Building a 100% Made in America House
A Montana builder who built a home of all-American components promotes the practice.
By Teresa Burney, former Senior Editor, BUILDER
There were two things Anders and Jake Lewendal couldn’t put in their all-American-made house because they couldn’t find any that were manufactured in the USA.
“A microwave and a doorbell,” recalled Jake Lewendal. “But our clients couldn’t have a microwave because of health reasons and we put in a door knocker instead.”
The old-fashioned, human-powered door knocker saves electricity anyhow, said Lewendal, helping achieve Anders Lewendal Construction Inc.’s second goal for the house: sustainability.
The idea of trying to build a home entirely from American-sourced products was sparked when one of the Bozeman, Mont.–based custom builder’s clients expressed an interest and concern in where their home’s components came from. They asked the Lewendals, a father-son team, to use as many local products as possible.
Then the Lewendals decided to take the idea further by building the home entirely from products sourced and/or manufactured in the United States, while costing about the same as other homes of similar size and quality but using only half the energy.
They succeeded. The home they completed in 2011 cost about 1% more than it would have typically cost, said Jake Lewendal.
Once they knew they could do it, the Lewendals guessed that other home builders could too. To find out what that could mean for the country, the pair talked to the Boston Consulting Group to add up what the impact would be if every U.S. builder spent 5% of their construction spending on American-made rather than foreign parts. The verdict: in one year that would create 220,000 American jobs, the study showed.
Those numbers gave birth to the Lewendals’ All-American Home Initiative. Lewendal traveled around passionately promoting the initiative in 2013. He preached the gospel of American-made at the International Builders' Show in Las Vegas at an event sponsored by GAF, a roofing supply company that is bringing their manufacturing back into the United States.
Lewendal isn’t asking builders to build 100% American-made homes as he did, only that they use 5% more American-made products than they normally do.
Just how hard was it for the Lewendals to keep costs in line and stick to American-made?
It came easy for about 90% of the home’s components, since a lot of the bigger components in homes—wood, drywall, roofing—tend to be made mostly in America anyway, because their weight and local availability make sourcing it from another country impractical.
“You can get to 90%, possibly 95% [American-made products] easily,” said Lewendal. “A lot of the big things are made here.”
The Lewendals’ criteria was that the products had to bear a “Made in USA” label, which certifies that 50% or more of the components are of U.S. origin and the product is “substantially transformed in the U.S.A."
Here were some of the pain points, beyond the microwave and doorbell, the Lewendals’ encountered in their project, and how they overcame them.
Nuts and bolts: “Apparently we don’t make nuts and bolts anymore,” said Lewendal. So they turned to Caterpillar, the heavy equipment manufacturer, which makes nuts and bolts for their machinery, to make the bolts that embed in the concrete foundation to connect to the walls.
Electrical sockets and switches: Most are made overseas, but the Lewendals found American-made electrical components from Lutron. "They were more expensive, but the quality was a bit higher,” Lewendal said.
Drywall screws: They found a manufacturer who fulfilled the 51% American-made requirements but they were much more expensive and the quality was not what they had hoped for. Still, they used them to make the point.
Lighting and plumbing fixtures: They were able to find them, but choices were limited, especially among lighting fixtures. A local lighting store helped them find sources.
Light bulbs: Sylvania was the source.
Appliances: Given the electronics in appliances, it’s difficult to get anything 100% made in the U.S., but Whirlpool has 80% of its products made here, Lewendal said.
Nails: Maze Nails in Peru, Ill., may be the only U.S. manufacturer of nails.
Cabinets: They were custom-made locally, helping to fulfill the clients’ desire to source materials as close to Bozeman as possible.
Countertops and some floors: A local company that makes countertops and floors out of ground recycled granite, glass, and fly ash, a waste product from industrial uses, provided those. The counters were formed off site and installed similar to granite slabs. The floors were poured in place. Other floors in the home were reclaimed white oak.
This article was originally published in BUILDER March 2013.