A "Made in America" label can mean anything from assembly in the U.S. from parts produced overseas to a product that, stem to stern, was churned out on U.S. soil. And while new homes are indisputably American-made, they generally fall into the former category. But as high unemployment rates continue to plague the nation, a growing group of builders across the country has decided to take a closer look at where the building products they use are made and bring those purchases back home.
This week, Corey Condron, owner of Spokane, Wash.-based Condron Homes, broke ground on the first home to be built under his new business model: houses built with 100%American-made products—or at least as close to that goal as humanly possible.
"Our cabinets are made by a local company here," Condron tell Builder. "All of their lumber, parts, hinges, everything is American made—everything but the little plastic clips for the shelves. So we went and asked them if it was possible to get American-made clips. It was. We’re trying to go down to the smallest detail of the product to get it all American made."
The plan started out as a one-home project to raise awareness of how building with American-made products can benefit the local and national economies, but the builder has since decided to commit to building all of its homes from 100% U.S.-made materials, from about 80% previously. "We feel it’s the right thing to do," he says.
And it’s certainly sparked attention. At the project’s groundbreaking on Monday, Condron says two local media channels showed up to cover the event. Since then, he’s gotten phone calls and emails from community members expressing appreciation and support. "People we don’t even know are going out of their way to say, ‘Fantastic idea, great job, go America!’" he says.
Over the last 10 years, Condron Homes has averaged about one hundred homes per year, ranging from 1,300 square feet to 3,000 square feet and priced between $165,000 and $375,000. He estimates using all American-made products will add about 1% to his construction costs, an amount he plans to absorb rather than pass on to buyers.
The trend toward promoting American-made products in new homes attracted international attention last year when ABC News did a story on Anders Lewendal, a Bozeman, Mont.-based economist-turned-builder, who began working on his first Made in America house last year. Lewendal analyzed reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and determined that if, in a "normal" building year, every builder in the country increased the number of U.S.-made materials used in new homes by 5%, it would create more than 200,000 jobs across the country. That estimate was later confirmed by economists at The Boston Consulting Group.
Lewendal says that his all-American home was meant to raise awareness not only among home builders and home buyers, but also the national community at large. If all American consumers switched 5% of their purchases to American-made products, he projects the number of U.S. jobs it would create would swell into the millions. He and other builders also point to the environmental benefits of buying closer to home, such as less fuel spent on transportation.
Lewendal’s project inspired Tarek Saad, owner of Oklahoma City-based CedarLand Homes, to take up the cause as well. While Saad says he’s somewhat limited by what is available to him locally and by the constraints of his target market—cost-conscious first-time home buyers—he has been able to boost the amount of American-made materials included in his homes to about 55%, from 40% previously, with the hope of eventually getting to 90% or 100%.
"We’re continually meeting with our sales reps, pushing them to find more leads on American manufacturers that can keep their product at a competitive rate with pricing," he says.
Saad estimates that the change has increased his homes’ prices by between $1,500 and $2,000 per home, which has proven to be more of an obstacle for the youngest buyers than for older ones who, in Saad’s market, have shown more interest in the homes’ American-made aspect.
"The really young ones, if they’re between 24 and 30, they all say, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ But you can tell they’re mostly focused on the price," Saad tells Builder. "The ones we get a better response from are in their 30s to late 40s. They like it and they’re willing to spend that extra money. And the ones that really demand it and that we get calls from are the boomer crowd, those in their 50s and above. They want American-made and they’ll pay the extra price for that."
Beyond price, there are a few other challenges as well, Saad says. "Granite countertops—everybody wants to have granite, but nobody makes that here. … We’re trying to switch to made-made products, such as Corian, but everybody demands granite."
But Saad is determined to stick with it, citing both the state of the economy and his belief that American-made products are of a higher quality.
On the other end of the pricing spectrum, Tyler, Texas-based Bayless Custom Homes, is also working on its first all-American-made house. That builder typically builds 10 homes per year, priced between $500,000 and $800,000 for homes upwards of 3,500 square feet. In the past, Bayless homes have been made up of about 40% of American-made materials, estimates Gary Bayless, the company’s president. But from here on out, they’re aiming for 100%.
While Bayless says he has run into challenges finding all-American lumber and ensuring that materials are completely American-made rather than just assembled in the U.S., he says the trick is ordering lumber far in advance and talking to suppliers to ensure they know what you’re looking for.
Condron echoes that advice, saying that once the expectation has been communicated it’s a fairly smooth transition. "Just let your suppliers know that this is what you’re doing, and let them do the work," he says. "There haven’t been a whole lot of challenges. It’s pretty easy."
And according to Richard Elkman, president of PR firm Group Two, with Congress stuck in gridlock over a job creation bill, there’s never been a better time to be touting home features that bring U.S. jobs home. To capitalize on that, his company recently launched the " All American Healthy Homes" program to help builders market homes made up of at least 60% U.S.-made materials. "This is a great opportunity for builders to build on all the political talk going on about the need for job creation," he says. "It’s the perfect time."
Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.