American Dreams In Prague

July 11, 1994|By Michele Kayal | Michele Kayal,Special to The Sun

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- In 40-foot containers shipped from Baltimore's harbor, the American dream house has crossed the Atlantic and is quickly changing the way some Czech homeowners think of their castles.

USA Builders, based in Potomac, Md., is one of two companies exporting the U.S.-style subdivision beam-by-beam, doorknob-by-doorknob to the Czech Republic.

More than 30 homes have been sold to Prague's wealthiest new capitalists, and builders are confident that the 140 planned will only begin to satisfy a growing lust for the American lifestyle.

"They have this image -- 'Dallas' -- the mansion -- that's America!" says USA Builders Chairman Martin Sumichrast, whose father is a Czech emigre. "One guy didn't want a single Czech item in his house."

Most suburban Czechs -- including the prime minister -- go home to blocky, Stalinist high-rises known as "panelaks," taken from the gigantic, ash-colored panels used in their construction.

Less than a quarter of the Czech population lives in a single-family home, and most of these are in villages. Nearly all of them were built by their owners, who, with few building services under Communism, spent five to 10 years laying electrical wire, installing the plumbing and even mixing cement.

Against this backdrop, USA Builders' made-to-order homes with their wall-to-wall carpeting and microwave ovens offer unimaginable high living.

The homes might not be considered "luxury" in the United States, but their green lawns and double garages just outside Prague rival that fanciest brand of tract housing found in some parts of Bethesda, where every villa is neatly appointed with variations on a pre-fab theme.

Buyers already have snapped up five of USA Builders' planned 19 houses, and every weekend more than 200 khaki-clad nouveau-riche swarm though the stucco-coated showcase home to finger the horizontal blinds, crane their necks at the cathedral ceiling and poke at the water dispenser on the refrigerator.

Cable television and a whirlpool bath are standard, and extras such as swimming pools and tennis courts are offered up like a tray of dainty canapes.

"The most attractive thing is that it has everything together," says 32-year-old Zdenek Drbohlav, the owner of a computer software firm who plans to buy his family USA Builders' Mediterranean-style 'Vista' model. "You buy everything at once."

And nearly everything to buy is made in the United States. It's the same story at a similar development down the road, where Portland-based Oncorp/America has sold 26 of its 30 homes, mostly by pushing the status factor of Yankee goods.

"One-hundred percent of our supplies are from the U.S. -- that's our slogan," says manager Jaroslav Durdis, whose firm IPS constructs the homes from Oncorp's materials. (He sheepishly admits, however, that the central vacuuming system comes from Europe).

Oncorp customers, Mr. Durdis says, especially like the calculated opulence of the American thermostat, which registers temperature in Fahrenheit instead of Europe's Celsius scale. Fifty percent of his clients also requested garbage disposals in the kitchens they picked from the catalog.

"The problem is they don't exactly know what it's for," he says with a smile. Imported materials not only win customers, say Oncorp and USA Builders executives, but actually cost less than goods from Europe, where tariffs and labor costs drive up prices. "Even with the freight, we can compete with most products in Europe," says Oncorp President Gregg Opsahl, whose wife was born in Prague.

Even still, the average Oncorp house costs $175,000 and, a home from USA Builders can run as much as $315,000. The prices are within reach of many Americans, but in a country with no mortgage system and an average monthly salary of $200, such glorious excess is closed to all but the entrepreneurs and gasoline magnates who have the cash at hand. In a recent survey, 52 percent of Czechs said they could not afford to pay a higher rent, and only a few can scrape together the $35,000 needed to buy a humble "panelak" flat. Oncorp and USA Builders both offer financing plans, but with less than five years credit. A mortgage system is expected in 1995.

If the prices don't scare off clients, sometimes the wooden construction of the American homes does. In central Europe, people build their summer cottages from wood, but their homes from brick and stone. In a culture where people rarely move from their hometown and a house may hold three generations at once, wood suggests an impermanence that some find hard to bear.

"There's a great tradition to live in a brick house, which gives you a feeling of stability. To build a wooden house is a feeling that it's something lower -- even if it's an American house for [$500,000]," says Jan Fibiger, director of Prague's Architect and Builders Foundation. "A lot of people aren't building houses for the next 10 years, but for generations."

Some critics, including Mr. Fibiger, also object to the conspicuous luxury of the American-style homes because they say it creates class pressure.

But Oncorp and USA Builders seem assured of a market in those rising capitalists who enjoy their new status and want to live among people who share it. "I like this style when you can have 20 or 50 houses together," says one 27-year-old importer who will quit his 11-story high-rise for an Oncorp home.

When the wealthiest of the new wealthy are comfortably housed, USA Builders and Oncorp will cater to Czechs one rung down. Oncorp already is designing rowhouses, and USA Builders has plans on the drawing board for 50 smaller, less expensive homes. Both are confident that while the number of people who can afford luxury may fade, fascination with the American lifestyle will not.

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