Deltec Homes manufactures panelized roof, shell and flooring systems that reshape conventional residential living standards, with improved energy efficiency and virtual invulnerability to hurricanes. David Soyka sees how this north carolina company helps its customers think out of the box.
The typical American house is a sort of box, mainly because rooms are basically either square or rectangular. Consequently, prefabricated homebuilders tend to think in terms of modular boxes that are stacked to provide the requisite number of floors and rooms in a limited number of, well, boxy styles.
Customers turn to Asheville, N.C.-based Deltec Homes, however, because they want out of the box. “Our key market is the baby boomer segment that is either nearing retirement or has the money and flexibility now to live where they want in the mountains or by the shoreline. They’ve lived in conventional houses in mass produced kinds of developments and want something different,” explains Joseph Schlenk, director of sales and marketing.
In fact, it’s not only very competitively priced as compared to traditional “custom stick-building,” Schlenk notes. “It’s a better construction technique.” “First off, most builders aren’t familiar with a round home and probably wouldn’t know where to get started. Our unique building system consists of three sub-systems; a radial roof system, the perimeter wall system and a radial floor system, all of which can be easily assembled on-site by any competent builder with no previous experience,” Schlenk notes. “And because the components have been prefabricated to be put together quickly and smoothly, most Deltec homes can be assembled in three to seven days without need for heavy equipment. This eliminates unnecessary exposure to the elements that can’t be avoided in time-consuming stick building that takes weeks, not just days, before the house is basically under roof. The result is tighter, sounder construction at a lower cost that you simply can’t replicate in the field.”
He adds, “We do provide interior design services but don’t provide the interior finishing materials, so what the homeowner decides to do there is a big factor in determining square footage costs. But in most situations, a Deltec home is compatible with regional building expenses. In some cases, where labor expenses are particularly high, the customer gets a unique, high-quality customized house at much less than it would cost to build from scratch. What we’re paying laborers here in North Carolina is a lot less than what laborers get in certain areas of California, for example.”
While the general contractor, obviously enough, erects the interlocking panelized and pre-cut systems, the homeowner is in most cases the customer, not the builder. “Once in a great while a builder will contact us to do a vacation resort development, but well over 98 percent of our business is done directly with individual homeowners. The builder is their choice. In some situations homeowners may use a Deltec-approved field consultant to assist the builder, but we don’t have a network of approved builders who work for us. Occasionally a homeowner will ask us for a recommendation, and if there’s a builder in the area that’s worked with us before, we might recommend them as someone who’s done this before. But for the most part, contractor selection is up to the homeowner.”
“Deltec is a family-owned business that started in 1968 with the idea of providing affordable and easy to build structures for the second home market and the resort industry. Here in the Appalachian mountains, a circular design is perfect for taking in the views,” Schlenk says. “We first started advertising in log home magazines, which have the same kind of audience we were targeting.
One factor that may persuade someone initially interested in a log cabin design to go circular is the greater energy efficiency of the design. A circular home is typically twice as energy efficient as a conventionally built square or rectangular construction. To begin with, a round house actually allows for less exterior wall space versus a rectangular or square home with the same interior square footage. Moreover, the Deltec roof ventilation system and overhang add greatly to the home’s energy efficiency. As the roof of the home warms, air flow is increased through the soffit vents and expelled out the cupola’s vents. In the winter, just enough airflow is maintained to keep the insulation dry and at its maximum effectiveness. The standard three-foot nine-inch overhang also optimizes energy efficiency: When the summer sun is at its full height, the overhang shades the windows, but during winter’s lower angled sun allows for sun rays to enter through the windows and provide money-saving, passive solar heating. Panelization itself provides a much more airtight method of construction, eliminating costs draughts and heat loss.
In the mid-1980s, Deltec expanded its focus to include primary residences as well as resort and vacation homes. Greater energy use consciousness as well as increasing homeowner interest in custom home designs provided the foundation for significant market growth. “In 1994 we had less than a dozen homes west of the Mississippi,” Schlenk comments. “Today, we have over 300. The best way to take advantage of the mountain settings in California, Colorado and New Mexico is the circular viewpoint.”
In addition, circular homes are much more durable, particularly against hurricane winds. Because there aren’t any flat sections wider than eight feet in a Deltec home, there is less susceptibility to high wind pressure that would easily collapse the larger expanses of conventional construction. Deltec’s unique radial design and engineering also ensures that any force exerted against one side of the structure is evenly distributed through the center of the roof and floor and out to the opposing side. At the same time, Deltec’s roof system employs optimal pitch to equalize any downward pressure or uplift caused by high winds. And yet another benefit of panelization is that it provides extremely high tolerances using the highest quality materials, resulting in exceptional strength and durability.
“Deltec Homes have faced every major hurricane over the last three decades, and in particular the unusually rough hurricane seasons of the last few years, including Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo and Katrina,” Schlenk notes. “There’s no greater testament to the quality and reliability of our construction than that in areas where a hurricane has devastated conventional housing, Deltec homes are still standing. In fact, not a single home of ours has suffered any structural damage from any hurricane.”
