Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Retirement Bungalows, Weekend Lodges, And Mansions Post-Frame Can Do It All

Something for Everyone

Retirement Bungalows, Weekend Lodges, And Mansions Post-Frame Can Do It All
By Renee DuFore Russell
Editor, Frame Building News

A classical Greek mansion suitable for the gods of Mount Olympus, a weekend retreat with room for "toys" and a wheelchair-friendly ranch for a disabled retiree: What do these homes have in common?

From the sublime to the simple, there's a post-frame home to suit nearly everyone, according to builders working in the industry.

Looking at what is being built today, it's hard to believe that post-frame is the grown-up child of the old pole barn or, as Iowa builder Kim Gee says, "This ain't your grandpa's machine shed."

Brian Keane, president of National Barn Co./Legacy Homes, puts it this way, "We've seen people say, 'I want to turn a pole barn into a house' and it's taken off from there."

What builders already know and the public is learning slowly is that designs for post-frame homes are limited only by one's imagination.

Take the imagination of Nick Laskaris, owner of Mount Olympus Waterpark in the resort town of Wisconsin Dells. Laskaris drew on his own Greek heritage and followed the gods of Mount Olympus into a home design that rivals anything Zeus could desire. Built by Tom Jackson, a builder from the Wisconsin Dells area, it's a massive Wick Home whose exterior walls are covered with painted Styrofoam brand plastic foam.

House of epic proportions

Jackson and Laskaris met about five years ago when Laskaris, who owns several Wisconsin tourist attractions, was shopping for a huge addition to the Mount Olympus site. Other projects followed and when Laskaris was ready to begin construction of a home of mythical grandeur and epic proportions, he called on Jackson.

Because there were challenges with interior clearance heights and other aspects, conventional builders couldn't come up with an economical way to meet Laskaris' requirements, Jackson explains. So Jackson sat down with the artist from Laskaris' own creative staff, who designed the Styrofoam fa├žade of another Mount Olympus feature. Then they worked with Eva Laskaris, Nick's wife, and came up with the house design, determined what was needed structurally and created an unusual plan.

The house boasts 15,000 square feet of living space in its 72- by 122-foot main wing with 27-foot high ceilings. The great room lives up to its name at a huge 52- by 60-feet. Then there's a pantry wing, an area for elevators and a six-car garage. It sits on a four-foot frost wall, without a basement. The main structure has a deep heel truss on a 72-foot wide clear-span truss with straight lower cord and a flat ceiling 27 feet in the air. The 14-foot windows are all 20 feet tall, said Jackson.

The house dominates a peninsula where local restrictions prevent property owners from obstructing others' views of the water. That means the highest point of the home can be no more than 35 feet.

The design called for the roof to slope to the center to accommodate a roof gutter system that drains toward the interior. Jackson designed that using rolled rubber roofing on the rather flat-pitched roof.

In framing the house, Jackson ran horizontal 2 x 6 girts, 16 inches on center. Over that, he placed treated plywood as a backing for attaching the foam material. On the foam, they applied a skim coat of plaster before painting it white.

Jackson says it's the most spectacular home he's been part of building and he is proud of the unique things that he could do there. "It was economical and fast – totally framed up and enclosed in less than two weeks," he says.

That immediacy was one of the things that convinced Laskaris that Jackson's plan was the way to go. "He's the kind of guy who, when he decides to do something, he wants it today," Jackson said of his client.

Yet, the owner and his family have not yet occupied the mansion, which was started in 2005. "It's a work in progress," says Jackson.

And, yes, Jackson met the local height requirement. The railing around the top of the house is within two inches of the 35-foot height limitation that local regulations demand.

When practicality rules

Toward the other end of the spectrum is a low-cost two-bedroom, two-bath ranch that Kim Gee of Gee Systems built for her wheelchair-bound mother. "I thought, 'There's got to be a way to accommodate her needs,' Gee says. 'I didn't want fancy. It had to be conservative, low-cost per square foot, no basement, energy efficient with an easy, open floor plan."

The solution for Gee's mother features three-foot wide doors in every room, a master bath with walk-in shower, a bright, airy kitchen and two-car garage. Its vinyl siding and "low-maintenance everything" turned out to be just what was needed.

What Gee glimpsed in designing her mother's house has led her to a wider vision in home designs for the baby boomer generation, the first of whom are now turning 60. Some boomers are building homes for their 80-something parents, as well as considering their own future needs. Downsizing from large family homes, many boomers want versatility in design, energy efficiency, easy maintenance and the ability to live independently in their own homes long into their retirement years.

Gee recommends to those customers that they make their new homes easily adaptable to future physical limitations by incorporating walker- and wheelchair-friendly features, eliminating stairs and including features like walk-in showers.

