Engineering a home

Builder: A post-and- beam Deck House arrives as a shell ready to assemble. It has craftsmanlike detail, but doesn't come cheap.

October 31, 1999|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Chris Susman's dream stands unfinished, surrounded by mounds of damp red clay in the Darlington woods.

They've just started putting the cedar siding on, so it's finally starting to look like a house, she says -- like the house she already inhabits in her head.

"We've been thinking about building this house since we got married five years ago," she said

But Susman, 35, a chemical engineer, had been planning to build this house in Harford County long before she met her husband, Scott. As a teen-ager, she decided that her dream house was a Deck House, just like her parents'.

Deck House Inc., which opened a model outside Annapolis in June, designs and manufactures post-and-beam houses. The Acton, Mass., company started selling its "engineered houses" in 1959.

When building a Deck House, clients such as the Susmans can begin with a selection of standard plans, then work with company architects to modify the design -- or they can design a custom home from scratch. A company architect or representative visits the homesite and designs the house to fit the location.

"We're in the custom-housing business, and our objective is to make the process easier than going to an architect and starting from scratch," said Deck House President Michael S. Harris. "With each house, the only thing that is the same is the building materials."

The components for the house's "shell" and nearly all the extensive wood detail used throughout the interior are manufactured at Deck House's 200,000-square-foot facility in Acton and shipped to clients in two to three truckloads.

The laminated fir beams, supporting posts and cedar decking for the ceiling come cut to size and ready to put up. The exterior walls are shipped in large panels for quick assembly. The energy-efficient, mahogany-frame windows come fabricated in groups per plan. The oak or mahogany stairs come in one piece and stained. The handmade railings come cut to size with holes for hardware already drilled.

Deck House secures for its clients a local builder that is trained to build its product. "The objective is that people use hammers and not saws to assemble it," Harris said.

"The builder puts in the foundation, erects the shell, provides all the mechanical systems for the house, like heating and electrical systems, and also provides the floor and wall finishes that are readily available locally."

Having ready-made pieces for the exterior and ceiling speeds up the initial process of getting the house under roof, but the rest takes nearly as long as a standard, stick-built home, Harris said. Normally, a Deck House takes about six to eight months to design, manufacture and build.

The houses are not cheap -- about $120 to $150 per square foot excluding the land. Harris said clients should have a budget of at least $200,000 to build a Deck House, but a typical one costs $300,000.

"They have been able to accomplish this craftsmanlike detail that they can duplicate in the factory," said Barbara Martin, executive director of the Building Systems Councils of the National Association of Home Builders. "The products that go into these homes are very high-end. If you were going to put in all the detailing Deck House has [in a custom house], you would probably pay more."

Harris said the company is also able to give fairly accurate cost estimates for the house early in the process.

"Because we deal with the same vocabulary, the same materials, we know what things cost," he said. "It's very unusual for a project not to go forward because of our estimates."

The signature look of a Deck House is its contemporary, open design, with a large number of windows and few walls.

"Because it has a post-and-beam system, the walls are doing very little work, so they don't have to be there," Harris explained. "You could essentially build a Deck House without any walls in it. You could also put in as many windows as you wanted without worrying that the walls won't be able to support the roof."

The Annapolis model, the Homestead, is 3,600 square feet (plus 1,800 square feet of finished basement). Its living room, kitchen, formal and casual dining areas are arranged as a great room without walls. The second-floor sitting room is a loft open to the great room. The rear wall of the room is virtually all windows, looking out onto a wooded, 2-acre lot. Harris estimates the model, which is for sale with a two-year leaseback to the company, is worth $550,000 without the property. With the property, Harris said it would cost about $750,000.

Harris said Deck Houses can be designed to take advantage of any natural setting, and he hopes to market more of them locally for waterfront, golf course and wooded properties.

Harris said the company builds about 200 homes each year, with about 25 of those in Maryland.

The Susmans' 3,800-square-foot Deck House is situated on 2 acres carved out of her parents' 7-acre spread. The house's two-story glass sun room has a view of her parents' darker, 22-year-old Deck House nestled among the trees.

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