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40 Years In The Housing Industry – Wausau Homes

In order to evaluate the present and look into the future, we have to revisit the past and start at the very beginning of the Wausau Homes system of building homes. The 1960s: Evolution of the Wausau system of Closed-Wall Panelization…Stressed-skin floor panels, closed-wall interior and exterior walls, closed roof panels and mechanical core. One-source […]
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In order to evaluate the present and look into the future, we have to revisit the past and start at the very beginning of the Wausau Homes system of building homes.

The 1960s:

  • Evolution of the Wausau system of Closed-Wall Panelization…Stressed-skin floor panels, closed-wall interior and exterior walls, closed roof panels and mechanical core.
  • One-source supplier:
    • Complete delivery and erection of the home on the builder’s foundation, using company crews and cranes.
    • Complete HVAC system (hot water base board and forced-air air conditioning).
    • Complete electrical system, including pre-wired breaker panel.
    • Complete plumbing, using the Mechanical Core for the bathroom and kitchen sink—no window at the sink!
    • Complete interior trim package, including doors, railings and other finishing materials.
    • Complete kitchen-bath cabinetry.
    • Complete appliance packages.
  • Design criteria:
    • Building designs are created to maximize the benefits and efficiencies of the system.
    • One-story and two-story designs, the width was 24’—no other choice. The length was not a limiting factor.
    • Simple, but cost-effective, ranch homes, all rectangular in shape.
    • Residential and light commercial.
    • Strict adherence to 4-feet and 8-feet dimensioning.
    • Kitchen/bath core to maximize centralized plumbing.
    • Standard wall heights (7’6â€? exterior wall and 10’2â€? center interior bearing wall) to maximize interior vaulted-ceiling concept. The roof pitch slope was at 2-1/2 on 12.
    • Homes were designed to fit a standard semi-trailer and conform to 14’6â€? DOT maximum trailer height and 8’0â€? width.
  • Advanced construction technology:
    • Super-strength floors:
      • Stressed-skin floor panels utilizing structural adhesive and scarfed-plywood
      • Nichrome wire circuitry to quickly cure the adhesive
      • Third-party certification of the structural adhesive bonding of the plywood to lumber
    • Exterior walls, factory complete:
      • Interior finish: Upson board, primed
      • 2×4 studs, the cavity insulated and wired
      • Exterior finish: plywood sheathing with horizontal hardboard lap siding or vertical board-batten plywood
    • Interior walls, factory complete:
      • 1/4â€? wood paneling, stain finish at the site
      • 2×4 studs, cavity wired
    • Plywood box-beams for extra long spans, utilizing structural adhesive and scarfed-plywood
    • Energy efficiency:
      • Extremely energy efficient due to tight construction.
      • Very low air infiltration was key; even though insulation was equal to most stick-built homes.
    • Mechanical core:
      • The mechanical core concept was unheard of in the 1960s. One 8’ wide x 12’ long x 8’ high module contained two bathrooms completed in the factory with solid copper plumbing, ceramic floor tile, cast iron fixtures, combination heat lamp/fan, vanity with lavatory sink, medicine cabinets, light fixtures, plus the kitchen sink with garbage disposal in a common plumbing wall—incredible! The inside of the bath core was even wallpapered!
        • Note: A hot water fin-pipe was run (hidden) behind the cast iron tub. During the winter months when the heating system was operating, the cast iron tub absorbed the heat. The tub was always warm for a nice, energy saving, hot-water bath!
      • The plumbing and electrical were factory tested to ensure no plumbing leaks and full electrical continuity. The testing was witnessed by a third-party inspection agency to ensure compliance to the building codes.
  • Materials management, limited SKUs for maximum efficiency:
    • Five basic windows: living room, bedroom, dining room, bathroom and garage
    • Three to five basic interior doors
    • Two basic stud sizes, exterior wall and center-bearing wall
    • Floor joists were 2’x8’x24’ long, purchased by the carload! The maximum width of the home was 24’—no longer!
    • Roof rafters were 14’6â€? long, cut from 16 footers; the drop-off was used for blocking
    • One hardboard horizontal siding width
    • One rough-sawn siding with battens
    • One shingle size in two colors: black or white
    • One fascia size and soffit size (Upson board)
    • Bathroom floor tile and wall tile in three colors
    • Limited bath and kitchen fixture selections
    • Limited light fixtures, dining room lights and funnel lights
  • Engineering, production and field:
