House parts, to go A matter of truss: A Carroll County manufacturer of prefabricated roof, wall and floor structures is doing business all over the world.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Off Stone Chapel Road on the outskirts of Westminster, the familiar sounds of home construction sawing and hammering envelop Dwight N. Hikel.

But the 56-year-old one-time Army brat wasn't out in one of the dozens of new subdivisions sprouting around the Baltimore region.

Rather, he was walking through his factory, part of a 30,000-square-foot complex on 15 acres in central Carroll County. Shelter Systems Ltd.'s 130 employees build wood housing components walls and floor and roof trusses that have been installed in communities from Harrisburg, Pa., to Baltimore to Richmond, Va., over the past two decades.

His products have been used in moderately priced townhouses and in mansions, including the 8,500-square-foot Masco show home. That house, built in Howard County by the Siegel Organization of Owings Mills, drew more than 5,000 visitors last fall.

"I did all the roofing," said Mr. Hikel, whose company has also sold components used in senior housing complexes, offices, hotels and restaurants in the region.

Since 1992, Mr. Hikel's business has gone global. Shelter Systems components have been shipped to Asia, Europe and the Middle East as part of his long-range plan to expand his highly automated business through international trade.

At a time when growth of new housing in his primary market, the Middle Atlantic states, has sputtered, foreign opportunities look particularly inviting.

Shelter Systems employees are currently preparing one of the company's largest international orders, a $1.6 million job to build several buildings at a small ski resort in the Japanese city of Sapporo. All the components will be shipped in containers out of the port of Baltimore.

They will be assembled into a one-story hotel, a chapel and two cottages after they reach Japan. The architect for the project is the Columbia-based firm of DR Brasher Architects Inc.

Over the past four years, Shelter Systems has been exporting what it calls "complete house packages" to France, Israel, Japan, Korea, Poland and Russia. Last year, one of its largest foreign jobs was a 31-townhouse project on the French Riviera. In 1994, the company opened an international division, now staffed with five employees who comb the world for opportunities.

So do other U.S. roof, floor and wall component manufacturers. American exports of wood pre- fabricated houses have grown from $29.6 million in 1989 to $74.3 million in 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

More than 40 percent of the 1994 exports floated to Japan. In the first half of last year, two-thirds of the exports went there; that's no accident, according to Mr. Hikel, who is chairman of the International Housing Committee of the National Association of Home Builders and a member of NAHB's executive committee.

"There's a million and a half housing starts a year in Japan, for a piece of ground that's a little bit bigger than the state of California," Mr. Hikel said. "And that's a little bit more than we have in the whole United States.

"We've got the best housing in the world," he said of the U.S. homebuilding industry. On one of the 30 computers in the offices adjoining his factory where his staff turns customers' blueprints into digitized instructions for shop machines he pointed to the screen image of a home he shipped to Japan.

"It's a little 1,200-square-foot house that goes for maybe $99,000 [to] $100,000 here in Westminster. That's three-quarters of a million dollars in Japan," because of high land prices and inefficient construction methods, he said.

Japanese carpenters earn as much as $500 a day framing homes, according to Mr. Hikel. Because Shelter Systems components are ready to assemble on a site, Mr. Hikel's crews can be very competitive with their Japanese counterparts, even factoring in the transportation costs.

It's reminiscent of the way Japanese automakers were able to ship cars to the U.S. market in the 1970s and 1980s at prices far below Detroit's, before U.S. firms slashed costs and boosted productivity.

"I can take American carpenters over there, pay their room and board, and buy their airplane tickets and [house them] in nice hotels and everything, and be 30 percent under what Japanese carpenters get," he says. "And be three times as productive as a Japanese carpenter."

Mr. Hikel's assessment was echoed in a Commerce Department report on the Japanese housing market. " U.S. housing packages have been attracting much attention among both Japanese homebuilders and potential homeowners for offering high quality and affordability," the report said. "The market will likely continue to grow very quickly, with an estimated growth rate of at least 50 percent over the next few years."

Patrick F. Carr, managing director of Shelter Systems' international division, said he could not estimate what portion of the firm's business comes from exports. But he said it's a "growing part" of the privately owned company's operations. "Each year, it's significantly more than the year before," he said.

According to Frank J. Miano, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, the biggest barrier to U.S. exports in some countries is the mind-set overseas: "If you can't do it with bricks and mortar, you can't do it. They don't know about wood frame."

In many ways, Mr. Hikel, a member of the HBAM board of directors, is carrying out the same educational process abroad that he undertook locally years ago, first as a wood components salesman and then as founder of his own company.

He started Shelter Systems in 1975 with five employees, at a time when the component industry was still relatively young.

The surge in U.S. housing starts in the 1960s and 1970s fueled by baby boomers sharply boosted demand in this country for prefabricated wood-frame walls and roof and floor trusses, according to Kirk Grundahl, director of the Madison, Wis.-based Wood Truss Council of America.

Homebuilders had traditionally put up "stick-built" houses, with carpenters cutting and nailing together pieces of lumber into walls, roof rafters and floor joists.

The component-manufacturing industry mushroomed as builders found themselves pressed to speed up construction so they could keep up with demand, according to Mr. Grundahl.

Many of the largest national builders opened their own component plants. Ryland Homes, which builds around one in 10 new homes in the Baltimore region, has a New Windsor plant not far from Mr. Hikel's. Ryland has put its facility up for sale.

Mr. Hikel and other wood housing component manufacturers argue that their method is much faster and cheaper, and provides greater quality control than on-site construction. To promote their industry, they persuaded the NAHB to let them frame two homes side by side at the association's recent national convention in Houston. Mr. Hikel was chairman of the Wood Truss Council's subcommittee that oversaw the project, and the wall panels were manufactured at his plant.

The component home was nearly 16 percent cheaper to frame, according to preliminary estimates by the Wood Truss Council. The savings came in part from using less lumber. The floor and roof trusses can absorb greater loads because of the way they are engineered, Mr. Hikel said.

Floor trusses are essentially two lengths of lumber joined by wood members fastened with metal connector plates. This "open web" truss has the added benefit of openings for plumbers, electricians and other trades to use instead of time-consuming drilling through the joists used in stick-built homes. Their design also allows for longer spans, permitting larger room dimensions, according to the WTCA.

The component home framed in Houston required 25 percent less lumber and took 63 percent less time to build 253 fewer man-hours, according to the WTCA.

But not everyone at the Houston trade show was convinced by the project, according to Tom Murtaugh, vice president of sales for Ridge Lumber Co. of Perry Hall, one of Mr. Hikel's chief competitors.

"There are a lot of arguments both ways," on which type of construction is cheaper, said Mr. Murtaugh, who sells to stick builders as well as to those who use components.

But he said Mr. Hikel's involvement in the project is typical of his commitment to the construction industry. "He's a dedicated guy," Mr. Murtaugh said.

Mr. Hikel had the foresight to see that builders were going to increasingly demand prefabricated wall panels and roof and floor trusses, Mr. Murtaugh added. "He's a fair competitor and he's been good for the industry."

Pub Date: 03/24/97

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