Bill Potter, a traditional builder on Martha’s Vineyard, MA in 2008 found he needed a good idea to help his homebuilding business. He and his wife Terry, half of the then Potter Construction team, brainstormed and came up with an interesting “what if” question.
|Bill Potter, Squash Meadow Construction Co|
Their “what if” idea was to marry modular construction with onsite building practices to allow customers to custom-design their houses, free of size and design restrictions, at an attractive price in a skittish economy.
“But we needed a modular building partner who was willing to work with us, to change their business practices to accommodate the need of clients here,” Mr. Potter said in an interview last week at his office in the Airport Industrial Park.
The idea was not exactly original: In the late 1960’s, well-known architects and builders produced close to 200 beautifully-designed “modular” type houses on Martha’s Vineyard. But in the decades since, “modular” came to have a different connotation, and it wasn’t positive.
The Potters made a list of seven modular construction companies in the Northeast and pitched them all on their notion. Six said no, but Westchester Modular Homes in Wingdale, N.Y., on the New York/Connecticut border, said yes, and the two companies began to shape their cultures and approaches into what has evolved into a full-service approach to building homes and offices.
“We’d been doing some green building, and we wanted to continue doing that, as well as offering more design choices, and Westchester was willing to adapt,” he said.
Potter Construction was a traditional builder with four employees; the company employed crews when it got a building contract. Potter Construction has since become Squash Meadow Construction Co. Its management team is now 10 people, and “on any given day, you’ll see 50 Island guys working at our work sites,” Mr. Potter said, debunking criticism that modular construction costs Island jobs.
The appeal of this hybrid process for clients is savings of 20 percent or more over traditional onsite building, and completion times of three months rather than nine months or a year.
Now, precision and planning are the linchpins of any construction job. Precise measurements, to 1/16th of an inch, are essential in any method of construction. And planning is critical. Things have to happen when they are supposed to, and in a necessary order. If you’ve ever had the experience of an electrical contractor chirping in your ear on Monday that he has to be in by Wednesday while you are staring at 1,000 feet of unhung insulation or sheetrock, you know the feeling.
And when precision and planning are happening in two places several hundred miles apart and involve an $8,000 barge trip, they better be right. That’s the magic in this story. A prime example of precision and planning partnership can be seen in a vaulted ceiling under construction at the new home of Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, a 6,500-square-foot project Squash Meadow is building.
The space is constructed from two boxes provided by Westchester, on which Squash Meadow’s crew has built a peaked roof with skylights. You can see the snug marriage today in the open framing. In two months it will be seamless.
Mr. Potter builds 12 houses a year on the Island these days, and he’s learned the importance of a culture of partnership and planning. “We work together, both with Westchester and each other on the Island. Our crews know what they’ll be doing every day when they come to a jobsite. For clients, we’ve developed a full-service system, from architect to construction, that is interactive and accessible,” he said.
It’s difficult to assess what percentage of new homes involve modular or hybrid assembly, or its future impact, though the heavy-lifting work of creating a system such as Squash Meadow and Westchester have done probably means that both onsite building and hybrid building will continue to coexist in the future.