As prospective buyers walked through the Shingled Cottage of the New Urban Challenge, a show home constructed for the 2005 International Builders' Show in Orlando, Fla., by David Weekley Homes, several gawked on the finely detailed interior trim package of deep crown molding, thick baseboards, and beaded wainscoting. They had no clue that those rich details were molded from polyurethane foam and coated with a thick, factory-applied primer instead of milled and pieced together from finger-jointed stock on site, nor that the same material extended to the window casings and other trim finishes on the home's exterior. The package was simply distinctive and memorable, something other homes in the same price range didn't have.
Faux or no, this new breed of mill-work appears to have the right stuff to carve and build a market share niche among more traditional milled and finger-jointed wood stock largely because it supports the “anything goes” approach that dealers with millwork manufacturing operations have been practicing for years. “Any design you want, we'll build it from scratch if that's what it takes,” says Dave Ondrasek, vice president of BMC Millwork in Houston, a division of BMC West and Building Materials Holding Corporation (BMHC), with millwork operations in 10 Western states. “New [synthetic] materials aren't a threat to our business or the materials we traditionally stock. It's our job to make sure customers know what's out there.”
Within that philosophy, alternative materials also provide a hedge against global economic conditions that impact the price and availability of traditional millwork lumber sources, the bulk of which are imported from mills in South America. China's ongoing demand for almost any commodity product, for instance, is creating a worldwide shortage of steamship vessel space and shipping containers that, along with increasing fuel costs, has extended lead times and driven up freight expenses for imports into the U.S.; demand for steel and other metals in China and India also boosts the price (and lowers the supply) of material used to make accessory millwork products such as hinges, hardware, lockets, and fasteners.
Domestically, the slight drop-off in new single-family housing construction already seen in several markets and expected to last through 2009, according to NAHB's long-term housing forecast, not only puts pressure on the delicate balance of supply and demand (a dynamic that created volatile market conditions for millwork stock in 2004 and 2005) but also creates more competitive conditions—and an opportunity to use millwork products to deliver distinction among builders and their homes, whether with the new synthetics or the latest trends in timber species, profile designs, and comprehensive millwork packages. “Without a doubt, exterior and interior trim packages and doors are becoming differentiating points, especially in upper-end homes,” says Bill Wallace, vice president of operations for Big C Lumber, a 15-location, family-owned operation based in Granger, Ind., that includes a 12,000-square-foot millwork shop adjacent to its Ft. Wayne, Ind., location.
Custom Caterers As a result of all these factors and more, a dealer's millwork division often caters to the most diverse range of customers within the overall LBM operation, from all types of home builders to commercial contractors and even retail customers.
To accommodate that mix, a mill-work shop offers not only a stock of sticks ranging from oak to ash to knotty alder—and now wood-polymer composites, fiberglass, and various plastics—at the ready, but also hundreds of trim profile knives, some of which may have been created and used only once, among other manufacturing and service capabilities. “We want it to be exactly that: custom,” says Wallace, whose shop boasts 900 different knives and stocks up to nine different timber species, among others it special-orders. “It's got to be different than what you can pick off of a shelf.”
The dedication to diversity extends well beyond customers and various trim profiles; most millwork shops operated by LBM dealers make and/or improve interior and exterior doors, windows, casework, countertops, stair parts, wood flooring, cabinets, shelving, and finish boards for fascia and soffits, among other applications. They have myriad sources for oddball specs, such as bulletproof panels for a judge's bench in a courtroom job, and usually provide services ranging from shop drawings to tool sharpening to product installation.
“Our abilities in the millwork shop help us get more of the ticket,” says Bill Bucher, president of Square Deal Lumber, a four-location dealer that operates a 12,000-square-foot millwork shop next to its flagship location in Glasgow, Ky., offering installed cabinets, tops, and trim, among other services and products. “It's something no other competitor [in our market] can offer.”
To maintain that edge, Bucher recently brought on a new line of stock solid-wood front cabinets from China that broaden his product mix in that category and give his crews the ability to dress them up and install them properly at an attractive price point compared to some of Square Deal's domestic upper-end cabinet sources. “They'll be used in modest homes,” says Bucher. “They give more people access to a nicer cabinet within a [tight] budget.”
Remaking or improving stock mill-work products is common practice among shops operating out of LBM operations. Beyond simply prehanging doors and windows, BMC Millwork's Ondrasek adds a wood-polymer composite—a material similar to engineered decking planks—frame and brickmold to his line of fiberglass entry doors to combat the effects of Houston's 70-plus inches of annual rainfall and accompanying humidity on exterior doors. “In this climate, the frames are the first thing to rot,” he says. “The synthetic material is molded to look and finish like wood, and we can heat it and bend it around radius and arched tops,” to protect the entire assembly.