Habitat Post and Beam Offers Form and Function
Whether supplying the necessary materials for a home, a business, or an addition to either of the two, Habitat Post and Beam in South Deerfield has been adhering to strict standards for quality since 1972. Those standards have led to success in the niche post-and-beam market, culminating recently with a workload that is steady and growing.
On a two-lane roadway with industrial overtones, Mann Orchards wanted its new location in Methuen, Mass. to stand out from the rest of the big-box franchises and convenience stores. It did so by commissioning a massive post and beam facility from Habitat Post and Beam in South Deerfield, thus creating a warm, family feel in a sea of concrete.
And on Dog Island in Florida, the owners of a new, contemporary post-and-beam house watched safely from inside as their boathouse washed away in a hurricane; their home, thankfully, suffered little damage.
These are just two of the stories Huckle May, vice president of Habitat, likes to tell to illustrate the draw of post-and-beam homes (spaced columns and beams for structure), which Habitat has been pre-fabricating, designing, selling, and delivering to locales across the country since 1972.
“It’s a style of home that I think a lot of people like, but in the past, didn’t know a lot about,” said May. “But post-and-beam homes are only increasing in popularity, and I think the industry is going to keep expanding considerably.”
Habitat’s current book of business could be proof of that upswing in awareness of post-and-beam homes, additions, and commercial properties, all of which are part of the company’s suite of services. Over the past 10 years, Habitat has seen consistent growth, averaging about 10% over the previous year annually in revenue, and last year recording $5 million in sales.
“We are a manageable size and have a history of quality,” said May, noting that Habitat employs 15 people, five of whom work in the company’s shop manufacturing post-and-beam components, and the remainder in sales and administration, design, and engineering. “Some of our clients have been with us since the 1970s; it’s definitely a business that will last longer that the people now running it.
“But as things stand now, I think the best way to put it is we would welcome a steadying of business,” said May. “We’re a very streamlined operation, and very process-oriented. But we’re also constantly swamped, and that’s a unique challenge.”
The First Cut
Habitat was one of the early purveyors of so-called ‘kit homes’ — a term that sometimes carries a negative connotation, said May, but still best describes the types of pre-fabricated lumber and materials that create a Habitat Post and Beam structure.
May explained that his father, Peter, a former contractor, bought the business 15 years ago from Edgeco Inc., and remains its president today; five years after that, his son entered the business with the initial idea that it would be a temporary gig.
But with a decade under his belt, Huckle May said his job has since become permanent, and the brisk rate of business has also kept it interesting.
Habitat’s strong sales record, for instance, has necessitated an expansion to its Elm Street manufacturing facility, to be built on an adjacent piece of property.
“The expansion is extremely important, as it will allow us to improve quality and maintain a competitive advantage,” said May, who added that, while the post-and-beam industry is subject to the same economic cycles that affect other building sectors, Habitat has seen steady, constant improvement, and the reasons why are varied.
First, Habitat can design and provide materials for a myriad of projects, from various sizes of homes to additions to commercial and specialty projects, including the Yankee Candle flagship store’s main building in South Deerfield, Gledhill Nursery and Landscape Center in West Hartford, Conn., and the Church of the Messiah in Chester, N.J.
“It goes up and down,” said May. “We typically handle one major commercial project a year, and, depending on the market, homes and additions alternate in frequency. Currently, about a third of our jobs are additions; when the value of residential homes is stable, people tend to add on.”
Lean and Green
In more general terms, post-and-beam homes appeal to an environmentally conscious audience and fit well into the current trend toward ‘green building.’
“Post-and-beam homes are generally more green,” said May, adding that Habitat also procures its lumber from a family-managed forest in the Pacific Northwest, which provides Douglas fir through sustainable logging practices.
“They will last for generations, are very thermally efficient, and are built tighter — often better than conventional framing. Owners also tend to use less carpeting and wood finishes, to maintain that natural look.”
But beyond being environmentally sound, post-and-beam homes also satisfy a wide range of aesthetic tastes.
