A new modular construction startup company in Missoula is part of a manufacturing industry in Montana that has added employees at more than double the national rate this decade.
Tru-Home Montana aims to bring European-style efficiency and cost-savings to residential and commercial building projects in the Northwest by assembling homes and other buildings in the controlled environment of its 26,0000-square-foot facility in Bonner. The buildings then will be shipped via flatbed truck and dropped with a crane onto a pre-arranged slab.
Jason DeCunzo co-founded Tru-Home Montana with his business partner Eric Gabster, and they plan to start working on contracts in January. Building indoors makes the process more efficient, faster, provides better quality control, saves the customer money and cuts down on waste, he said.
“It’s up to 30 percent faster than traditional building methods in the field,” he said. “From the time somebody signs a contract to the time they are living in it can be 90 days.”
DeCunzo also said the process allows them to cut down on wasted materials.
“We can have less than 7 percent waste on a project, and in some cases less than 4 percent. The traditional waste at an on-site construction project can be as much as 15 percent," he said.
That means they can offer their projects to customers at costs 20 percent to 30 percent lower than what they would normally pay, he said.
“The ability to work inside gets rid of a lot of unknowns,” DeCunzo explained. “When you’re not subjected to the elements, it allows for superior quality control throughout the whole process and all within the same building. You don’t have to deal with the rain and weather and subcontractors who may or may not be doing what they are supposed to be doing. Tru-Home is a process, not a product. We’re creating an efficient building process that is predictable and produces great results.”
DeCunzo said there is a misconception about what modular construction is.
“People think of double-wide and triple-wide trailers on wheels,” he said. “What we build is not on wheels. We use modular construction techniques to build any type of building to any design. The projects are then completed to 95 percent completion, put on flatbeds, shipped and craned into position. We could build anything from tiny homes to hotels to office buildings.”
The company is under contract to build a new headquarters within the next two years in the west logyard adjacent to the former mill site. So far, it has about a dozen contracts and expects to start building its first one in January using a temporary warehouse. All its projects will meet International Residential Code standards, and they can even meet LEED-certified environmentally friendly standards.
DeCunzo said he and Gabster realized there was a need to modernize the construction industry in Montana, asking themselves, "How do we create better, desirable housing for Montana in a way that’s affordable to median income here?' ” DeCunzo said.
“It led us down this path. We started three years ago. I came from the architecture and construction world and he comes from the distribution and real estate world. We said we’ll work on this until something gets in the way or blocks us. And the truth is that never happened. We gained a lot of support.”
This type of construction method has been used on the East Coast and in the southern United States for many decades, but it really began in Europe about 80 years ago, DeCunzo said.
“At least 30 percent of Scandinavian projects are built the modular way,” he said. “Especially bathrooms. They build the wall components off-site and then the bathrooms are craned into position. So there’s a lot of legitimacy and standardization with this process.”
Missoula County was recently awarded $45,000 from the Montana Department of Commerce’s Big Sky Trust Fund job creation grant program to help Tru-Home create six new high-paying jobs within the first year in Missoula. DeCunzo said he hopes to employ 36 people within five years.
“Our goal is to provide these services to the Northwest, which is underserved for innovative construction techniques,” he said. “The idea is we’re here to serve customers from a five-mile radius, and also customers everywhere from Seattle to Phoenix to Wyoming. The idea is to create jobs that people are proud to have, jobs that are career jobs.”
He and Gabster are in the process of developing a program at Missoula College to foster relationships with high school and college kids.
“We want to create jobs for people that want to work in the construction field, and not just swinging a hammer or putting a tile down,” he said. “We want to build jobs in 3D printing technologies and alternative energy sources and placement of team members in all aspects of construction.”
Shane Cantrell, the Missoula and western Montana field officer for Montana State University’s Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, said the manufacturing industry in the area is healthy right now.
“In our area here in Missoula a lot of manufacturers are expanding right now,” he said. “Spectrum Aquatics near the airport, they make pool equipment like ladders and lifts, and they’re working on a brand-new facility expansion and bringing on some operations. Northwest Factory Finishes out in Bonner, they make pre-painted siding. They're looking to do some improvements with some automation.”
There are more than 800 manufacturers in the five counties that surround Missoula, he said, with workforces ranging from fewer than 20 employees to some with more than 150, like Alcom, which makes aluminum trailers in Bonner.
“Most every employer has workforce and talent challenges, with getting the right talent and retaining them,” Cantrell said. “They retain them through some different benefits packages, but you’ve got to attract people with a livable wage and figure out how to remain competitive enough to where we can actually offer that wage.”
Cantrell said the MMEC employs a variety of strategies in Montana to help manufacturers become successful.
“Our goal is to grow Montana’s economy by helping manufacturers,” Cantrell said. “If they need a new facility layout, we have process improvements that we can coach them through that and help them develop talent for best-in-class manufacturing. We also hold workshops and trainings on talent and workforce issues.”
Cantrell said his office recently suffered a $200,000 cut, which represents 40 percent of its state funding, after the special legislative session to address revenue shortfalls.
He said all of the MMEC’s efforts are evaluated by independent surveys that measure new sales, employee retention and anything else that makes an impact, and the results are positive.
“Overall, there’s a good pulse for Montana’s manufacturing industry,” he said. “We’re getting more manufacturers to collaborate together.”
According to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, Montana’s manufacturing employment grew at a rate of 18.3 percent from 2010 to 2016, compared to 7.1 percent in the United States overall. In Montana, that meant a jump from 16,400 jobs in 2010 to 19,400 in 2016, despite a net loss of 465 jobs in the wood products industry in that time.