Dudley Powell isn't wasting any time. Fewer than six months after watching a special report on an "All-American" home built in Bozeman, Mont., the Orlando-based manufacturers' rep is planning to break ground on a similar house in Florida.
This makes him the latest addition to a growing sample of builders, dealers, and manufacturers nationwide who are adjusting their business models to anticipate and accommodate requests for American-made products—in some cases, enough to construct an entire single-family home.
Although construction won't begin until June, Powell's effort is gaining momentum through his recently introduced BuildtheUS.com, a hub for builders and manufacturers looking to track down American-made goods. His plans call for construction of a 2,500-square-foot spec home on a 7,500-square-foot lot outside Orlando.
"It's a grassroots movement and we want to encompass American manufacturers and do our part to help the economy," Powell says.
The idea has been percolating for a few years. In September 2009, a creative agency in Columbus, Ohio, noticed an uptick in companies labeling U.S.-made products. It responded by rolling out a now-patented "Made in U.S.A." non-mandatory certification marker. It offers self-vetted "qualified" and "unqualified" branding for products as all- or nearly U.S.-made per Federal Trade Commission requirements. Of more than 800 companies touting the marker, developer Marcie Gabor estimates that a quarter sell building products. Pickup was slow, she says, but nearly 200 manufacturers added the marker in the last two months.
The movement soon may be driven by more than goodwill. Forecasts cite a boost in the U.S. manufacturing sector as domestic companies pull production out of an increasingly competitive Chinese market and set up shop in this country. According to an August 2011 Boston Consulting Group survey, by 2015, manufacturing profitability in the U.S. and China will be relatively on par—particularly for products intended for North American distribution.
How "American" Is It?
Anders Lewendal, a builder schooled in economics, helped galvanize the campaign when his Anders Lewendal Construction erected a two-story, 2,265-square-foot, 100% American home in Montana. On the home's website, Lewendal lists 182 products—from work boots to spackle to various wood types—sourced within the U.S. that went into the project.
The supposed higher costs of American goods over their value-priced competitors turned out to be a relative non-issue, he says. Ninety-seven percent of the products came in at no extra cost compared with their foreign competitors, while the remaining 3% pushed up the entire project's cost ($400,000, including the 6,000-square-foot lot) by just one percentage point.
Lewendal's claims, which he backs with self-calculated statistics, captured the media spotlight and spurred copycats. The builder's argument focuses on a tenet of job growth: If builders spend 5% more of their construction budgets on American products, he says, they'll add approximately 220,000 U.S.-based jobs.
Builders Gary Bayless and Joe Runnels of Bayless Custom Homes Inc. in Tyler, Texas, mention these numbers when asked about that firm's "All-American" home, two months from completion in east Texas.
"Let's get people manufacturing and making things again instead of being a service economy," Runnels says. "Because if we're a service economy we're on the downhill side of something I don't want to be on."
This is the first all-American home in Bayless Homes' four-year partnership, although the company has been in business for more than 30 years. At a total project cost of $230,000, Runnels says it is between 4% and 6% pricier than it would be if its product selection were non-exclusive.
Not all builders are on board. John Harty, partner at John G. Harty Ltd. Construction Management in Highland Park, Ill., ran into problems when attempting to construct a home for a longtime client using as many American-made products as possible. He supports the 5% job-growth notion and is willing to try for all-American sourcing, but questions its feasibility when clients demand high-tech goods.
Surpassing 4,000 square feet, Harty's home features a 100% geothermal heating system incorporating two 400-square-foot conducting wells. Half the home's electrical usage will come from solar panels. "It's impossible to build the type of home that I build [and be] 100% American-made," he says.
Finding the Right Stuff
As stakeholders talk about a pickup in the movement, manufacturers and dealers can expect a closer watch on what they make, buy, and sell.
One dealer is looking beyond placing special orders to meet this new demand. Curtis Lumber, which has 22 locations in New York state and Vermont, is curating an American-made product line, labeled and promoted in their stores and advertisements, says advertising manager Dave Bielawski.
Bielawski got things rolling in late 2011 by asking buyers to contact their vendors to find out what among Curtis' current product offerings was made in this country. With 20,000 SKUs to account for, it has applied the new label to more than 400 products. "As we identify more and find out more and add new products, we'll keep this going," he says.
In early 2010, York, Pa.-based Wolf Corp. launched its Wolf Home Products line, featuring U.S.-manufactured cabinets, decking, bathroom furniture, and trim and moldings. To evenly distribute margin opportunity among the supply chain, Jim Groff, chief marketing officer at Wolf, says the company had to eliminate redundancies by taking over sales, marketing, and transportation from its manufacturer, Nappanee, Ind.-based Kountry Wood Products.
"If there's a change, if there's a problem, they're close enough that we can be sitting next to them in 12 hours" rather than the 12 to 16 weeks that might be required when working with an overseas manufacturer, he says.
Franklin International, a Columbus, Ohio-based manufacturer of adhesives and sealants, has already added Gabor's "Made in U.S.A." label to 30 products and hopes to reach 100. "Seeing that label probably carries more clout than we would even think in this day and age," says Mark Schroeder, marketing communications director.
Lewendal's push to reserve 5% of all building material purchases to U.S.-made products will be tested when product quality is tied to foreign markets—Asian bamboo and Italian marble, for example.
The question of Canadian lumber is a bit more convoluted. Runnels says he sourced Douglas fir from Oregon. Other builders look to Southern pine for its responsiveness to treatment, yet suggest that eschewing all forms of Canadian lumber could mean sacrificing structural quality. Harty says he opted for Canadian 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s because they are "better grown."
Builder-grade versions of certain products—particularly fans, trim, door hardware, and nails—may be difficult to source within the U.S., and architectural alternatives may be too expensive for a production home budget, or simply not the right look.
Bottom Line Feasibility
"Predominately produced" products (i.e. produced in the U.S. save the occasional computer chip made abroad) are likely to become a big part of all-American homes, Lewendal says. He sets the barometer at 95% to 99% for construction goods looking to classify as "all-American" under the auspices of the new trend. "The argument isn't to draw a line in the sand [and say] that it has to be 100%," he says.
This is largely because while the hype surrounding products is partly based on FTC regulations and requirements for a company to use the all-American identifier, the same criteria don't necessarily apply to these homes.
Increased buyer awareness may help further tip the scales. "People are sensitive to it," Bielawski says. "Just like green products, with awareness, people will lean toward that if they can."
Powell, too, hopes his Florida home will inspire U.S. manufacturers, builders and locals, even if it falls short of its 100%-American goal. "We all live in this neighborhood," he says. "It's really going to be a community-based project."