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Made in ... Germany? -
Home importer turns to Europe for quality, speed and energy efficiency, not to mention looks

Rocky Mountain News (CO)
February 3, 2007
Author: Lisa Marshall, Special to the News

With its stout timber beams, steep tile roof and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows, Ralf Meier's chalet-style mountain home looks as if it had been plucked straight out of a Bavarian village and transplanted to the pine-tree-studded foothills of Boulder County.

That's because it was.

It was just over a year ago that workers in the quaint lakeside enclave of Bad Saulgau, Germany, neatly packed the 5,400-square- foot prefabricated house into six 40-foot containers and loaded it onto a procession of flatbed trucks for the first leg of its 5,000-mile journey.


It would spend two weeks on an ocean barge from Antwerp, Belgium, to Houston and several days en route to Colorado via train before it was hauled up Meier's treacherous mountain road and lifted via crane onto his windswept 35-acre property up Fourmile Canyon.


But despite the epic journey, Meier had the walls up, windows in and roof on in two weeks.


The obvious question: Why would anyone go to the trouble and expense of shipping an entire home here from overseas?


"Quality, speed and energy efficiency," says Meier, a German-born wood importer who has since started his own company, Platz Haus USA, in hopes of doing the same for other would-be homeowners.


In January, his first client, Mary Ellen Vaughan, watched her 2,000- square-foot German chalet go up in a matter of days in Salina, down the road from Meier's house.


"Everything you can imagine went wrong weatherwise, and we were still able to build it in a week," says Meier.


While U.S. home-builders beg to differ, Meier argues that European homes tend to be better-built for many reasons: Because families own their homes far longer, the homes are "built to last," using slow-growing Nordic timber that has tighter rings and, thus, makes stronger boards. Because fuel costs have always been higher and government regulations tighter, energy efficiency in Germany is top priority. Walls tend to be thicker and better-insulated, passive solar heating is the norm and building materials are greener, he says.


And they're beautiful.


"The style of this house combined the modern aspects I like - all the glass that I love and the stainless steel - with the typical mountain-looking home," says Vaughan, a jewelry designer who lost her home on the same site to a fire a year ago.


At first, it was the speed of construction that intrigued her: "Insurance gives you a year to settle a claim, and traditional construction can take much longer than that." But after visiting the factory in Germany, she became convinced that she couldn't have such a high-quality house built for the same price in the United States.


"It is incredibly well-built, state- of- the-art and environmentally sensitive, everything you would want in a new house," Vaughan says.


Peter Connell, president of the Modular Housing Council for the National Association of Homebuilders, says that while Americans are increasingly importing manufactured homes from Canada, he's never heard of anyone bringing one here from overseas.


Given what he sees as "prohibitive" transportation costs, he highly doubts it will become a trend:


"There are more than 40,000 modulars made every year in the United States, and there are more than 200 manufacturers," says Connell, who contends that American-built homes are very energy efficient and extremely well-built. "There is plenty of opportunity to get supplies within our borders much more cost-effectively."

Meier estimates it cost $65,000 to transport his own home to the United States, and in the end it cost about $1.35 million to build. Vaughan's home, which is smaller, cost about $40,000 to ship; the finished cost is expected to be around $450,000.


But Meier points out that all homes require importing wood and other supplies, a hidden cost that's built in even if the home is constructed here.


Given the speed of construction and the ability to get workers out of the weather and forging ahead indoors quickly, he predicts it will catch on fast in

Colorado mountain towns: "It's just a better way to build."




* Both homes were made in the century-old Platz Haus factory in Bad Saulgau, Germany, which ships 100 homes annually around the globe. These were the first two shipped to the United States.


* The prebuilt walls hold electric wiring, eco-friendly insulation and plumbing. The company sent two craftsmen, or zimmermen, to piece it together. "They are trained in Germany for two years to put up a house like this," says Platz Haus owner Ralf Meier. "It's like putting together a big puzzle."

* Meier says he's aware of negative connotations associated with manufactured homes in the U.S. "People automatically think you are talking about a trailer." But one look at his own home and that stereotype is blown. It has wall-size windows that tilt open at the top or slide open to the side, warm wood paneling and a contemporary, clutter-free style. Nearly everything inside is imported from Germany, from the sleek wall-mount toilets to the oak kitchen cabinetry to the Bavarian-style solid-wood garage door.


* To keep hot air out in summer and warm air in during winter, electronically controlled aluminum shades are mounted on the exterior of each window. An energy-efficient water-heating system kicks in on the rare occasion that solar heat isn't enough. "We have a 1,000-gallon propane tank, and we have barely used it," says Meier's wife, Maryanne Bruno.

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