Matt Houx, left, and Zack Torrence of Pacific Wall Systems take a completed wall off the assembly line at the Medford plant. - Jim Craven

Entrepreneurs sell and assemble walls

Alex Knecht has framed Rogue Valley houses since the mid-1980s.

For 22 years he did it the same way as virtually every other stick-home framer, laboring on building sites, weathering the elements and eluding obstacles.

Last October, he hammered out his final two hand-framed houses on Strawberry Lane in Ashland.

Now he's using rapid-fire technology employed by the nation's heavyweight home builders to produce wall panels for contractors. Instead of delivering a pile of green lumber to a work site, his crew hauls in completed walls.

Knecht took note as home builders in other areas began constructing walls in plants, using automated production lines. Last year, he talked his brother-in-law and sister, Mark and Nancy Mansfield, into starting a new venture — Pacific Wall Systems — and capitalizing on the financial, time and wood-waste efficiencies.

The Mansfields sold The Inn at Manzanita, which they had operated for four years, in February, and in March the owners began putting together an 11,000-square-foot plant in north Medford.

"I had the idea of doing this years ago," Knecht says. "They've been doing this approach exclusively in Europe and Canada for years, they just haven't done a lot on the West Coast."

It cost about $300,000 to equip the operation, says Nancy Mansfield, including $40,000 for the computerized Intelligent Building Systems machinery from Southaven, Miss., which allows a two-man crew to crank out a 12-foot wall panel in a few minutes.

In the past, Knecht says he could pound out 200 to 300 linear feet per day. With the mechanized system, his crew is doing 700 linear feet daily. He figures with a little more experience on the machinery, the crew will be doing 800 linear feet in a normal day's work.

According to Wood Truss Council of America, wall panels shave more than 60 percent of framing time on a 2,600-square-foot house. The number of board feet compared to traditional framing declines by 25 percent and overall costs drop 15 percent, the council estimates. Lumber used is kiln dried, so it costs roughly 12 percent more than typical framing material, but the WTCA's figures indicate wood waste declines from 17 cubic yards on a traditional job to 4 cubic yards when the walls are pre-made.

"This is the largest piece from this job," says Knecht, retrieving a 6-inch by 8-inch chunk from a rubber garbage can.

The turnaround time is such that contractors can go from the ground to trusses in less than a day.

"We delivered a load where a 1,600-square-foot house is being built at 9 o'clock and the builder was ready for trusses at 2," Knecht says. "Guys can get used to this really quick."

Designer Nathan Weiss says he can draw up the walls on the computer for smaller homes for production the next day, as was the case for a pair of 1,200-square-foot houses in Medford's Clear Village subdivision.

More complex are hotel rooms and condominiums for The Inn at Eagle Point, for which Pacific Wall Systems recently won a bid to provide framing for 71 units.

Even when a builder has second thoughts and last-minute changes, the Intelligent Building Systems provides a modicum of forgiveness.

"We had a builder call the night before wanting to switch from 8-foot walls to 9-foot walls," Weiss says. "Within a half-hour I was able to switch over to 9 feet. We had only cut the plates to that point, so I was able to change it quite quickly."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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