"I also see post-frame as a do-it-yourself market," Gee says. She built a spec house, held an open house "and 50 people showed up, all for the same reason – 'I wonder if I could do this.' " "These guys would like to build their own homes but don't want to frame a house, just do the inside – the wiring, drywall, stud walls," Gee says. That's a whole other market I thought I could have."

But that's not the only market that is interested in what post-frame construction can offer. "I've seen a wide range," said Keane. "There are young couples, empty nesters, people who want low-cost, energy-efficient and they're tired of painting."

Keane and others note that, while there are no "typical" customers, folks who have country or rural acreage see post-frame as a good alternative. Whether it's the owners' homes or second homes/vacation getaways, post-frame has wide-ranging appeal.

Wide open spaces

Post-frame builders could expect to gain a lot of business from people with acreage in rural areas. The appeal of having a weekend place that houses the family, the guests and the "toys" is strong. Creative results are showing up among those who erect buildings with living quarters on one side and storage for boats, RVs, snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles on the other.

This scenario is familiar to Kevin McCormick, who works in sales/design/estimating for Tradesmen Construction of Alexandria, Minn., an area knee-deep in little lakes and vacation getaways.

McCormick, who won the Residential Design Building of the Year in 2005 from Frame Building News magazine, is an expert in vacation homes and lodges. His winning home, a luxury hunting lodge designed for two Minneapolis businessmen, is a multi-level structure with vaulted ceilings, interior log trusses, a central great room with fireplace and many amenities. McCormick got his start in the industry at age 15, when he worked with his dad, a log home builder in Minnesota.

It's perhaps the scaled-down version of the luxury lodge idea that McCormick is seeing frequently in Minnesota today – people building 30- by 40-foot or 30- by 60-foot "boxes," putting overhead doors in a "toy" bay and finishing off the rest as living quarters.

Sometimes, the owner goes on to build a permanent, more luxurious, home on the property at a later date. When that's finished, he's free to convert the first "box" into a guest house.

But that's not everyone's dream. McCormick says a typical buyer is a retiree who wants a three-bedroom, two-bath home that's convenient and economical, has no stairs and no basement, but includes some conventional features. For those folks, "We often end up building concrete storm shelters that double as laundry rooms or storage areas," he says, noting Minnesota's penchant for severe weather.

Tami Newman, marketing coordinator for Wick Homes in Mazomanie, Wis., paints a different picture. She says a post-frame homeowner often is someone who grew up on a farm, moved to the city and now wants to get back to the country. Perhaps they bought several acres and want to build something that is both versatile and maintenance-free. Perhaps it has to do double duty: provide living space and house the family's hobbies – horses, antique tractors or a fleet of snowmobiles or ATVs. The building style lends itself to a second home on a lake, in the woods or as a hunting lodge. A South Carolina couple, for example, built a two-story post-frame structure that gives them living quarters upstairs and houses their business downstairs. At a recent seminar for post-frame dealers, says Gee, we were asked how many of us are doing "shed homes" and every one of us had our hands raised. The customer has driven this point, she says, because they are demanding something that is different, easy, affordable and has do-it-yourself potential.

The affordability factor is a strong appeal. While it's hard to come by a figure because costs vary widely by region, Keane fixes the number in the Tulsa, Okla., area at about a 15 percent difference in cost compared to conventional framing and masonry in a quality (not a cheaply-built) stick-built house.

Newman cites a brochure that claims between 20 and 40 percent less, but she said that's not easily confirmed because of regional market variations.

DIY-ers can get into a new house for about $21 per square foot, "a pretty affordable home with the sweat of your brow," says Gee, although she marketed a 40- by 48-foot house for under $70 per square foot, compared to $100 to $110 in the Iowa market where she operates. For other areas, she says, that might be low.

'I want it now'

How quickly a post-frame building goes up is a big plus for people who were raised in the "instant-everything" generation. Keane points to the 30-day time line for having a shell built, compared to a 120-day calendar for a turnkey building.

Gee, who built a 24- by 32-foot addition on her own home, said people are amazed that it was up in five days. Then her own construction crews came in and framed the inside. She found that she liked the flexibility of the project. "Other than the bathroom, I could have moved any wall. In fact, I did. I took two feet out of one bedroom and added it to the living room," she said.

Gee is thrilled with the attractive addition, which has an attic truss. "People can't believe it's post-frame," she says. And while she was at it, she retrofit the rest of the house to make it accessible for future physical limitations. "It doesn't have to look like a wheelchair house, it just needs wider doors," she says.

Builders who want to help write the next chapter in the growing story of post-frame homes should be thinking like consumers.