    • Since the homes were simple, production efficiency was very high.
    • Very little custom engineering was required. A master drawing was developed and could be used over and over again. All engineering drawings were created by manual drafting…CAD systems were not yet invented.
    • All structural calculations were done with a slide rule and a nifty device called Add-a-Feet; calculators were not in the vocabulary!
    • Blueprints were produced on an ammonia process machine, which developed an image on a coated paper—very smelly! White copies did not exist.
    • Simple custom changes (4’ additions) could be red-lined and adjusted on the plant floor.
    • The plant could literally build the best seller (Wausau 2A) from memory! At the end of the week, the plant would start another house even though the customer didn’t exist.
    • The homes were delivered, erected and finished in three days! The site construction consisted of the following:
      • Set floor, walls and roof panels.
      • Shingle the roof and install the ridge vent.
        • Note: To speed up the shingling process, Wausau and the shingle supplier developed an oversize shingle that was 25% faster to install. Since the Wausau system allowed for building 12 months of the year, the sealing of the shingle tabs in the winter was a problem. Accordingly, Wausau invented a heated tar gun that applied hot tar under the tabs of the shingles.
      • Install the siding and fascia that could not be applied in the plant.
      • Install all trim and interior doors. The wood paneled interior walls were ready for staining by the owner or builder.
      • Complete the electrical. All receptacles and switches were installed and the circuit panel tested to ensure continuity. Install all light fixtures; bulbs provided by the owner.
      • Complete the hot water heating system (installed by the builder, all piping and bleeding of the system for full functionality). Install the chimney vent.
      • Install air conditioner in the dropped ceiling above the hallway and install the duct work. Install the outdoor compressor and test the system.
      • Complete the plumbing hook-ups, including installing the roof vent pipe. The home was ready for hook-up by the builder’s plumber to the city water tap (or well) and to the city sewer tap (or septic system).
  • Challenges for acceptance:
    • Homebuyer acceptance:
      • The building system was so revolutionary that the home buyer, including all the family members (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc.) had to be educated on the concept.
      • Selling the homes was definitely a challenge to say the least!
    • Building official acceptance:
      • Since the system was closed-wall, the building inspector could not inspect the home at the site. In many cases, the building inspector had to be brought into the plant to see the home in construction first hand.
      • By using an in-plant, third-party inspection agency, the inspection process problem was overcome.
      • In the 1960s, a state and national code did not exist as we know it today. There were hundreds of local and regional code issues to overcome.
      • Many Code Seminars had to be presented to building officials. A technical road show was necessary, inviting inspectors from many communities and cities to see presentations. Actual testing and installation props were developed.
      • The key issue was allowing the experienced Wausau Homes crews to complete the electrical and plumbing even though they did not have licenses—this really was a challenge! Many of the builders schmoozed the inspectors and had them supervise the crews to gain acceptance.
    • Lending institution acceptance:
      • The challenge was getting lending institutions to give the home a proper appraisal value when compared to a traditional stick-built home.
      • In many cases, state and federal approval was required to substantiate the structural integrity of the homes.
      • The low-slope roof was also an issue because the lenders were accustomed to the 4 on 12 roof pitch of stick-built homes.
      • The key positive issue was the home was a tremendous value—A 1,200 sq.ft., three-bedroom house for under $9,000, plus foundation! New homeownership was now available to first time home buyer.
    • Code approvals:
      • As an offshoot of the engineering function, a Code Department was created.
      • The sole purpose of the department was to obtain as many approvals as possible at the local, state and national levels.
    • National: FHA-HUD and FmHA Engineering Bulletins
    • Model Building Codes: ICBO and BOCA
    • Local: Written approval by large cities and metro areas, which required approval by the commission or board. Wausau had to have professional engineers and licensed plumbers and electricians attend these meetings and put their reputations and professional licenses on the line.

