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An Eye For Detail

A Vermont firm creates factory-built historic reproductions with an unerring eye for quality and accurate period detail.
By Dan Cooper

Consumer demand for historic dwellings has always outpaced the available supply, mainly because as the population grows, the number of houses diminishes through attrition. Our fascination with the past, coupled with the desire for modern amenities and the lack of enthusiasm in dealing with the quirks of antique homes – low ceilings, and bathrooms and kitchens in very strange places – has created a perpetual demand for functional reproductions of these iconic building types, particularly in the Cape Cod, Federal and Greek Revival styles.

The caliber of these reproductions varies greatly; some are dead-on replicas, distinguishable only by such tell-tale subtleties as rooflines unbowed by age or lack of an open fieldstone foundation. At the other end of the spectrum, there are buildings identified as Colonial in name only, due to the fact that they have a center entrance and side gables, perhaps with a vestigial garrisoned second floor. And then there are the much-disparaged McMansions, draped willy-nilly with Classical ornament and with little regard for scale or appropriateness.

Traditionally, those seeking a new home that appears old have turned to a smaller firm, well versed in historic architecture, and then paid for a one-off, stick-built dwelling. These are typically of high quality, and possess great attention to detail, but are frequently sold at a premium price and are subject to lengthy production times due to the craftsmanship involved and the limitations of a small business.

Shop-Built vs. Stick-Built
Michael C. Connor founded Connor Homes in Middlebury, VT, in 1969, seeking to create a solution that would allow more homeowners to experience the pleasures of an authentic reproduction house while mitigating their expenses. To reduce the cost of his homes, Connor elected to prefabricate his walls in a shop, with panelized construction. "This method of construction was identical to onsite 'stick-built' construction except that much of the framing was preassembled in a factory before arriving on site," says Connor. "The cost savings and quality of construction were immediate benefits of this method, but manufacturers at the time put little emphasis on architectural detail."

As his business developed, Connor wanted to elevate the kit house into a more artistic dwelling. "We quickly recognized," he says, "that the same efficiencies and quality realized in manufactured framing could also be realized in the execution of manufactured architectural elements if the scale and proportion inherent in those details could be drawn and produced as shop drawings."

Where others had attempted and failed to create a satisfactory reproduction kit home, Connor knew that research and preparation were necessary. "Obviously, step one required a working knowledge of the various historic architectural styles to be reproduced," he says. "This knowledge was gained through many years of research and onsite execution before our company decided to start its own manufacturing company dedicated to providing customers with complete kits of historically accurate homes based on Early American vernaculars."

Quality at a Lower Cost
Prefabricated homes have a played an instrumental role ever since the railroads crisscrossed the U.S., with companies like Sears and Aladdin shipping tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of inexpensive kit houses nationwide. Even with this in mind, the public perception of a lack of quality in factory-built homes persists. "It has clearly been an uphill battle to convince the public that manufactured housing is something other than a post-War initiative designed to produce cheap homes for budget-conscious Americans," says Connor. "Indeed, the industry started primarily driven by that premise, but has quietly grown over the past half century, redefining and retooling itself so that segments of it have emerged as high-tech innovators capable of competing with, and in some cases surpassing, the onsite craftsman-built home. Our company in particular is achieving a level of architectural excellence that can compete with the highest-end homes built in America."

The allure of the cost savings achieved by selecting a shop-built home is often the first consideration of Connor's clients. "Apples for apples, a stick-built, site-constructed house attempting to replicate one of our homes with all its fine architectural detailing would likely cost at least 25% more," says Connor. "And the more sophisticated the detailing, the more savings would be realized. It is interesting that most builders quickly recognize the savings to be had in a manufactured and precut frame, but are surprised at the savings to be had in prebuilt architectural details. Another additional large savings is in the architectural design costs. Because our company is so focused on classic architectural details, customers who are similarly interested find that our design staff is quick and cost-effective in schematic design."

Hardly Run of the Mill
While much of the construction is done beforehand in a factory, the firm's architects and designers take great effort to avoid a cookie-cutter product line. Connor Homes gladly works directly with their clients' architects if need be, and relishes the opportunity for customization, although prospective homeowners can take advantage of the company's start-to-finish services. "We are a one-stop shop," says Connor, "providing architectural design, cost-effective manufacturing of complete home kits, including interior architectural elements, and ongoing customer service throughout the building process."

Along with panelized walls, other important architectural elements are prebuilt in the company's sprawling plant. The company provides, as an option, prebuilt mudroom furniture and kitchen and bathroom cabinetry as well as mantels and all manner of interior and exterior finishes. Notably, the stairways are pre-constructed, especially if they are a single run. All of these elements reveal the company's devotion to accurately reproducing the nuances of historic design.

Connor Homes prefabricates all of the trim, cutting as much as possible to finished length in the shop and leaving whichever lengths uncut as necessary. Especially popular are the wood-paneled walls found in so many 18th and early-19th-century dwellings. These can be ordered as raised panels or chamfered, ship-lapped planks in either finish or paint-grade lumber.

Interior finishing includes wide-plank floors and options for four- or six-panel doors whose historical accuracy makes them appear salvaged from original houses. The kitchens and bathrooms take historical styling into account, but Connor Homes fully realizes clients' needs for modern functionality. The cabinetry draws inspiration from either 18th- or 19th-century designs, be they Shaker, Craftsman or Colonial; modern appliances and counters are tastefully incorporated into the same rooms as brick beehive ovens and modern plumbing fixtures.

