Denise Dersin

Editor in Chief
Anje Jager/ Denise Dersin Editor in Chief

Following hard on the heels of what the Commerce Department has scored as the second worst year in home building, the 2011 International Builders’ Show (IBS) looked very different from years past. The NAHB released attendance figures of 47,000 for this year’s show, a total that was way, way down from the peak. But what the attendees lacked in number, they made up for in tenacity.

Exhibitors and builders alike seemed determined to make happen what hadn’t been occurring naturally for the last several years, that is, business. Nearly everyone I spoke with at the booths, for example, had a story to tell of new products wrought into existence by sheer force of will. No money coming in? No problem! In order to stay viable, all hands left on board were charged with working together to come up with brilliant, innovative ideas for products that solve problems and open up new avenues for sales, while at the same time being careful not to scare customers away with their prices.

Products such as a new subfloor fastener system from Paslode that saves installers time and money by reducing the number of nails needed, the time it takes to drive them, and promises to help eliminate floor squeaks. Or a new line of grab bars for the bath from Delta that look more like architectural details than the usual utilitarian safety features. Universal design, in general, seems poised to actually become universal. The possibility of more regulation concerning accessibility in new homes has spurred a tidal wave of new products from manufacturers that attempt to offer a seamless transition to universal design within their regular product lines. Marvin’s new Glider, a sliding window that features one-handed operation and automatic locking, is one of those that I spotted on the floor.

Manufacturers also seem to be trying to work with builders more as partners than just as suppliers of commodities. Residential design software maker SoftPlan, for example, now offers builders the ability to share their plans with their customers in a full navigation 3D model. Clients can try out changes to the plan, adding and subtracting features as they wish, which ultimately creates more buy-in on the new home they settle on. Building products company Ply Gem spent time working with its Designed Exteriors builder customers at IBS to provide customized design help. In these sessions, architects from BSB Design gave suggestions on how to upgrade current plans to help builders offer fresh alternatives when they have to compete against the resales of their own homes.

And the builder attendees showed similar grit and innovative thinking in the face of adversity. Schell Brothers, a small Delaware home builder, scored a major upset at the National Sales and Marketing Awards, earning five golds. The company’s secret weapon? Happiness. While other companies were cancelling holiday parties and forgoing incentives in order to cut costs, Schell Brothers upped the ante big time on morale-boosting for their employees. The employees responded in kind, and their increased efforts are reflected in those awards, yes, but more importantly, in the company’s doubled sales and revenues in 2010.

This year’s EnergyValue Housing Awards Builder of the Year Wathen-Castanos Hybrid Homes is another break-the-mold company doing well in an extremely tough year. Wathen-Castanos, whose homes have gotten progressively more energy efficient over the years (it now offers a net-zero electric home), is a production builder in a very difficult market in Central California. Not only has it carved out a successful niche for itself with its energy features, the company’s EVHA award-winning house came in at a very competitive construction cost of $90 per square foot.

One of Builder’s bloggers, industry consultant Al Trellis, told me he believes that companies must innovate or die. At the very least, it’s key to achieving success, especially in the second worst year in home building.

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Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.