Missoula company gears up for “factory-to-foundation” home building

Tru-Home Montana plans to construct a manufacturing facility in Bonner to build its foundation-ready homes. (Tru-Home Montana)

After three years of planning, market analysis and research, an upstart Missoula company looks to begin manufacturing stick-built module homes in an effort to narrow the gap between local wages and the cost of housing.

On Thursday, Missoula County commissioners signed the paperwork needed to help Tru-Home Montana, LLC, apply for a job-creation grant from the Montana Department of Commerce.

If approved, the Big Sky Trust Fund grant will help the company fill the first nine jobs needed to get manufacturing off the ground. Once the facility is built in Bonner, the number of jobs could grow to 30 within five years.

“What we began discussing three years ago seems to be the eternal separation between the median income and the price of a house, and how do you make that more narrow and become more efficient,” said Eric Gabster, co-founder of Tru-Home. “What we’ve done, very deliberately over the past three years, is to design a system where we can build reliable, foundation-set buildings.”

Tru-Home applied for and received a planning grant from the Commerce Department two years ago to vet the concept of launching a home manufacturing company in Montana.

That included engineering work to create an efficient manufacturing process, and work with Partners Creative in Missoula to identify both market demand and interest in module homes.

“We’ve been very careful on how we put that together, because it’s an equation that’s a little bit disruptive,” said Gabster. “It’s certainly successful in other places, though it hasn’t been tried here. We would be starting that market, so it’s been important for us to identify the viability of the process here in Missoula.”

While the founders of Tru-Home refer to their product as a module home, they’re often better described as “factory-built buildings.” They don’t arrive on wheels like a modular home but rather, they’re stick built in a controlled factory setting,

That, according to co-founder Jason DeCunzo, makes them highly efficient and cost effective.

“We’re a quality controlled environment, because we’re building under a roof and creating that building completely before breaking those modules apart, putting them on trucks and shipping them to the foundation, which has been poured,” said DeCunzo. “All the utilities have been put in place while we’re building the house in a factory setting.”

When the process is complete, DeCunzo said, the home resembles a stick-built home constructed on site. The predictability of the factory process, repeated daily by a team of employees, helps drive down costs and cut waste.

“We’re doing it much more quickly because we’re mechanizing the process, and with much more quality, because we’re building year-round in a process that’s predictable with a staff that understands how one another works,” DeCunzo said. “That does end up costing less because of the time alone, but also because we’re in a model that will be producing less that 4 percent waste.”

DeCunzo said the homes will be highly efficient, meeting Leadership in Energy and Environment Design standards, or LEED. Technology in the factory, from C&C machines and mechanized saws, also aid in the process.

“Those kind of technologies, when pooled together and seen as a process in manufacturing – even though our best resources are the human resources assembling the parts – the way we obtain and assemble those parts is more innovative than how it’s done on site, and that’s what’s rendering the savings.”

Gabster said the company plans to construct a manufacturing facility in Bonner and is looking to heat the plant using biomass, or wood waste from neighboring business.

If the state approves the grant, Tru-Home plans to begin manufacturing affordable homes in the fall. While it has taken several years of planning to get to this point, Gabster believes Missoula is well-situated for a successful operation.

“To be able to employ those folks in a stable, well-engineered and responsible environment, and pay them at least a living wage, that’s one of the reasons it has taken us a little time to put this together,” Gabster said. “Frankly, that’s the barrier to this industry. It’s not that it can’t be done. But to do it well, it takes a little bit of time.”

While the cost of the homes has not been disclosed, Gabster said wages will start at $19 an hour and top out at $33 for the construction manager.