Some entrepreneurs watch trends closely, ready to respond when opportunities arise. Others scan the horizon, then move decisively, blazing trails and setting trends as they go. In the home construction industry, Mick Barker, CEO and president of Barvista Homes, a builder of off-site-construction housing based in Johnstown, CO, is one such leader.
Delivering new ideas and setting trends is Barvista's recipe for success. "But we also define success as an ability to challenge ourselves. By nature, we're restless," added Barker. "We're always searching, asking, poking into old ways of doing business to find new and exciting ways to do something different."
The firm's products, modular homes that range in size from 800 to 13,000 square feet or more, and with $50 to $120 per-square-foot pricing, are currently shipped to several states throughout the Midwest region. Customers can choose from home designs that are constructed off-site in a tightly controlled environment with materials that exceed industry standards. Completed home modules, or "pods," usually weighing 50,000 lbs., are then transported to a buyer's property for final assembl
By design, the separate pods - joined only in blueprint form until final, on-site assembly - come together like dovetailed joinery. It's then that the "magic" happens, with a home quickly materializing as a crane lifts the pieces off the back of a truck and into position.
Nationally, modular housing is one of the fastest growing segments of the building industry, increasing at an annual rate of about 10%.
Clearly, Barvista Homes is ahead of the curve. One reason is their groundbreaking assembly approach to home construction. Each home - including fixtures, wiring, paint, carpet, potable PEX for domestic water, hydronic baseboard heat and now, optional radiant heat - is built in a 103,000 sq/ft building facility, the equivalent of two and-a-half football fields. When the construction process is complete, the pods are wrapped for transportation and moved to the home site for final assembly. Because homes are transported by truck, many steps are taken to build them to assure that they're ready for the rigors of the road.
"Ultimately, that means we build our homes to higher quality and strength standards than homes built onsite," said Mike Barker, vice president, and Mick's son whose role at the company is now to supervise all facets of quality control.
Life's too short
Mick Barker, a 30-year veteran of the housing industry, was prompted by the events of 9-11 to start his new enterprise, saying that "Life was just too short not to do what I most wanted to do."
His idea, aided by the skills and talents of several key managers - some of whom had worked with him for two or three decades - was to completely revise the manufacturing process of modular homes. One of the contributors to their success is an improved rail system for moving pods down the line from left to right. As sections are constructed, they're simply rolled through the 120-foot by 750-foot facility on either of two parallel sets of rails. At one end, raw materials are brought in and placed at various points throughout the facility. And at the other, the tracks lead directly to loading docks where pods, are rolled right onto the flat beds of awaiting 18-wheelers.
Another innovation is Barvista's very own "floor crab," an invention that ultimately led to the application of radiant heat as an option for homebuyers. The floor crab simply rolls into position and is used to grab entire floor sections for easy transport from place to place within the facility. For installation of under floor plumbing, hydronic runs or radiant heat, the floor crab can raise and lower, or completely flip whole floor sections without stressing them structurally.
Large steel frames were built at just the right height for under-floor access for plumbing and hydronic installations. Once the crab has placed a section on top of it, an efficient installation team moves in with blueprints in hand. A crew chief calls the shots and now, with greater frequency, radiant heat is spec'd for the job.
Complex radiant, simplified
"By its nature, radiant heat compared to basic forced air heat - is a more specialized, more complex method of heating," says Wayne Warren, Barvista design engineer. "Yet, though the techniques we've developed, we can offer highly customized, multi-zone radiant heat installations, while still keeping the process of installing it rather simple."
"Each floor section to receive radiant heat - from 13-1/2 to 18 feet wide and 29 to 68 feet long - typically gets one to three radiant zones," added Warren. "We know in the planning stage how much tubing will need to be applied, and how much additional tubing will need to stay with the section for later, on-site hookup to the boiler. This avoids splicing the tubing. Though we've greatly simplified the installation of staple-up radiant heat, no short cuts are taken."
As with any radiant system design for on-site constructed homes, Barvista's approach begins with a careful consideration of the customer's wants and needs, and other factors that influence system design, such as a home's location, elevation, insulation, and weather data. Warren and other engineers at Barvista then plug the information into RadiantWorks software, a system design program offered by Watts Radiant.
From its first installation of radiant heat in 2003, Barvista uses Watts Radiant's Onix EPDM tubing exclusively because of its flexibility and ease of installation. The non-expanding tubing is stapled directly to the underside of a pod's plywood or OSB subfloor. Then, foil-faced R13 or R19 batting insulation is stapled into the joist bays, leaving a two-inch air pocket closest to the subfloor.
"It's a technique that consistently provides a heat output of 25- to 30-BTU per-square-foot," said Greg Gibbs, manufacturer's representative with Denver-based Shamrock Sales, Inc., a firm that specializes in plumbing and heating products.
Though repeatability of the manufacturing process is a key to the success of manufactured housing techniques, few homes are identical. Almost invariably, there's some new twist or hidden specification that stamps its uniqueness on each Barvista home.
"And until recently, radiant heat has been one of those elusive custom comforts for buyers of off-site constructed homes," continued Gibbs. "Barvista now offers radiant for any style of home that they sell. Naturally, it tends to be chosen for the larger models, but it's been spec'd for some of the smaller homes and chalet models, too. More and more buyers have chosen the heating method since they first offered it two years ago."
"It used to be that we were on hand occasionally to help train new installations crews, but that's not the case anymore," added Gibbs. "They've definitely fine-tuned the installations. Their crews are as efficient as any we've seen on custom jobs."
Barvista has also broken the "custom-home-only" barrier with their use of granite counter tops, SIPs (structural insulated panels) and timber-framed accents. "We're the only off-site home manufacturer that uses SIPs," said Barker. "We use SIPs routinely now for dormers, porches and panelized garages."
"Our use of radiant heat for the homes we build is just one demonstration of how we look at things differently," said Mike Barker. "We're giving builders and homeowners alike what they most want, instead of saying, 'That's not possible,' and dictating what we want to sell. We're trying at all levels to deliver a quality product, on time, and at the best possible value."