By the end of the 1960s, all the challenges were overcome and Wausau Homes was starting to gain recognition and respect in the home building industry. Production was approaching 1,000 homes annually.

The 1970s:

  • Marketing:
    • With the issues of objection and acceptance solved, production was at 2,000 homes annually.
    • As the marketing areas became more mature and developed, the homes started to become too lookalike; more design variation was necessary.
    • Repeat customers started to move up in home styles and wanted a home with more distinction.
    • New designs were a must! Names and appropriate designs such as the Executive Series, Estate Series and other were created.
    • It was necessary for Wausau Homes to take the lead role in advertising, which helped the local builder/dealers become successful.
    • Creative advertising was required; the closed-wall concept was not universally accepted. To inform the entire State of Wisconsin, a full-page ad was published in the Milwaukee Sentinel. The result was an overwhelming success—orders started to come in at a rate of 100 orders per day!
    • TV and radio advertising was in full swing. The “Rain Commercial,â€? produced by a local ad agency, was an award-wining TV production.
    • The annual Builders Conference was started and still exists today.
  • Winter construction:
    • For a builder to be successful, they must build year-round, including in winter.
    • The plant must produce homes year-round to retain an experienced workforce.
    • Winter promotions included free appliances; this promotional program was introduced to achieve building year-round and it exists even today! It has expanded into the Spring Promotions program.
    • Wausau Homes coined the phrase “We Created Winterâ€? to reinforce the promotions. Complete promotional kits were created.
  • Designs:
    • More designs were introduced. The rectangle layout was expanded to T-shape, L-shape and U-shaped with some variation in the roof pitch.
    • The challenge was to make the panel roof system conform to the floor layout. A “pie-shapedâ€? panel was developed and was very revolutionary at the time.
    • More bathroom variations were developed. One-and-a-half-baths, two-baths and even three-bathroom homes were available.
    • Other options became available—a third shingle color (gray) was added!
    • Since the majority of the homes were built on rural lots or acreage, the long-length size was not a factor when compared to the narrow city lots, which requires shorter homes. 70’ long ranch homes (single story) were very common, representing about 90% of the sales. More two-story homes were created, which provided double the square footage in the shorter footprint.
    • Vacation homes became a huge benefit to builders selling homes in the lake-lot areas in Northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. The Holiday Series was developed.
  • Production and engineering:
    • As more home plans became available and more options were being offered, which now required additional engineering.
    • The plant now required a specific drawing for each home; bills of materials became a necessity.
    • The engineering process advanced to a system of mylars and sepias; copies from the original velum drawing could be reproduced for easy changes without a lot of erasing of the pencil lines; technology is starting!
    • The Blueprint department had to have two ammonia machines to keep up with the volume.
  • New plant and office:
    • In 1974, a new 330,000 sq.ft. faculty was built to produce up to 4,000 homes annually.
    • With the new facility, new systems were introduced. The company purchased the first computer system, which was named Rex. The system used key-punch technology—very progressive at the time.
    • In addition to the new business computer, five PCs were also purchased—what a breakthrough!
    • The plant and indoor warehouse also incorporated new systems. High-rack storage saved floor space in the warehouse, new framing tables with air guns increased production efficiency, high-speed overhead cranes were installed.
    • The plant also included balconies that doubled the floor area and served as production-line storage.
    • Indoor truck loading improved quality; controlled construction was at its finest!
    • The stressed-skin floor panel was still being utilized. Instead of using the expensive Nichrome wire to cure the adhesive, a system of pre-heating the plywood was invented. Very complex heat chamber machines were built that used natural gas burners to heat the plywood as it traveled on a vertical conveyor track. The curing time of the adhesive was reduced by more than 75%.
  • More stringent energy codes:
    • The oil crisis was beginning to unfold; the codes, both state and federal, started to require more insulation.
    • Insulation was now cheaper than oil and gas; the homes had to have more insulation.
    • Super-D ceiling insulation was developed. It was a high-density fiberglass, similar to insulation used in refrigeration equipment. It had R-19 insulating value in 4-1/2â€? thickness. The insulation with a 1â€? air space could now fit in the 2×6 roof panel.
    • The codes were also requiring R-19 wall insulation, which could not be obtained in a 2×4 wall cavity. The maximum insulting value was R-14 fiberglass at 3-1/2â€? thick.
    • 1â€? thick foam insulation, used in conjunction the 2×4 wall and fiberglass insulation, started to emerge as an alternative method to obtain an R-20 rated wall assembly.
    • The use of foam insulation required a 15-minute fire-rated wallboard, which is equivalent to 1/2â€? thick gypsum. Since the 3/8â€? interior Upson board did not comply with the fire rating, the “whole-houseâ€? performance concept was developed. It was called Total Performance Homes, and a unique logo was created for the marketing literature.
  • New building system:
    • This was a key strategic period, which started to shape the future of the company.
    • As the marketing and code pressures increased, it was evident that the current closed-wall building system needed to be changed.
    • Wausau Homes acquired Sterling Building Systems, which is an open-wall system using roof trusses.
    • Also, the modular system was starting to be developed by Wausau Homes.
  • National recession:
    • In the late 1970s, the national recession was starting to set-in.
    • Interest rates rose from 8% to 9.5% and higher.

