northern Virginia factory, it admits that profit margins will only increase when the factory is operating at high volume. But that isn't a problem in the Washington, D.C. area, which is among the fastest-growing regions in the nation. Pulte intends to factory-build about 1,800 homes a year.

Content updated on 11/20/2006

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