– By Sharon Thatcher, Editor, Rural Builder –
You may recognize Josh Sweinhart’s residence. It won the Judge’s Award in the 2013 Building of the Year competition sponsored by the National Frame Building Association.
Sweinhart is a post-frame builder with a special creative bent, as evidenced by his self-designed home in Pennsylvania. His every day work often entails the usual garages and sheds but since he began in the construction business in 1993 he has built about 15 homes, including his own. The first was a more modest 30 x 60 foot 2-car garage with living quarters.
It’s natural for Sweinhart to be drawn to residential post frame, and natural that customers seek him out. He started his work as a furniture and cabinetmaker. His current company name, Wood Originals, came out of that business, which he started while he was still in high school.
But cabinets and furniture kept him inside, and Sweinhart wanted to be outside, so he started the construction business. “Then I got away from doing furniture and kitchen cabinets and just focused on post frame,” he said. Post frame was a logical step he said because “I grew up on a farm and it’s common.”
He started working on his own home in about 2010, working as time allowed. He did much of the interior work himself, also relying on his own crew for roof and sidewall installation and subcontractors for things like drywall and flooring. It was finished in 2013.
He built it as a gristmill design because, “I just enjoy old mills,” he said. “I just thought it was unique. Historical things interest me.”
The mill is just ornamental, but the wheel does turn. “It works on a pump system,” he explained. “It’s built right on the side of a pond.”
He uses the home as a showpiece for customers who may be considering residential post frame, but Sweinhart has learned to be selective in who he invites to see it.
For someone with a more modest budget, seeing something so unique can be a deterrent. “Some customers say ‘Oh, my goodness, this guy makes all kinds of money. I can’t afford him,’ and that turns them away,” he said.
On the other hand, “With our higher-end customers…customers who are looking for something that’s unique… it’s a good building to show what can be done with post frame … You show them what you can do, and that helps you on those projects.”
For the more dollar-conscious customers he can show them his office building, which includes a customized office area and traditional garage and show areas.
He promotes all phases of his business through conventional advertising within his 1-½ hour driving range, and at local home shows and car shows.
Sweinhart said that many customers who do inquire about residences come to him with a general knowledge about post frame and with an idea of what they want, but they also come with a common misconception. “Some people, when it comes to residential [post frame], they think they’re going to do it for practically nothing,” Sweinhart said. “What they don’t realize is that you have the same [expenses] as the conventional home but you’re saving on the cost of a foundation. It takes about one-third the time frame [to build post frame], so there’s a quicker build time and that makes it the most cost effective.”
Another major hurdle post frame faces in the residential market is getting home buyers accustomed to the idea that a basement isn’t necessary. In some areas of the country basements are the exception not the rule, but in other areas, such as Pennsylvania where Sweinhart does business, basements are seen as necessary.
“Around here, people, for whatever reason, they need a basement. With post frame you don’t have a basement. Twenty years ago I traveled with the work I used to do, and in certain areas of the country there are no basements and in other areas they all have basements, so I think it depends on what part of the country you’re in with how people accept it.”
Educating customers to the problem of moisture in basements is helpful but not always successful.
“I don’t like basements because there are moisture issues, but people like them because its another area they can finish off down the road,” he said.
Regardless of the challenges post-frame builders face with customers over prices and basements, thankfully one hurdle that has already been overcome in many areas is the use of post frame from a building code standpoint. “They’re pretty acceptable to post frame for residential in our area. Going back years ago they weren’t so acceptable,” he said.
Like all residential construction, there are more rules and regulations governing construction than for non-residential post-frame buildings, but Sweinhart views these details as part of the routine. “It’s definitely a challenge sometimes, but it’s just a process we have to deal with,” he said.
With his award winning home now setting the bar higher for residential post frame, Sweinhart will likely be seeing more of it in his future. It’s a bittersweet development for the creative, outdoorsy Sweinhart. Because residential projects are so much more involved in detail, and Sweinhart often does the design work himself, he’s frequently stuck in the office, leaving the labor to five crewmembers and subs. His plan to start a construction company so he could work outside, in his own words, “really didn’t work out.”