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Building the better house

By Gary Wickert  
Quick! What do you and Ben Franklin have in common? The answer? Both of your homes were probably built the same way. For 200 years, the basic method of assembling a home, piece by piece and nail by nail, hasn’t changed much. But it’s starting to. As home builders struggle to provide quality homes at a reasonable price, the home building industry is slowly evolving to meet the consumers’ demands of the 21st century.
Tom Martin of The Freeman Group likes a new siding material called “HRDI Plank.” He refers to it as “everything-proof.”

Jerry McGinnis, Sr. of Embassy Homes in Mequon is intimately familiar with home building trends over the last 50 years.

“Today’s buyers are more quality conscious and are demanding more quality in their homes,” McGinnis says. “Purchasers of higher end homes or homes in areas with restrictive building requirements and covenants are also asking for more traditional building materials. As the dollar value of the home diminishes and restrictions are eased, synthetic and more economical materials are being sought.” McGinnis notes that many of the homes in the Northshore area must be built with restrictive covenants or subdivision zoning restrictions in mind. They can severely limit a new buyer’s choices on an array of quality building products that are relatively new to the industry.

McGinnis cites Cedar Pointe subdivision off of Lincoln Avenue in Cedarburg as an example of such restrictions. “When you build a home using brick, cedar-type or wood-based materials, it is really an archaic process,” he explains. “It is the same process—one brick at a time— as was used in Ben Franklin’s time. It adds to the cost of the house. There are many alternatives, including synthetic products and wood composite materials which simulate the real thing and are just about as durable, but are much less expensive.” According to McGinnis, many of the “bugs” have been worked out of some of these products, and the trend toward such options is now taking hold. Synthetic or wood composite materials have the added advantage of being able to be applied with mechanical fasteners and then painted to the desired color. But the choices don’t end there.

“Buyers can also decide between vinyl siding and aluminum siding,” McGinnis adds. “Only a few years ago aluminum was the only option if you didn’t go with the real thing. But now manufacturers of vinyl siding have been making improvements and inroads into areas traditionally dominated by aluminum.” Vinyl siding provides wood grain texturing and is more cost effective than aluminum. However, aluminum siding manufacturers are now manufacturing their product with innovations in texturing and multi-tone colors.

The components and tools used in home building have also helped to make homes with more quality at a reduced price, according to McGinnis. McGinnis also points to new equipment that allows the house to be built better and faster. “A concrete sub-contractor may use a concrete pumper truck today, which may have cost him $600,000, but allows him to pour a basement in three hours instead of all day,” McGinnis says. “He can pour three basements in a day, as opposed to just one, which means he can recoup the cost of his truck quicker, and the quality of the basement is not compromised.” Even the components for building the house are being built with computer technology. “We’re not high-tech,” McGinnis says, “but we’re getting there. We don’t want to mass-produce a house like you would a car or power saw. You don’t want your house to look like every other house. You want to know where your house is without looking at the house numbers.”

Frank Madden is one of the principals of M.D. Properties, specializing in building “high-end homes” which vary in price from $300,000 to over $1 million. Limiting himself to six or eight homes a year, M.D. Properties’ market niche gives Madden unusual insight. “It is the cost of the house versus quality,” Madden says. “People always want nice features in their home, but they have to live within their budget, even with ‘high-end homes.’” Madden firmly believes that most builders try to put out a good product. When there are problems, they usually arise because the buyer’s expectations have exceeded his wallet. Madden looks for new trends in building techniques to help him place his customers in the homes they are looking for.

“Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems are one way we have helped keep the cost of homes within reach of our customers,” Madden says. Known as EIFS, these products are basically a new type of stucco exterior wall covering.

“It’s not a true stucco plaster like you might see on the East Side of Milwaukee—it’s not cement over mesh,” Madden explains. It is a synthetic product that looks like the real thing and can be impregnated with a color so it doesn’t have to be painted for a longer period of time. “It requires less labor than the old stucco, you can have terrific exterior detailing, and it is easier to work with.” The result? Less expense. “Believe it or not,” Madden continues, “Brick leaks. Water gets saturated in the brick and it gets past, so brick requires a drainage system so that water can get out of the walls.” With a barrier system, such as EIFS, you should not have any water leakage, assuming proper maintenance. Because maintenance is sometimes lacking on homes, even expensive homes, Madden plans ahead.

“I install EIFS with a drainage system anyway,” Madden explains. “That way if the caulking falls into disrepair and water gets in, it has somewhere to go. Because it is designed to hold water out, it also holds water in.” Madden sees the new EIFS being used in over 50 percent of his new “high-end” homes.

“Today’s middle-aged home buyer is yearning for nostalgia,” says Tom Martin with the Freeman Group in Cedarburg. “A definite trend has developed for the buyer who has moved three or four times, and due to a sense of rootlessness is building a sense of nostalgia into their homes.”

Wrap-around porches, homes built close together in smaller neighborhoods, and screened in porches are examples of buyers reclaiming the past.

“We are also seeing higher roof pitches,” Martin says. “Where once a 6/12 or 8/12 roof (8 inches of rise for every 12 inches of run) was standard, we are now seeing 10/12, 12/12, and even 14/12 roofs being demanded.” Martin explains that the steeper the roof, the more expensive it is to build. “Roofers and framers charge more for these roofs because they have to pretend they’re mountain goats to build them. Truss companies charge more also. You’re essentially creating a third story to the house, which consists entirely of air. You can have 10 to 25 feet of space in the attic which is basically wasted, and it’s all done because it is a trend in style,” Martin says. Such roofs can add $2,000 to $4,000 to the price of an average 2,400 square foot home.

“Victorian homes and larger, covered porches are coming back big,” Martin adds. “People are wanting room to sit and enjoy the outdoors with a roof over them, but it doesn’t come without a price.” How are home buyers getting around the increased cost? They aren’t, according to Martin.

“Even with the increase in home building and computer technology, homes are getting expensive. There is just no way around it,” Martin says. “Wide casings, hardwood floors, cedar trim, higher quality windows and real wood doors will all add to the cost of the home. Top grade material comes at a price, and can quickly slip out of reach of the average home buyer.”

One new product on the market for home exteriors is known as “HRDI Plank.” A fibrous cement board, Martin refers to it as “concrete siding.” “It is everything-proof,” Martin says. “Fire, water, warpage and shrinkage. It comes with a 50-year, transferable warranty, and comes in a variety of widths and textures. It looks like cedar siding.”

“There is also an increased emphasis on energy efficient homes, especially in the North and Midwest,” Martin adds. “Keeping the cost of your home down is fine, but don’t do it at the expense of energy efficiency. You can save $15,000 to $20,000 over the life of your home if you plan ahead for energy efficiency.”