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As a new five-story Holiday Inn Express reaches into the sky, builders have welcomed a labor-saving design that has helped make up for numerous winter weather delays.

The 89-room, $8.4 million, Holiday Inn Express at 3431 Ember Lane is being developed by TKO Developers LLC of Aberdeen, S.D. The motel, one of seven Billings lodging facilities under construction this year, won’t be completed until this fall. But the project is proceeding smoothly, in large part because the design called for using prefabricated framing panels for walls rather than delivering piles of lumber to the job site and having carpenters saw, nail and erect the walls from scratch.

Thomae Lumber fabricated the framing panels at its Billings factory on Mullowney Lane.

Tom Wester, who handles sales for Thomae Lumber, said moving some of the work offsite boosts efficiency and helps assure a better product.

“Building the walls in a controlled environment, everything is pre-engineered and pre-designed so that it is absolutely going to fit,” Wester said.

Thomae has been building prefabricated wall components for about 15 years. Residential construction has accounted for much of that market. But the system is being used for more commercial applications, including the recently completed My Space Hotel on King Avenue East.

Here’s a brief rundown of how carpenters went about assembling the motel’s fifth story. Stacks of shop-built panels were hoisted to the fifth floor. To frame a wall, carpenters move a numbered framing panel to a corresponding number printed on the subfloor, tip it up, plumb it, and fasten it to adjoining panels. 

“There’s an actual blueprint that’s numbered out, and each panel has a numeric indicator that ties to the map,” Wester said.

The prefabricated panels are usually no more than 12 feet long so a three-man crew can erect a wall efficiently, Wester said.

Ryan Cook, onsite project manager, said the modular system was welcome in the wake of the rugged winter of 2013-14.

“To do a conventional stick-framed building you can be hit with delays, just because you’re relying on good weather to lay material down on a floor like this and building it from scratch,” he said.

Steve Ventling, owner of High Plains Construction, the framing contractor on the job, said it has taken about 1-1/2 weeks to frame each floor of the motel.

“The preframed walls have expedited everything quite a bit,” Ventling said. With Yellowstone County’s unemployment rate hovering below 4 percent, skilled carpenters aren’t easy to come by. “But we’re fortunate to have this crew,” Ventling said. “The issue in Billings is that you can get good labor but it’s hard to get good carpenters.”

Now that spring weather has finally arrived following months of cold and a record 100 inches of snowfall, Ventling expects a flurry of activity.

“This spring, I expect the activity to really shoot out of the cannon,” Ventling said.