News from Northern Design Services, Inc.

Steady Biz with Design-Build

(October 2006 - Used with permission from Building Systems Magazine)

Home building has not just slowed down in central Wisconsin—it's come to a screeching halt. Builder Dale Blank has heard there are as many as 1,200 spec homes on the market with nary a buyer in sight in places as Appleton.

"There are some cities that are putting a moratorium on spec homes. They don't want all those homes in their communities sitting dark," says Blank, owner of Northern Design Services (Hazelhurst, WI), which uses panelization to construct homes quickly and efficiently.

"Fortunately this area is a tourist attraction, so our business has remained pretty steady. We've had a pretty slow summer, but that's happened last year. People spend the summer having fun, then when fall hits they start getting serious about building," says Blank, who is juggling a half-dozen projects.

Competition Coming North

Blank admits that central Wisconsin builders are starting to come north, hungry for some of that tourist work. For proof, Blank need only look outside the window of his new office and model home center—another builder is constructing a house on the other side of the road.

"I wen and talked to the homeowner, and the builder they are using comes from three hours away. They had used him before and apparently they felt comfortable with him. Sub are local, of course. But there's no doubt there are a lot of builders headed this way, stealing work away from some of the locals in this area. Some are using modular construction and panelization—Wausau Homes is big up here and practically invented panel buildings," says Blank, who uses Riverstone as his panel supplier. "We've also seen a big log building go up where they've brought a crew in from Canada to build it."

But Blank's business has remained steady thanks to offering both design and construction. As a design-build firm, he will turnkey four homes this year while providing design services to another 20 custom projects for other builders.

"I did design services on the side up until six years ago, when I decided to work full time. And it's worked out pretty well. A lot of builders need that custom design to win over clients. Plus, that's how we get a lot of our jobs when dealing with clients directly. We'll do the design and bid on it—and get it."

With an increase in energy prices, Blank thinks the time is right to add structural insulated panels to his product mix. "Five or six years ago, I tried it and the demand wasn't there, since the price was too high. But today the price has come down and energy costs are way up. I think it will sell, so I've been talking with R-Control."

Get Yourself A Web Site

Despite being a small-volume builder, Blank advises builders and designers to invest in a web site. It's proven to be a solid investment for his company ( "I get a lot of inquiries from it and quite a few clients find me through it," says Blank. "I'm going to make the site even better. I've got some great homes to feature on it. We're small now but we're growing."