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Building Contractor Nails Down Smaller Homes

By Cindy Atoji Keene

During the boom era not so long ago, housing developer Bill Wennerberg of Plymouth was one of the many builders who rushed to construct supersized homes, often known as McMansions. He expanded his own South Shore home eight years ago into a 5,000 square foot goliath with 122 windows. Building it was no big deal, said Wennerberg, but living in it was the learning process. “When it was done, I laid in my bedroom and said to my wife, ‘holy cow, who needs a house this big?’”

As the average size of new single-family homes continues to fall – by 2015, the average home size is expected to shrink to 2,152 square feet, a downsizing that ends an expansion that spanned nearly three decades – Wennerberg felt the market was actually “right-sizing,” with homeowners giving up unused space and looking for homes that better fit their needs. His newest project at The Pinehills in Plymouth consists of 16 Nantucket-style cottages, ranging in size from 1,100 - 1,600 square feet and up, in a “real borrow-an-egg neighborhood.”

Q: What exactly is Nantucket style, which has become a trendy housing style, even in developments in Missouri and Washington?
A: I consider it a clean, casual, simple, down-to-earth approach. I came up with my plans by touring Nantucket and taking tons of pictures, then working with two architects on a series of sketches, literally doodling concepts of houses on some napkins. We came up with four different interchangeable floor plans of houses that look like little Nantucket cottages. They have charm and detail, like beat-up old floors, white picket fences, and neighborly quaint yards so closely nestled together, I had to work with the building inspector’s office to figure out how to separate the homes based on local codes.

Q: What’s your favorite part of building a house?
A: It starts with a hole in the ground, digging the foundation, then putting up the framing. It’s fun when the frame goes up and you can see the actual shape of the house. This is followed by installing the mechanical stuff, the wiring, plumbing and heating systems. But once the plaster is in, you can see the kitchen, dining room and bedroom walls. That’s when the finish work begins, the part I like, putting in the moulding, tiles, appliances, paint, which reflect house’s character and tell the story of how it will live and feel.

Q: What’s your secret to working with all the sub-contractors?
A: Through the years, I’ve developed a good stable crew of subcontractors who know and understand each other. Some general contractors are yellers or screamers; others are motivators. I’m the one with the vision, and my guys know how to get it done. If not, I have no choice but to get someone else.

Q: You’ve been dabbling with this trade, as well as landscaping, for over a decade. How has it changed throughout the years?
A: Construction is a cost-driven business, so crews have gotten more specialized and multi-skilled so they can take on a bigger pool of work. The framer might also do the roofing these days, or the finish carpenter might also be a kitchen installer.

Q: Say I’m going to buy a house. What’s the first thing I should think of?
A: First is budget and what you hope to spend. That number can grow very quickly. Secondly, think of your quality of life. You don’t just build a box, but something you can live in, so consider the design, the style, the value, and think that through pretty good.

Q: How do you cope with bad weather?
A: Last winter was a tough one. It snowed every two days while we were framing. We’d start every day by shoveling, then end the day by putting a tarp over everything. One time snow leaked into a house, everything froze up, and we weren’t able to work for a couple of weeks. There were some days that we spent more time shoveling than building, but that’s life as a New England builder.

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