Building a dream home from a kit

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED

February 02, 1997|By Beth Smith

When a Baltimore physician and his wife decided to build their dream home on a hilltop lot in Baltimore County, they veered from the standard route for building a custom house.

Instead of hiring an architect and a building contractor, they elected to work with a kit-home manufacturer, Acorn Structures. Acorn is one of several national firms selling package deals that include home-design plans, pre-cut building materials shipped to the building site, and a host of services geared to making the building process as user-friendly as possible.

Once seen mainly in retirement communities or vacation retreats, these unique package homes -- residences that belie their factory origins -- are now dotted around Maryland. They are even turning up in upscale suburban neighborhoods, where they serve as primary homes for active families.

People like them because of their contemporary architectural look, open spaces, soaring ceilings and windows of glass; because of the high quality of the building materials used and the precision with which those materials are cut; because of the help most kit companies give in finding reliable builders; and because of the design flexibility the manufacturers offer.

Standing on a tree-edged street in Ruxton, a viewer would never guess that the doctor's handsome home -- a gray frame contemporary in a New England style -- arrived at the construction site looking very much like a giant set of Tinker Toys, with all sorts of numbered and marked building components to be fitted together to form a house.

"Basically, there are three categories of kit homes," says Rob Knight, president of Yankee Barn Homes in Grantham, N.H.: "Panelized, where components of the house are pre-cut and partially assembled; modular, where entire sections of an assembled house are shipped to the lot; and log houses."

Acorn houses, like the doctor's, are considered panelized because some building components, such as walls, arrive at the building site in sections or panels. Recognized by consumers as kit houses, these types of homes are also called pre-engineered, pre-cut or pre-fabricated by professionals in the industry.

" 'Kit' sounds like these houses are small, simple and can be put together by do-it-yourselfers following a set of instructions," says Richard Neroni, president of Timberpeg in West Lebanon, N.H. "In reality, they are very complex and sophisticated systems that require the skills of trained builders." They are not weekend projects. Most take from six months to a year to build.

The Acorn company delivers a package that gives homebuyers an "exterior shell, plus interior millwork as well as a full set of working blueprints," says Jay Williams, architect and regional sales manager for the firm in the Baltimore/Annapolis area.

Manufacturers like Acorn's sister company, Deck House, and Yankee Barn, Timberpeg and Lindal Cedar Homes of Seattle, Wash., offer their own specific packages, which usually include some type of floor and roof systems, exterior walls, windows, doors and interior trims. And, while not casting themselves in the role of contractor, they also offer an array of services to help guide buyers through the building process, including securing an independent builder to put up the house and finding the proper site for the house on the lot.

Packages usually do not include heating, air conditioning, plumbing or electrical systems, insulation, appliances or fireplaces. Nor does the price include the actual labor cost of constructing the house on a lot. These are in addition to the cost of the kit.

Charles White of Broadway Builders in Baltimore County has built several Acorn houses. He advises that the kit homes he builds are not for bargain hunters. "They are as expensive or more expensive than conventional custom houses," he says, adding that building costs generally run about $100 per square foot.

While on-site construction costs can be slighter lower because of pre-cut, pre-assembled components, the difference is made up by the cost of the top-grade materials -- mahogany, western cedar, Douglas fir, red oak -- routinely used by reputable kit manufacturers.

"From what I've seen, materials for pre-engineered homes are consistently high quality," says White.

A current Acorn price chart lists completed homes ranging from $100,000 for a small saltbox design with a finished living area of a little less than 1,000 square to $515,000 for a greatly expanded version of the basic farmhouse plan with more than 5,000 square feet of finished space.

Wide-ranging costs

Kits themselves vary widely in cost; the price is usually based on the square footage of the house. The smaller the structure, the less pricey the kit. "Our kit prices generally run from about $26,000 for a small model in our cost-effective Access line to over $350,000 for the largest of our solid cedar homes," says Marilyn DeReggi of DeReggi Custom Homes, a Montgomery County-based builder of Lindal Cedar Homes.

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