“Post-and-beam homes use space more efficiently, in general,” said May. “They have a good layout, usually with a common room with a high ceiling surrounded by cozy areas everywhere else. They lend themselves to one-level living.”
That’s a benefit that appeals to Baby Boomers, a group that is now leading the ‘aging in place’ home building and design phenomenon, and also younger homeowners, who may want to expand their property at a later date.
“It’s always cheaper to build up instead of out,” May said, “and building lots are increasingly scarce, especially in the Northeast.”
May noted that post-and-beam homes are actually a very small fraction of the entire construction market, similar to other niche offerings like log or timber-frame homes. But they are sturdy, quality structures that age well, and an increasingly savvy consumer base is turning its attention to them, in part with the help of the World Wide Web.
“Customers are more educated about their home-building options,” he said. “Once, we got 1,000 calls from people just looking for more information, before we were contacted by a real, potential client. But now, the Internet does a lot of that work for us, and people call us much more prepared.”
Still, May said the biggest draw of a post-and-beam home is one that has been a strength of the design since its early years as a building option — its characteristic cathedral ceilings and wide, open spaces carry a certain cache, and often translate into one’s dream home.
“We have a largely high-end clientele,” he said, “and we send most post-and-beam homes to areas that already have great views; places with lakes, rivers, and mountains. They fit very well into natural landscapes, but post-and-beam homes can also be designed to look very contemporary.”
To illustrate that point, Habitat added model rooms to its Elm Street location in spring 2004, constructing one that represents more traditional post-and-beam design, and another that is more modern, with soaring windows and curved track lighting.
Touring the space the company dubbed ‘Habitat Station,’ in part for the exterior’s resemblance to train platform, Peter May told BusinessWest that the rooms often help clients decide which design they prefer, or create a hybrid of the two.
“It’s funny; often, a husband and wife will come in, and one will go to one room and say, ‘this is exactly what I was thinking,’ while the other goes to the second room and says the same thing. They definitely help people visualize, but they also help people see where the compromises can be made.”
The showrooms also effectively translate the quality and versatility of post-and-beam homes, without overwhelming a client with the particulars of the design-and-build process, which is a detailed one.
“It has worked out really well for me because I love process and project design work,” said Huckle May, “ and I get to do a lot of that here. But it is a long, technologically-based process.”
Indeed, as a business that manufactures not one component of a building project, but rather the entire project itself, there are plenty of steps to be taken. May explained that a job usually begins with an initial idea or vision from a potential client, and continues to develop with the help of an independent architect or by matching needs, wants, and budget to one of Habitat’s in-house designs.
From there, three-dimensional drawings and floor plans are created by members of the Habitat design team, and a ‘virtual tour’ is created with the help of software programs. Once the engineering plans necessary to secure a building permit are completed, final plans and contracts are drafted.
Most components of a Habitat home are cut and prepared at the South Deerfield facility, including walls, floors, and roofs. Once a foundation is poured at the construction site, a delivery is made — everything from walls, roof, and floors to the necessary fasteners — via a tractor-trailer dispatched from Western Mass. to anywhere in the country.
The homeowner can then contract with a builder to complete the project, and can opt to work with some of the suppliers that partner with Habitat, such as Anderson windows, or to handle some or all of the details themselves.
May said that about 70% of Habitat’s clients hail from the Northeast, and the remainder are scattered across the country.
“The Berkshires are very strong, and we’re seeing more and more interest in the Pioneer Valley,” he said. “I think that’s because we can handle such a wide range of projects. People do all sorts of things; we’ve had people approach us to build an entire post-and-beam house and add it on to an existing house, or just for a 12 x 12 room.”
The Kit and Caboodle
Even as such a small part of the building sector, post-and-beam homes are beginning to make a name for themselves as a sought-after design scheme with limitless possibilities, said May, and that is creating a firm foundation for Habitat.
“Over the years, more people have realized that post-and-beam homes are one solution to designing a home that fits their various needs,” he said.
And whether that need is to stand out from the crowd or simply stand the test of time, somehow, the term ‘kit home’ seems to no longer apply.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]