February 26, 2021

All-American, Floor to Roof? Not So Simple

He is trying to do just that with a new home here on a side street a few blocks from downtown. But it is not as easy as it sounds.

Some things are simple enough. Wood literally grows on trees, of course, especially here in forested western Montana. And no one ships cement or concrete mix any farther than needed.

After that it can get tough. In a global economy, even American-assembled appliances probably have at least some foreign made or mined components, Mr. Lewendal said.

Tiny components like nails, screws and light bulbs, mundane but crucial, are significantly cheaper if bought from China or other developing nations. High-end frills — which tend to be imported, like Italian marble or mahogany — may be doomed to stay on the dock or in the showroom.

And all that does not even address the question of whether using illegal immigrant labor, a mainstay of the construction industry around the nation, counts as foreign.

“Part of the impact of the recession has been healthy, in making people rethink what housing is for,” said Mr. Lewendal, who conceded that perfection in his goal is probably not possible. The locally made cement, he suspects, could have some imported chemicals, for example, and the recycled glass from Yellowstone National Park that he laid down as a base layer under the garage could well have contained an imported beer bottle or two. As for his workers, he said, they are all here legally.

“The point is that little things can add up,” he said. “I think we could solve this recession if everyone shifted just 5 percent of their purchases to U.S.-made products.”

In some ways, it is an old idea, echoing a hard-hat refrain from the 1970s or earlier: Buy American. In other ways, though, it is as current as the environmental message that hangs over every urban farmers’ market: Buy Local.

Mr. Lewendal said that because the 2,280-square-foot, three-bedroom house he is building will conform to high energy-conservation standards — more points are awarded for materials obtained close to the site — the economic and social implications all blur. And in a brutally competitive local market, he added, pitching all-American could also be a marketing niche in tune with the times.

“I don’t see any politics to it at all,” said Mr. Lewendal, 51, who described himself as a conservative and is the chairman of the local homebuilder association’s green building committee. “It’s about jobs.”

The house’s owner, Kat Quinn, also has a complex agenda. For health reasons, she wanted a house built to strict environmental standards, and after she met Mr. Lewendal and heard about the all-American home idea, she became convinced that buying American could put pressure on foreign companies to raise wages for their workers.

She said she does plan, though, on having a Canadian-made trampoline in the house, to use in therapy for a daughter with cystic fibrosis.

Bozeman’s economy was not devastated across the board by the recession. Montana State University, a big local employer, created a base of stability, and the proximity to Yellowstone, about 90 minutes south, kept up a flow of tourists.

But where bad times bit, they bit hard, and that was in construction. The vacation- and second-home market that plumbers, roofers and framers depended on dwindled to almost nothing starting in 2007, taking out more than a third of all the construction work here in Gallatin County in just 24 months, according to state figures.

Justin Tribbitt, a former general contractor now working in computer software, lost his company; three of his five former employees left town. Mike Wilhelm, an electrician, went from six employees to two. Rock Larocca, also a contractor, survived with the aid of a chainsaw, helping cut down trees killed by a beetle infestation.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=efa4ccf265711e07b3f8e4023f403014

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