Why build a house on site if you can build it under controlled conditions with better tools in a shop? That line of thinking led Michael Connor, fresh out of college in 1969, to start a business erecting panelized houses. “I became a dealer for [a manufacturer in upstate New York]. I began selling houses and putting them up.”Compared to traditional methods, panelization offered obvious advantages, he says. “The costs were better, the quality was better, the speed was there.” The shortcomings he saw were not in the method, but in the architecture to which it was applied. “Most [panelizers] pretty much ignored the aesthetic side,” says Connor, who remembers thinking, “Why wouldn’t you apply those same efficiencies to trim details?” Filling that blind spot would become the mission of Connor Homes, whose panelized custom houses combine advanced manufacturing techniques with painstakingly authentic traditional architecture.
“As far back as 1992 we had our own catalog of houses—designed by my wife,” Connor says. To replicate period details accurately, “we studied all kinds of plans, and actual houses.” For their first Greek Revival house, the couple found an original they liked. “We knocked on the door and asked if we could stand up ladders and do some measurements.” That deceptively simple approach—going back to the source—set Connor’s work apart. Historical authenticity, he observes, “is about scale and proportion. And scale and proportion are free. You just have to know what they are and you can add incredible value—for nothing.” Having started out as a general contractor working with a manufacturer’s designs, Connor first shifted to designing and producing all of the houses he built, then to manufacturing house packages for other builders to assemble. “As time went on it became more manufacturing and less building,” he says. “Six or seven years ago, we went to all manufacturing.”
On a typical project, Connor Homes delivers a panelized shell and prefabricated exterior trim assemblies and interior millwork to a local contractor. “They pretty much run the show from there on,” furnishing foundation, masonry, mechanical, electrical, drywall, paint, and roofing, Connor explains. “Our total dollar value is generally about one-third of the cost.” Local contractors vary in skill level, he admits, “but we do all the sophisticated stuff, so it’s pretty hard to mess up. We tell builders that if they need us, we’ll come to the site. We’ll drop everything. And it’s an easy promise to make, because we’ve never had to do it. There’s never been a problem we couldn’t handle over the phone.” From his base in Vermont, Connor does most of his business in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, but he has delivered houses to sites as distant as British Columbia.
“We’re kind of in a niche by ourselves,” Connor notes. While prefabrication and panelization are not unknown in the custom home industry, among those offering traditional designs, “nobody does as much stuff in the shop ahead of time as we do.” But it is the company’s high standard of architectural authenticity that truly sets it apart. Traditional architecture remains overwhelmingly popular, Connor observes, but it is often “dumbed down” to reduce cost. The efficiency of shop fabrication, he says, permits a higher level of detail per dollar. With six designers on staff and standing relationships with several independent architects, Connor Homes has an impressive knack for making new houses that read like vintage pieces. That result, Connor says, is as important to the company as efficiency in production. “We want to leave a mark on the architectural landscape.”
The company left its 15,000-square-foot shop for a 115,000-square-foot facility in late 2007, timing that Connor acknowledges could have been better. “We’ve been battling the recession, like everyone else,” he says. But the tide seems to have turned. “We’ve got the biggest backlog in our history; we’ll do 40 to 45 houses this year.” To get a bigger slice of each project, Connor is again deploying field crews to erect his houses. To serve the broadest market possible, the company will still supply panelized shells and interior millwork packages directly to clients who have their own builders, he says. “But we’d be happy to do most of them.” Whichever path a Connor home takes to completion, each one represents a rare synergy of old ways and new means.