The 1980s:

  • National recession:
    • The country is in deep recession; interest rates are over 21%.
    • Costs had to be cut, but the building system needed future development.
    • Closed-wall was ready for a major change.
    • Open-wall was marketed exclusively under the Sterling Building Systems affiliate.
    • Company-owned set crews and cranes were discontinued; contract crews and contract cranes were introduced.
  • 81-Product line:
    • The national recession was a blessing in disguise. It forced the company to reinvent itself and not rely on a building system that was mature and somewhat in decline. However, many of the innovative systems were retained to remain on the leading edge of home building technology.
    • A separate product line was developed, using a hybrid closed-wall system.
      • Open floor system, the stressed-skin panel was discontinued.
      • The exterior and interior walls remained a closed-wall system, but gypsum board was substituted for the Upson board. This allowed the use of foam insulation to improve the insulating value of the exterior walls.
    • The roof system was a unique combination ceiling panel and roof panel, which were folded together to save shipping space. The hinged ceiling/roof was opened on the trailer and lifted onto the wall by a crane. The system was called “Jaws,â€? a phrase lifted from the movie of the same name, which showed jaws of a shark!
    • The designs were a drastic departure from the low-slope, vaulted ceiling system. A 4/12 pitch was now the standard with flat ceilings and standard 92-5/8â€? studs.
    • The bath core was retained but the kitchen sink was dropped. The sink was moved to an outside wall with a window! Larger cores with more options were introduced—whirlpool tubs, molded tub/shower units.
    • 2×6 walls were introduced to accommodate R-19 wall insulation.
    • Ceiling insulation was double or tripled to R-38 and R-44.
    • A complete series of homes was developed; ranches, one-and-a-half story, two-story, and more.
    • The home sizes were adapted to conform to new narrower lot width restrictions. The 80’ width lot required a 60’ wide home and a 60’ lot required a 40’ wide home.
    • To keep square footage the same, a deeper home was necessary. This changed the floor panel design concept. Instead of staying with 24’ floor panels, 26’, 28’, 30’ and deeper homes were added.
    • A full-length floor joist was not available. Therefore, the spliced floor joist concept was created. A large truss plate splices two different lengths and different species, directly over the center-bearing beam. This concept was very innovative at the time.
    • As the house became deeper, the roof panel concept was stretched to the limit. Roof trusses were the only alternative. This marked the beginning of the end of roof panels used on Wausau Homes.
  • Modular homes:
    • A basic modular home was introduced using the principles of the original closed-wall concept.
    • The roof was 3 on 12 (a big upgrade from the 2-1/2 on 12).
    • The interior was an entirely vaulted ceiling with a 7’6â€? sidewall.
    • The big advantage was the home could be completely finished in the plant, including 100% shingled and shipped on two loads to the job site. The on-site completion consisted of siding the gable ends and installing a ridge vent.
  • Engineering, production and field:
    • The plant and engineering had two separate building systems to implement; more engineers were required to keep up with more complicated home designs.
    • The first CAD system was introduced to help speed up and hopefully simplify the engineering process.
    • Portable, battery operated, electronic calculators replaced adding machines with power cords.
    • The plant now had to deal with the dust of applying gypsum board to the interior and exterior walls.
    • Also, the plant now had three building systems to implement.
    • The field process also had to accommodate the three building systems: closed-wall, open-wall and modular.
  • Sales and marketing:
    • To price these homes, the Total Order Pricing Systemn (TOPS) was developed to generate a fairly accurate estimate to include material, labor, delivery and on-site construction.
    • Other sales-and-marketing tools were needed. The concept of “Design a Home You Will Love a Lifetimeâ€? was introduced. It consists of overlays that combine the sleeping end to the living end to create a complete home. There were hundreds of mix-n-match combinations.
    • As the product changed, the builder assumed more on-site responsibility in order to complete the entire building process. The builders needed good subcontractors for the following trades:
      • Drywall
      • Electrical
      • Plumbing
      • HVAC systems
      • Excavation and concrete

