Post-and-beam pioneer Yankee Barn builds a larger national market


What makes a Yankee Barn Home? A melding of traditional techniques with modern technology, and a dedication to the best in materials and workmanship. Its customers are believers, and are willing to pay a stiff premium for a house from Yankee Barn, a privately held company in Grantham. Its headquarters are just off Interstate 89 at Exit 13 — the big red building with the company name on the roof. A Yankee Barn Home is a timber-frame, post-and-beam structure “designed in the tradition of New England barns,” says CEO Tony Hanslin. “If you took an x-ray of a typical house, you’d see a grid of lumber. In a Yankee Barn Home, you’d see large timbers — like the inside of a classic barn, or the keel of a wooden ship.” The company doesn’t actually build the homes. “We cut the timber frame, and pre-assemble wall panels with drywall,” says business development director Rod Viens. “Then we ship to the building site. It is a kit, but we make it easy to assemble.” The buyer has to hire a builder, although Yankee Barn offers a list of recommended contractors. A Yankee Barn kit, without the land and sitework, costs anywhere from $165 to $205 per square-foot, far pricier than a typical home’s cost of $100 to $120 per square-foot. The majority of Yankee Barn’s homes are custom designs. A member of the design staff works with the customer — and the latest in design software — to tailor one of the company’s basic plans to the needs of the individual. This is not a volume business; Yankee Barn has made about 1,200 houses in its history. Pioneer founder The best advertisement for a Yankee Barn Home is, apparently, a Yankee Barn Home. The company offers prospective buyers an overnight stay in a house in the nearby Eastman community (the location is no coincidence, as we shall see later). “When customers spend a night in the house, they fall in love,” says Viens. “About 75 percent end up buying a post-and-beam home — although not always from Yankee Barn.” A quick tour of the guest house is enough to make this reporter a convert — if money were no object. The house has an air of solidity and comfort. The timber frame lends itself to dramatic open spaces like a two-story-high living room with huge (but energy-efficient) windows and a second-story space with impressive views. In all, it’s a combination of elegance and homespun that seems conducive to cocktail parties and hunting parties alike. The founder of Yankee Barn Homes was Tony Hanslin’s father Emil — a noted builder, and a pioneer in building communities rather than subdivisions. His work led the National Association of Home Builders to name him one of American housing’s most influential leaders of the 20th century. It all began in 1968, according to Tony Hanslin. “My stepmother, Suzanne Sisson, was a sculptor and horsewoman. She said, ‘Why can’t we build a house that looks like a barn?’ My dad said that was a great idea, and he ran with it.” Emil Hanslin spent a solid year crafting a design. He called it the Mark 1, and it’s still Yankee Barn’s top seller. The company grew slowly after that. In fact, it was quickly overshadowed by a new project — the residential community called Eastman. Emil was hired as the designer. He sent Tony to Grantham in 1969 to get things started; he moved up from Massachusetts himself in 1971, and Yankee Barn followed in 1972. Father and son managed Eastman through the construction process, and then effectively became administrators of a small town with more than 1,500 housing units. Emil Hanslin died in 1987. Tony continued as manager of Eastman until one day in 1995. “I said, ‘I’m not going to go to work at the visitor center anymore, I’m going to go to work at Yankee Barn.’ And I did.” He found a company that was a little sleepy and stuck in its ways, offering two basic designs and few options. He began shaking things up, setting Yankee Barn on course for success as a maker of high-end custom homes. It’s been growing steadily ever since, and projecting a growth spurt in the near future. Changing market In June 2004, Yankee Barn opened a sales office and guest home in West Chester, Pa., not far from Philadelphia. Hanslin saw a chance to expand an already-strong customer base in the Mid-Atlantic, and the early signs are promising. “It’s coming in now,” he says. “First they come to the guest home, then they give us a $2,000 design payment. The design payments are coming strongly out of Pennsylvania now, so it’s clearly building.” (A design payment is not a commitment to buy, but it’s a strong indicator of intent.) Hanslin believes that by 2007, West Chester will ring up as many sales as the home office, although all the construction will be done in Grantham. In order to accommodate growth, Yankee Barn is making improvements in its assembly process. “We’re going to a semi-automated line by this time next year,” says Viens. “We’ll increase our capacity with the same workforce.” The company has a full-time staff of about 55, including 17 in production. Yankee Barn is at the beginning of a new phase. Hanslin is eyeing potential locations for more sales offices, including New York’s Hudson River Valley, Colorado ski country, and California’s Napa Valley. Its customer base is also changing. Yankee Barn Homes were originally designed to be vacation or retirement homes for empty-nesters, much as Eastman was originally designed. And like Eastman, it’s now attracting younger buyers — affluent, professional families who want high-quality homes outside of major metropolitan areas. Any successful small business will attract buyout offers, and Yankee Barn is no exception. “Every year I talk with potential buyers,” says the 62-year-old Hanslin. “My problem is I don’t really want to stop working. I’m having the time of my life.”
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