Modular fever: Waikato firm catches the wave

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With 80 houses a year in its sights less than a year after startup, Cambridge-based TDM Modular Homes isn’t letting up.

Owner Trent Montgomery is looking to more than double that number within another year, as the company installs its prefabricated homes around the North Island and given the nature of the construction business and Government house-building imperatives, KiwiBuild and social housing are obvious potential growth areas for the company.

TDM Modular’s runaway success reaped awards in September. It was given a special judges’ innovation award at the Waipā Business Awards before being named a Westpac Waikato Business Awards finalist and then taking out the Central North Island Regional Fastest Growing Services Business award in the Deloittes Fast 50.

It has all grown out of TDM Designer Homes, which Trent and his wife Heidi established 10 years ago and which has grown rapidly since 2015 when Trent left the police force to run the business full time.

They were soon building houses in South Auckland and Bay of Plenty as well as their Waikato base, and started getting inquiries for transportable homes.

They looked into it but there are constraints around where and when transportable homes can be transported, given their size. Overwhelmingly, they are also single storey, while opportunities increasingly open up around multi-level homes.

That sparked the idea of modular homes and the firm looked overseas for innovative ideas and concepts travelling to North America and Australia on a research trip last October.

Operations manager Anthony Blackmoore says they combined what they considered the best aspects of several businesses and modified them for local conditions and the New Zealand building code.

They worked with local engineers to develop their system and built a factory in Leamington, Cambridge.

The modules are constructed using structural steel and timber framing and are then transported from factory to individual clients’ sites. The structural steel subfloors are purpose-built to fit on standard trucks allowing for transportation at any time of day or night, using just one pilot vehicle. Once on site the modules are secured together.

The firm reviewed the last 25 homes that TDM Designer Homes had built to come up with a collection of standard module sizes that can be customised.

Trent says their research identified that our designed homes could be modified by splitting the house into separate modules specifically sized in order to be easily reconnected and transported efficiently.

Anthony says the end result is that the client has a purpose-built designer home in a modular form. “It’s just constructed in a factory as opposed to on site.”

Even the steel piles are pre-fitted, and then bolted onto poured concrete footings on site. That particular idea came courtesy of their team approach, with a new apprentice offering the suggestion.

Like the rest of the house, the decking is built and attached to each of the modules, and kitchens are 95 percent completed and installed in the modules before being transported from the factory.

There are a lot of moving parts in this particular type of construction which Trent says they have spent countless hours meticulously planning for. After making several prototypes to test the process, they created a showhome for this year’s Waikato Home and Garden Show.

It took 11 weeks to construct in the factory and seven hours to install, followed by a week to fit out, including floor coverings.

Efficiencies learned along the way ensures the next one should take less than seven weeks to construct and they’re aiming for a four to five hour install.

From start to finish a client can have a fully functioning house on site within a couple of months, which can mean significant mortgage interest savings.

The factory opened four months ago, subsequently doubling its size to keep up with demand and meet a “large” forward order already secured. The site is big enough for them to more than double the factory size again.

Trent says they are always looking at additional efficiencies and innovation ideas in their bid for improvement. With those improvements they could comfortably produce 80 homes a year, he says.

They have secured contracts for regions as far afield as Wellington, Masterton, Taupō, Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Raglan and even Waiheke Island, requiring a barge to transport the modular home onto site.

There are 49 employees across the TDM group ranging from builders, joinery staff, apprentices in-house designers and sales team to operational personnel, and they are not ruling out running two shifts at the modular factory in order to keep up with demand.

“We are currently advertising and have skilled labour waiting to fill positions. In all reality we are probably talking about six to eight weeks before the factory production starts to significantly increase,” Trent says.

“Within the next 12 months we would like to be in a comfortable position to be able to achieve more than 200 homes a year.”

The current engineered modular designs can be constructed to handle four storeys high.

Where it gets really interesting is around the Government’s plan to rapidly boost New Zealand’s housing stocks. TDM Modular’s flexibility of design and speed of build means they are well positioned when it comes to KiwiBuild and social housing, though they are keen also to keep their private work.

They have met Hamilton-based Labour MP Jamie Strange, talked to the Kiwibuild unit at MBIE, and are eyeing an invitation to contribute in offsite manufacturing of KiwiBuild homes.

“It’s certainly something that we have been looking at and welcome any opportunity to be able to work for the Government on something like that,” says Trent.

He also says the modular homes are built to high specifications to minimise ongoing maintenance costs and maximise living space, and TDM group is actively going to work out ways of making “modular construction” economic in New Zealand.

• The Waipa Business Awards named winners in 20 categories. Winner of the Waipā Networks Supreme Award was Loulous Salon & Day Spa.

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