Bill and Kevin stumble on a new market that boasts efficient and economic advantages.

Ever since Henry Ford introduced the idea of building cars on an assembly line, manufacturers of virtually everything on earth have evolved to become more efficient through automation. That prized pickup sitting in your driveway was built in an automated plant. It traveled down an assembly line, each task being completed by a specialist. Every step of the way there was a quality-control inspector identified by a number carefully checking the specifications of the product.

Only a nitwit would argue the fact that your brother-in-law Hank would be able to completely assemble your next Silverado in his tool- and beer-stocked garage in as timely a fashion as the GM assembly plant. Even if he had access to every nut, bolt and washer that it would require to complete such an endeavor, the finished vehicle would cost 10 times more than its factory-assembled cousin. Kevin can bear witness to this. The 1969 Camaro sitting in his garage undergoing a frame-off restoration has already drained much of his secret slush fund.

You know you're a redneck if ...

On the subject of automation and not automobiles, we have recently been introduced to the manufactured housing industry. And, yes, we had some preconceived notions toward what were considered "trailer houses." Some of the Jeff Foxworthy jokes did more damage to the Manufactured Housing Institute than a decade of hurricanes and tornadoes. But as much as we'd like to laugh along with Jeff, we say this: Take this industry and its accomplishments lightly at your expense. Before you question why we are writing about what seems to be an unrelated industry, consider this: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, HUD-code manufactured homes accounted for 20.7 percent of all new single-family housing starts in 1999. In that year, 21.4 million Americans lived full time in 8.9 million manufactured homes. In 2000, the industry shipped 250,550 homes from 280 manufacturing facilities. The results of a 1999 study by Foremost Insurance Co. show that 88 percent of manufactured homeowners are satisfied with their housing choice.

We were surprised by those facts ourselves. Upon further investigation we found staggering evidence of what are surely some of the reasons for this industry's growth. Consider the square-foot price of the average site-built home in 1999 was $68.80, compared to $31.28 for a multi-section manufactured home. How can this be? It is mainly attributed to the efficiency of the assembly line. Many of the problems we all encounter in site-built homes are not a factor, i.e. poor weather, vandalism, theft, damage to materials stored on-site, etc.

The benefits of the economies of scale which result from the ability to purchase large quantities of materials directly from the source, allow for the lowest possible price for items that would invariably be more expensive in a site-built house.

For the same reasons that factories assemble vehicles, televisions, clothing and even this magazine in an efficient manner, manufactured housing facilities produce homes with the same exacting and repetitive practices. The house and materials travel to the worker. Scaffolds, tools and materials are always within reach. Most of these facilities have cross training, which means that few trades are irreplaceable. The lines will move and the units will be built on schedule.

There are basically three segments of the industry:

1. The Manufactured Home or HUD code home: Simply put, a home that meets or exceeds the Housing and Urban Development code that came to be on June 15, 1976.

2. Modular Home: A factory-built home that meets or exceeds the state and local building codes where the home is to be permanently installed.

3. Panelized Home: Factory built housing panels that contain doors, windows and wiring and are built to meet or exceed the state and local building codes where the panels are to be assembled on site.

We build excitement

The modular homes should be of greatest concern to the stick builder. One of the largest developers in Atlanta recently received what would have been a reasonable bid for a 7,000-lot subdivision from a large, reputable site builder. Shortly thereafter, he was seriously undercut by over 20 percent by a manufacturer willing to provide the same structures with a delivery guarantee. How do you compete with that?

As is the case with any industry, some groups tend to be more on the cutting edge when it comes to trying new products or methods of production. Yes, you can still buy a "trailer house," but more than likely it will have vinyl siding and shingles on the roof. On the other end of the spectrum you can find 8,000-square-foot mansions with ceramic tile, Coryan countertops and trim and cabinetry that will rival any of their site-built counterparts.

Some organizations have taken it a step further. By vertically integrating their business into land acquisition, planning, zoning, development, retail sales, financing and service work, homebuyers can deal with one company for all of their needs.

For many years, manufactured housing has predominantly built affordable housing for rural America. More recently, the urban market has been targeted. By building homes that fulfill the architectural and aesthetic requirements that need to be met when fitting into existing neighborhoods, this industry is becoming a player in the revitalization of many urban areas. Certain builders within the industry even develop modular office buildings, hotels, schools, dormitories, hospitals and other stackable units for commercial development.

We realize and concede that there will always be a market for site-built homes. There will always be a demand for this segment of the industry. Yet the simple fact that more and more pre-manufactured components are being utilized in site-built housing is convincing evidence that manufacturers of these components and buildings are here to stay. How far this evolution in building systems travels will be worth paying attention to.

The Manufactured Housing community has emerged as the fastest-growing consumer of drywall products. If you're a drywall contractor and you plan on making a living for the next 20 years, this industry offers opportunities. If you work for a company who makes board, mud, trim or tools, you probably already appreciate the future of drywall in this industry.

As simple as it seems to those of you who hang or finish on a daily basis, it's still rocket science to this industry. In the coming months we'll address some of their challenges. But in the meantime ....

Remember, it's drywall. Whether it's done in a plant or on a job site, it's still a flat sheet of paper-covered gypsum that will make you sneeze when you rasp it.