WORTHINGTON, Minn. - This is the busiest time of the year for Highland Manufacturing, as peak selling season is still underway, and it's about to get busier.
On Oct. 16, the Worthington-based modular home builder will shift its production almost entirely to building houses for victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Daryl Muzio, general manager at Highland Manufacturing, got the call Aug. 27, after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas gulf coast. He was told the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had put out a request for 4,500 housing units, and by the following Friday, Muzio had already agreed to build more than 150 units.
"We were expecting it as soon as Harvey hit," Muzio said. "And we're ready for it. It's got us all on FEMA overtime, we call it."
Highland's parent company, Champion Home Builders, is one of the "big three" manufacturers in the modular home industry, along with Clayton Homes and Cavco Industries. The three will build a majority of the homes FEMA has requested.
"We'll be building 167 through January," said Travis Morrison, safety and continuous improvement foreman for Highland Manufacturing. "After that, another 130."
The houses, called "one-bedroom express units," are small, eight-feet wide by 48-feet long structures. They're much more basic than Highland's usual offerings, and are meant to be highly portable. They're also meant to be able to withstand strong winds better than typical site-built houses.
"It's the type of home where you can just go into a driveway of a demolished house, plug it into the electrical utilities, and it's good to go," Muzio said.
The Worthington factory's 21 stations typically build two-and-a-half homes every day. However, on FEMA's demanding schedule, they'll be tasked with producing four on a daily basis.
"These FEMA units are all identically the same, so it makes the flow through the production line a lot more efficient," Muzio said. "Once our people get into the swing of things, we'll be able to build them really quickly."
The FEMA contract will provide a boost for Highland's 145 employees. The extra demand allows Highland to keep its employees working five days a week rather than the usual three during the winter, which is typically a slow time for homebuilders.
"It's big, big for us," Morrison said. "Most winters you've got three or four weeks down because we don't do nearly as many homes."
Highland builds custom-made modular homes for customers throughout the Midwest, including in Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Nebraska, Wisconsin and more. The manufacturer will shut down nearly all of its usual business while the construction of FEMA homes is underway.
Right now, FEMA inspectors can be found inside the facility, bringing their particular brand of scrutiny to the operation.
As soon as production starts and the first FEMA homes roll off the line, they will be wrapped up and shipped south for hurricane victims.
FEMA has asked for 8,500 homes so far, but more than 560,000 hurricane victims have already requested housing assistance. With additional hurricane aid funding recently authorized by Congress, FEMA will likely ask for even more modular homes.
"There will be more coming," Muzio said.