Schlenk adds that, “We got a lot of national media attention, both from ABC News and the Associated Press, about our homes after the big hurricanes in Florida a few years ago. More recently we received a lot of attention after six of our homes survived a direct hit by hurricane Katrina. One home in Pass Christian, Miss., withstood a 29-foot tidal surge and sustained winds of over 145 mph for over 10 hours without even a broken window. The publicity over the fact that Deltec ‘batted a thousand’ in withstanding the hurricanes was big shot in the arm for our business.”
Deltec’s success against high wind has been so dramatic that the company produced a broadcast quality DVD named “Surviving the Storm” that showcases eight homeowners in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi and their remarkable storm survival stories. The DVD is available through Deltec by going to its Web site or calling them directly.
This explains the concentration of Deltec homes along the coastal areas in the Southeast of the country, starting at the Texas Panhandle and continuing around the Gulf States, Florida and all the way up to Maine. Needless to say, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is stimulating further interest in Deltec designs. In fact, Schlenk points out, “We just shipped our first house to rebuild a site leveled by Katrina. And more orders are coming in.”
In order to meet demand for about 500 homes a year, in 2001 Deltec moved out of its 24,000-square-foot production plant into a new 125,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Asheville, where it employs about 75 laborers. Basic components are built to blueprint specifications, while a team of master craftsmen who have been with the company for 15 to 30 years supervise final assembly.
The walls are factory assembled into eight-foot-high flat panels. Note that the panels themselves are not circular; rather, the assembly of the panels forms the round shape. The size of the panels also facilitates easy packaging and shipping. Unlike many modular home assemblies, which transport large sections on special flatbeds, Schlenk points out that Deltec systems fits easily into a standard freight truck.
Equally important, the panels are sized to easily accommodate standard window openings. Deltec can install window packages with exterior trim, or the owner can choose to leave opening for on-site installation. “Numerous window sizes and shapes are available, as well as fixed glass, sliding doors, entry doors and solid panels,” Schlenk says. This wide selection and placement flexibility allows owners to take maximum advantage of any natural view and gives them the freedom to orient the house in any direction.”
Siding is factory applied to the wall panels and can be pre-stained or painted. “An increasingly popular option is Hardie plank, which is a highly durable concrete product. Frequently when we’re doing Hardie siding the customer will request us to paint it before shipping,” Schlenk notes, “so we have our own pre-finish operation shop on-site.” Deltec’s unique “Web-Tec” floor system is comprised of pre-engineered open-web trusses with pre-cut plywood sheathing. The roof system is constructed of pre-engineered trusses with pre-cut sheathing and rolled felt.
According to Schlenk, circular designs are also becoming more popular as additions to conventional square homes. “Deltec designs are easily suited to such applications and are a growing part of the business. Of course, there has to be a little work done to the existing structure to accommodate the addition, but that’s the case in conventional construction as well.”
Because of the unique structural system, the interior can be arranged to suit almost any floor plan desired by the customer. Two-bedroom, three-bedroom, duplex, or anything else can be possible. Sizes range from 300 square feet up to 2,500 square feet for single level units. Additional space can be provided by “stacking” up to three levels under one roof or by joining any number of units laterally. Another option is the use rectangular “wings” to add architectural interest. Deltec can also provide deck systems, skylights, connects and garages.
He emphasizes that despite the seemingly “cookie-cutter” approach, no two Deltec houses are ever quite the same. “We have over 1,000 stock designs, but invariably owners add their particular preferences,” Schlenk says. “I doubt there is anywhere that two Deltec homes set next to each other look the same.” Consequently, Schlenk emphasizes that the design phase is crucial, though does no necessitate a visit to Asheville. “We do a lot of business via email. What’s important is that the owner is comfortable with the design we provide and that it meets the particular needs of the site and the homeowner’s taste. The design process depends upon the owner’s situation. In some cases, people know they aren’t going to break ground for a couple of years, so they might take longer to work on the plan. Or they decide on a design, and because they have a long lead time, we can work on putting it together when we have downtime in our own production. Typically, we say it takes three to six months from design to ship, but it’s usually much less. In most case, once the design is finalized, we can ship in four to eight weeks.”
Deltec has also grown its business by increasing the options available to homeowners. “There was a time when we did just one thing, one way,” says Schlenk. “The only thing that changed was the size of the home. We had just one siding type, one window brand. Now, mostly driven by customer requests we offer things that we could not imagine a few years ago: custom windows and sidings, pre-finished siding and specially treated framing packages that resist mold mildew and insects. We are very customer driven. If we can offer our customers something that is a good value for them, and if we can fit it into our production process, then we are happy to do it.” Such relative speed for such high quality custom construction is yet another advantage of Deltec’s toolbox. Because, as Dorothy might say, there’s no place like a Deltec Home.