Amish builders do what they have to do to get the job done

I arrived in Quakertown, Pa., planning to meet up with Sylvan Stoltzfus so we could chat and I could observe one of his crews at work on a nearby horse arena. Instead, when I reached my destination, there was a message waiting for me.

“Sylvan can’t make it,” the message said. “He didn’t have a driver.”

And that right there is the first thing that makes Amish-owned construction companies different from other post-frame builders. Amish need someone to provide the transportation to the jobsite. Although depending on someone else to drive hindered our meeting, Stoltzfus says there is a positive spin to the situation.

“The crew all arrives at once,” he says. “We don’t have to wait around for everyone to show up before we can start working. And it means only one extra vehicle on someone’s property.” That’s a definite advantage if the job site is cramped for parking space.

When asked if depending on someone else to get him to a job site was a downside to doing business, he was quick to say no. “It’s part of our lives, so we’re used to it and we don’t think twice about it.”

Stoltzfus’ company, based in Paradise, Pa., has 15 employees on the payroll, including three work crews. Almost everyone employed by Stoltzfus is Amish (the employees include Stoltzfus’ father and brother), but each crew has one member who is not Amish (or an Englishman) who is also the driver.

Their day starts very early, especially depending on the location of the jobsite. For a job like the horse arena in Quakertown, which is about 90 minutes away from Stoltzfus headquarters, the crew would meet at the shop at 5:30 a.m. and be on the road around 5:45. The goal is to be on site between 7 and 7:30 and to get right to work. They work until 9, have a 15-minute break, work until lunchtime with a 30-minute break, and then work through the afternoon until quitting time at 4 p.m.

On a typical job, the building crews follow OSHA regulations and standard safety practices (although, as an interesting aside, the OSHA website states groups like the Amish are exempt from wearing hard hats due to religious head-covering traditions).

However, Stoltzfus points out there was an exception when the client wanted the trusses built in the manner of a traditional barn-raising and advertised it as such to the public, who were invited by the client to watch. But, he adds, they did use safe building practices on that project — just not as obviously as on a normal work day.

Stoltzfus, who handles sales for the company, says he prefers jobs within a 4-hour drive from Paradise. Longer drives mean a longer day for his crew. The goal is still to get to the job to begin work at first light (or whatever time the local ordinance allows construction work to begin) and they work as late as possible before driving home again.

Rarely, Stoltzfus says, will a crew stay on a jobsite, although he does point out a particular situation, where the job was in Maine and since no one was living in the house on site at the time, the crew was allowed to stay there. Otherwise, Stoltzfus says, “We love working in Maryland and Virginia because they are usually places we can reach in two-and-a-half hours.”

Once on a jobsite, Stolzfus’ crews handle most of the building process. “We do general contracting, so we need to make sure the electrical work gets finished, the stone around the outside gets completed and the excavating is done,” he explains. “My crews do everything except the excavating, the electrical and the plumbing. We don’t do drywall, either. But if there is fine finish work, we’ll do that. We’ll pour concrete pads, lay block, frame out the building, put up the trusses, build the doors, install the windows — the whole nine yards.”

Stoltzfus has been in business since 1999. Up until 2008, he was primarily a post-frame builder, but when the recession hit and the construction industry slowed, Stoltzfus had to find other revenue streams. So he began doing other construction projects like renovations. Work is slowly beginning to pick up again, he says, and he hopes they can soon return to focusing primarily on new construction. Until then, he takes the work that comes his way.

The main lumber supplier is New Holland Supply. “One interesting thing — and this speaks more for Lancaster County than the Amish — it’s cheaper for us to buy material here. Like that job in Maine, it cost less to buy it here and ship than it would have cost to buy it on site. That holds true almost anywhere we go, except maybe in areas in Virginia.”

Amish builders, at least in Pennsylvania, have a reputation for high quality and efficient work. When asked about that, Stoltzfus says he doesn’t think Amish building companies are any different from any other post-frame building companies. But, he concedes, the Amish have a different work ethic and it creates a different type of labor pool. But it is the type of work ethic other general contractors value and will seek out for subcontracting work.

“We did some work with a high-end custom home builder, renovating a couple of barns,” Stoltzfus explains. It resulted in some other jobs for Stoltzfus’ company. “I questioned whether or not we were taking work away from the home builder, and I didn’t want to do that, since he was the one that introduced us to the client. The builder said, ‘Truth is, you guys can do it a lot cheaper than we can.’ When I investigated that, it was because we could do the job faster and our labor rate is going to be less.”

A typical 80×200 arena takes about four weeks to complete, and Stoltzfus admits his crew isn’t the fastest builder out there. But they do a lot of detail work and that extends the project time a bit.

What I wish I could have seen in person (and I plan to see this someday) is the trusses being put in. Bill Burland, owner of Travelda Farms in Quakertown and one of Stoltzfus’ first clients, told me it is an amazing sight to behold. When I mention this to Stoltzfus, he chuckles. “It’s like an old-fashioned barn raising,” he says. “It’s a big party atmosphere. The guys all look forward to those days.”

On the day the trusses are to be added, all three crews (and extra help if necessary) come to the jobsite, and the job is completed in one day. It’s all done the old-fashioned way, too, with hand nails and hammers. There are two reasons for this, he says. First, it’s difficult to drag the hoses for nail guns through the trusses, and second, by using a regular hammer, they can use longer and better nails for a more solid product.

“When we put up trusses, a lot of our clients want to be there and witness it,” he says. “We had a day at one site where we did a big timber frame barn, and the owners advertised it for people to come watch. We had full crews there, everybody was there except me and my brother because we had to attend a funeral that day. This job was in Princeton and it was a big event. A lot of people showed up.”

As he told the story, there was definite disappointment over missing the event. Maybe that’s what makes the Amish a little different — the pure joy found in their everyday work.


You may also be interested in these articles on horse barns and arenas:
2012 Guide to Horse Barn Products
Problem-solving horse barn accessories
A riding arena for champions in Sandusky, Ohio
A builder’s challenges in creating an equine paradise on Mackinac Island
Appeasing horses – and their owners
A barn for the equine athlete

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