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‘Buy American’ not so simple with housing

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BOZEMAN, Mont. >> Anders Lewendal, a general contractor who managed to survive the housing collapse, has hit upon a plan that he thinks will revive the construction industry and help lead the nation out of the economic wilderness: Build houses using only American-made materials.

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 U.S.-assembled appliances probably have at least some foreign made or mined components, Lewendal said.

Tiny components like nails, screws and lightbulbs, 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 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 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.

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 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."

Some who managed to hang on during the recession said that whether the all-American home idea is good marketing for Lewendal Construction or good economics for the country, or both, it feels right to them. Lewendal, admirers said, is taking action.

"More power to him," said Ryan Engbretson, a builder who said that his company had survived mainly by doing repair work.

Economists say it is hard to verify Lewendal’s assertion that about 75 percent of the average American home is made in the U.S. already, mainly because it does not appear to be something anyone has deeply studied. His estimates that going American will add only 2 percent to 3 percent to the $265,000 construction cost of the Bozeman house by the time final purchases are done — he is still shopping for things like light fixtures –B are also difficult to independently confirm.

"The truth is that we are in a global economy and it’s very interconnected, for good or bad," said Albert Saiz, an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania and co-editor of the journal Housing Economics. "It’s very hard to know the impact of your purchasing decisions and the consequences of what you do."

Saiz said the fluid nature of labor markets could also make the implications of all-American more complicated. In much of the nation, for example — though less so in this working-class corner of Montana — houses are built with Mexican or other foreign-born labor, which is a kind of foreign input since a part of the wages often go back across the border.

And if demand for, say, nails or screws made in the U.S. did go up, Saiz said, the basic manufacturing industry jobs created — low skill and probably low pay — are the kind that American workers are often disinclined to take anyway.

But Lewendal, who earned an undergraduate degree in economics before going into construction, said costs and benefits are more complicated than a spreadsheet can convey. The nails he bought from a company in Illinois are about $5 more per box, for instance, but he said they jam the nail guns less often than the cheaper Chinese brands, which are less uniform.

"If a guy has to get down three times a day to clear the gun, that’s time wasted," he said.


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