Timber frame firm’s owner sees glimmers of hope for construction industry

By Melanie Plenda
Paul Freeman was just another college kid sitting in a lecture hall in 1977 when he heard his calling.”It became clear that my boyhood home with its weathered dark beams, gunstock posts, and multilayered wall sheathing was a 250-year-old colonial post and beam home, and that its unique character was due to a process known as timber framing,” wrote Freeman in a blog post entitled “Seeing Ahead While Looking Back.”He met his love that day and has never left it. And it in turn has taken care of him.As the owner of Brooks Post and Beam in Lyndeborough — one of the oldest timber framing companies in the country — the niche of timber framing has helped Freeman and his company make it through a brutal recession battered, but relatively unharmed.”In 2009, it started to slow down, 2010 was terrible, 2011 felt like 2009,” he said. “So to me it feels like we’re on the upside of a bounce-back already. And I probably haven’t seen this busy of a start to a year since 2007. We’re super busy. I mean we’re booking out to May right now.”Phil and Ginny Brooks started the company in 1967, using timbers harvested from old barns and house frames. As it does now, the company focused on building homes and barns with some commercial work thrown in.When they had more business than old frames, the couple began producing their own timbers. In his career as a timber framer at Brooks, Phil Brooks developed the first computer-operated automated timber-cutting machinery and was integral in creating Stresskin panels, which help make timber-framed structures so energy efficient.Freeman started working with Brooks in the early 1990s and by 2006 was running the place. He said the company is small and stays small so that in lean times it isn’t drowning in overhead. Low overhead means no layoffs, he said.He also doesn’t let his crew sit idle for too long. Though 2011 was an improvement on 2010, it was still slow. So Freeman volunteered his crew to build a post-and-beam barn to house the Greenfield Historical Society’s antique fire truck. Freeman not only donated the labor but also enlisted a crew of high school student in the Conval and Conant High Schools’ Applied Technology Building Trades program to help put the project together.Chet Bowles, director of the Applied Technology Center in Peterborough, said Freeman went out of his way to watch the kids and teach them what they needed to know before they began the project.”He’s a natural teacher,” Bowles said.’I’m optimistic’This year, though, feels different, Freeman said. And that makes him cautiously optimistic for the industry.”I actually think our industry can be a bellwether for the construction industry as a whole,” he said. “We’re seeing a big pickup right now.”And a chunk of its market right now is made up of retirees looking to build.”Obviously the thing that’s really hurting new construction right now is this big glut of foreclosure properties,” he said. “But somebody that’s going to live in their ultimate last home, their dream home, they are not going to want to buy a foreclosure and fix it up. If they can build the brand-new home they’ve always dreamed of, they are going to do it.”It’s not an investment to them, he said. Even better, they aren’t using banks to finance construction, said Freeman.”Because what banks are doing right now is financing based on appraised value, not on constructed value,” Freeman said. “So it costs more to build a house now than it’s actually going to be worth.”Freeman is quick to point out that this upswing is not yet industry-wide, but he said, “I have seen before in downturns, timber frame picks up before stick frame construction, so I’m optimistic.”He said the biggest problem right now for the industry is mental. People are still not quite ready to go out on a limb, he said. However, he argued, this is the time to go.”Things cannot really get any worse than they have gotten in construction,” he said. “You can hire labor at competitive prices. I think a year from now you won’t be getting competitive prices, you’ll just be getting the guy who doesn’t have any work and maybe that’s because he’s no good.”Looking out even further, despite the often tumultuous nature of the construction industry, there is a future in it for those willing to stay current on technology, energy efficiency and the business end of the industry.He said in the past, when things are booming, builders couldn’t help but make money and be successful. But now it’s the company that has people who can run a spreadsheet, make a formal presentation to a client, speak and communicate well that comes out ahead, he said.”I would say that if a young man or woman is willing to take the time and recognize that you don’t go into building just because you don’t like to read or write — you’ve got to go to school,” he said. “It’s not a way out.”