Traditional Materials
While Connor Homes takes advantage of panelized construction, the firm maintains a traditional approach to materials. "Our homes, like their historic predecessors, are primarily built of wood," says Connor. "While there are many products on today's market extolling the virtues of artificial wood products that are made of vinyl, PVC and various cementitious compounds, these products do not look like wood, and don't perform like wood.

"Most are touted for their resistance to rotting, which is certainly a concern with wood, but advances in wood treatment have allowed the natural beauty of wood to continue and thrive as a building product. Our own choice for finished exterior trim is a product that is factory treated with borate salts, an environmentally-friendly treatment that gives this wood a 20-year rot warranty. We also use treated pine for our standard roofing material. This product most closely resembles the historic wood roofs of the past, but carries an impressive fifty-year warranty."

Connor Homes uses all kiln-dried lumber for its framing, including the joists and rafters, and avoids trusses. The exterior sheathing is plywood and not a composite, and the company specifies vertically-grained, back-primed Hemlock clapboards, as these have superior paint retention to cedar.

That being said, Connor concedes that there are some applications where modern materials can be an improvement. "We do use some synthetic products in special limited applications [the foot of a Greek Revival pilaster for example]," he says, "but overall it is fair to say that synthetic substitutes for wood are an aesthetic step backwards and should be avoided in an architecturally rich composition." The firm, mindful of energy conservation, has chosen single divided-lite windows as a standard, and these are manufactured by Green Mountain Window of Rutland, VT.

Putting It All Together
The firm has spent considerable time and effort minimizing the more challenging aspects of production, delivery and assembly. Kits are not shipped in their entirety unless sufficient storage space is available on site; Connor prefers to ship in portions as needed to prevent any adverse effects due to weather and environment. Production time, from date of deposit, is usually six to eight weeks in the summer and fall and four to six weeks in the winter and spring. Shipping is included in the price up to 250 miles from Middlebury, VT.

Connor and his designers are cognizant of the fact that their homes may well wind up in an area that is lacking in artisanal carpenters, so the kits are fully engineered and intended to be assembled by a typical general contractor and carpentry crew. The only special equipment they require is an all-terrain forklift for the panel assembly. Even the ornate trim has been engineered for on-site installation: "Our exterior trim package is designed and built so that it can be installed by someone who has no experience with this type of sophisticated trim detail, but possesses basic carpentry skills," says Connor.

In 2007, a Connor Homes' Greek Revival house was framed, trimmed and made weather-tight in just nine days in Montvale, VA. Connor takes great pride in the house as an example of his company's ability to create quality and cost savings in a very timely manner. "It represents a true triumph," he says, "over the long-held premise that great architecture could only be attained by on-site craftsmen laboring long hours, guided by architectural drawings and sketches, all at great expense so that only the wealthy could participate in and enjoy great architectural detail."

Comprised of 3,100 sq.ft. of living space, an 800-sq.ft. garage and 900 sq.ft. of porch and portico, the home's design was a tribute to a collection of Greek Revivals in New York. "The framing package was completed in nine days and the exterior trim took four men a total of 14 days to prebuild," says Connor. "The trim team prebuilt the entire large gable ends, which greatly reduce on-site labor costs for applying the trim. The kit was delivered and the final columns and trim were in place nine days later with a 10-man crew."

Various Elevations
Connor and his design team have an obvious love of historic architecture. The firm's lengthy portfolio appears to be a collection of well-maintained old houses, such as one might find touring the state highways throughout New England. Not all are as grand as the Greek Revival in Virginia; in fact, some of the company's most sublime elevations are simple New England Capes, like their Elizabeth Burgess and Hannah Grady models, hunkered down low to the ground and topped with shake roofs. The firm is equally adept at reproducing Federal and saltbox reproductions, such as the Azariah Canfield and Martha Kimball models, each carefully designed not to tip their hand that the structure in question isn't two centuries old.

An example of the attention paid to historic detail can be found in the capital and frieze of the Walter Edgecomb House. With its fluted pilasters, heavily molded capitals, dentil molding and brackets, one cannot help but mistake it for the original. Similarly, the Palladian window, with its graceful Gothic muntins and heavy mullions, resembles many an 18th-century homestead.

The firm frequently incorporates outbuildings and barns into its kits, and many of these are attached directly to the main structure, as is the New England vernacular. These too are appropriate to the scale and finish of their predecessors and are not simply garages gussied up to appear as if they were historic structures.

While Connor's original muse is late-18th and early-19th-century New England architecture, it hasn't limited the firm, and its scope is expanding into more contemporary styles. "Most of the homes in our catalog and on our website are New England Colonials, but we've also done other vernaculars," says Connor. "Of particular interest are Shingle style as inspired by classic architectural guidelines, Bungalow style and Gulf Coast vernacular styles.

"Our design staff's expertise and research and our craftsmen's technical skill result in masterful replications. This highlights what the company has long professed: that exquisite architecture is achievable and affordable when appropriate manufacturing techniques are applied, guided by a knowledgeable design and manufacturing entity."  

 

 

 
 

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