If expanding the market comes down to education, post-frame builders would do well to emphasize the creativity that is offered in choosing post-frame for a vacation, retirement or special-needs dwelling. Consider, for example, the affluence, education and fierce independence of the baby boom population, which the U.S. Census Bureau puts at more than 78 million today.

Between now and 2030, when the last of the boomers turn 65, retirement housing is likely to undergo massive changes. Forward-looking boomers offer a lucrative potential market for practical, customized and versatile home designs. By that date, the Census Bureau projects, there still will be 58 million boomers alive and in need of housing. How many of them, today's builders should ask themselves, could be living in economical, versatile and efficient post-frame homes?

It's a market to take seriously.

Pros and cons

Jeff Neihouser of FBi Buildings, whose company won first place in the Housing/Homes/Residential category of this year's Frame Building Expo Buildings of the Year, said the dual-purpose building on a lake was "an anomaly for us because we do very few homes, but this one turned out to be a winner."

"The customer had the design all planned out. He just needed us to build it," said Neihouser. "We didn't do the finish work, just the shell" of the 60- by 72-foot structure. "In building a house, you have to know lot of different trades, coordinate it all, be very much a custom-home builder. That's a challenge in this industry," he says, "but to build the shell of house is a pretty good application and cost effective."

Neihouser lists cost-effectiveness per square foot as a foremost attribute of post-frame home building. On the downside, a wasted space in the way the structure goes together is can be a negative. "You've got a 6-inch post with a 2 x 4, basically a big wall cavity compared to standard home, so it's some wasted space, not as efficient from a space standpoint," he says.

But overall, a post-frame multi-purpose building is so adaptable that you can have a creative residential area on one side and a practical application on the other side, he says. "That's a good combination in a weekend home – one structure versus multiple buildings."

Speed of construction is among the top selling points. One thing is the time frame to build, says Newman. It takes longer with traditional methods, where you're at the whim of the weather.

"A huge advantage of post-frame is that parts are assembled and (the building) can be completely enclosed in just a few days." Wick has just made that aspect even more attractive, she explains, with a new product called Sure Frame. It's a precision-cut onsite build product – a wall system – that is really revolutionary. All components come onsite marked and cut and the whole frame can be done in one day, she says. Just launched in February, Sure Frame is in its infancy, Newman says, and it's exclusive to Wick.

Other upsides to building post-frame homes include fire insurance breaks for homeowners because metal wall cladding and metal roofing leave mean there's less to burn. On the other hand, some insurance companies need better education in regard to the perceived potential for wind damage.

Education is needed as the industry progresses, Gee says. "The NFBA is doing a good job of educating architects and builders," she says, but I'd like to see education for insurance companies.

"They need to know that there are regulations (governing erection of post-frame buildings). "It's not like the Joe Blow guy who builds a shed that blows away. When a shed falls down, it's a black eye for any post-frame builder. When insurance adjusters search through the rubble, they're not looking to see if it's a Wick Home. All they see is a shed down … and lump them all together. Same with lenders."

In the same vein, building codes and covenants, especially in suburban neighborhoods, sometimes offer challenges, says Keane. "But you just don't know until you get into that county and see what their knowledge (of post-frame) is. If (officials) saw a poorly constructed post-frame in the past, they're reluctant (to issue permits). It leaves a sour taste in their mouth," Keane says.

On the other hand, if they're familiar with properly constructed (post-frame) buildings, they don't have a problem unless there's a covenant in a subdivision. "But the people that we deal with know they're going into acreage, not into a subdivision," Keane adds.

Several scenarios and a range of successful builders point to one thing: The post-frame future shows vast potential. From those clients who want a simple "box" to turn into a home to those clients who clearly are thinking "outside the box," the builder who is willing to be creative, to listen to customers and to go the extra distance has everything to gain.

Changing their minds

Do builders have trouble getting potential post-frame house clients past the pole-barn image?

"Yes, you do when you first present it," says Kevin McCormick, who sells Reaves Buildings Systems of Sioux Falls, S.D. "It's difficult until you take them out and show them some post-frame homes."

McCormick drives clients past homes, offices and professional buildings such as veterinary clinics or offices – "the designs that anybody driving down the street wouldn't know are post-frame. They change their minds then, especially when they see that they can save money," he says.

"You always have the guy who wants the house he can't afford," McCormick says. But one of his most compelling selling points is showing buyers how much more house they can get for the money.

"On the other hand," he says, "there are people who come to us wanting a post-frame or pole building. They already know what they're getting."

That, quite obviously, speaks to the good results that come from educating the public through advertising, getting involved in seminars and shows and, perhaps best of all, the bonus of positive PR when satisfied customers talk about their experiences with post-frame buildings.

And that's priceless!

Reprinted with permission from August 2007 issue of Frame Building News.

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