The 1990s:

  • The 1990s were a transition period for the company. Old systems were being phased out and new systems started to emerge. With the three building systems, a lot of duplication was created, which complicated the process. Change was inevitable.
  • Designs:
    • The product line development had to address four markets; first-time buyer, move-up, vacation homes and luxury. More product and more material offerings were introduced.
    • The 81-Product line started to evolve into the open-wall concept; the “Jawsâ€? roof panel was replaced entirely with roof trusses.
    • Initially, the trusses were purchased from contract truss suppliers. The goal of the company is to be totally self-sufficient; building the trusses instead of buying the truss was implemented.
    • The customers now wanted very complicated roof configurations—steep roof pitches, over-framed front facing gables, hip roofs, etc.
    • The modular product was also expanding. Steeper roof pitches were also required. A hinged roof system was developed, which was a major turning point in modular product-line expansion.
  • Production, engineering and field:
    • The plant had to be retooled and the layout had to be changed several times. Computerized saws and air-activated jigging systems were introduced.
    • The truss operation was introduced in Wausau and expanded to Waverly, Ohio, and ultimately to Corning, Iowa.
    • To continue with the “One Source-One Invoiceâ€? concept, the B-pack was introduced. This required installing an interior door-hanging operation.
    • Second and third generation CAD systems were introduced.
    • The engineering department was expanded to also handle the branch plants.
    • Plant expansion grows from one location to eight, with 10 locations planned.
  • Information technology:
    • An IT department was created to handle the computer technology required to interface engineering, materials and production into a seamless function.
    • New computer systems were introduced to allow faster communication between the branch plants.
    • A new large document copier and scanner system was introduced; the OCE 9800 plain paper machine was installed.
    • This machine was the beginning of electronic communication that eliminated the ammonia blueprint system.
    • The 9800 system also included a smaller machine (OCE 9400) at each branch plant, capable of scanning and printing on-demand. Overnight mailing of blueprints was eliminated.
    • The stage was set for the next generation of technology necessary for the company to become a first-class operation.
  • Sales, marketing and production facilities:
    • In the late 1990s, the introduction of digital communication started to turn our operation from manual to fully electronic. This is a strategic move, which introduced:
      • E-mail.
      • Inter-company, real-time communication via a Frame Relay link to all plants.
      • Centralized engineering was now possible. Information is sent electronically from the engineering computer directly to the shop floor thousands of miles away.
      • Cell phones.
      • Office solutions: word processing, spreadsheets, publisher and other software.
      • PowerPoint replaced slide presentations.
      • The world of fantastic graphics for sales-and-marketing presentations was now possible.
    • More branch plants evolved. The success of the branch plants is that they serve only as production facilities with a supporting field sales function.
    • The support functions of Marketing, Scheduling, Engineering, Personnel, Accounting, etc., remains at the home office, which substantially reduces the overhead costs.

The 2000s:

  • The new decade brought new challenges:
    • The company was at a crossroads:
    • Remain a regional-based company, or Continue to grow into to a national company. The company chose to grow.
    • Growth brought challenges; the existing engineering, materials management and business system
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