Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
In the beginning there was Bucky Fuller.
That would be Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983), “futuristic” architect, engineer, and inventor, who, among his other accomplishments, developed the “geodesic dome” building design. The dome (usually a half-dome when used in building) is made up of lattice-like overlapping circles across the hemisphere’s surface, creating a network of triangles each of which contributes to the structure’s overall strength, wind deflection, and stability.
See, and you thought they were just rounded buildings.
In fact, much of Fuller’s research and experimentation was done in collaboration with artist Kenneth Snelson at—wait for it—Black Mountain College in the late 1940s. With Snelson’s design help, Fuller actually constructed an experimental geodesic building on the school’s campus. Fuller patented his design in 1954.
And that was the year before a fellow named Clyde Kinser started up an operation he called Kinser Home Insulation of Asheville.
Kinser actually sold his insulation door-to-door; he’d make a sale, then send a crew out the following day to perform the installation. It was instant service and a hand-to-mouth existence.
Kinser also paid attention to his customers’ input; in nearly every case they were looking for additional ways to make their homes tighter, warmer, and more fuel-efficient. It wasn’t long before Kinser added aluminum-framed doors and windows to his inventory; next came vinyl siding and related products. Having thus diversified, Kinser renamed his company. He called it Kinco.
Clyde had two boys, Robert and Wayne. From the standpoint of creating a family business, which had always been Clyde Kinser’s ambition, his sons’ talents dovetailed beautifully. Robert, a structural engineer, had been working for the government at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Mark was sales and marketing oriented. Their respective talents dovetailed with their father’s overall vision and successful pulse-taking of the market.
A born entrepreneur, Clyde had already started and run several successful businesses. One was Peppertree Resorts, a chain of vacation communities, each consisting of separate housing units. Peppertree originally built its units as A-frames, which were undergoing a faddish popularity at the time. But early on it was discovered that A-frames had a number of disadvantages—wasted space, difficult accessibility to the second story loft area, and, above all, heating inefficiency—that made them particularly unsuitable for resort use.
And that was the point at which the Kinsers’ building requirements and Bucky Fuller’s innovative design intersected.
The brothers had already been toying with the idea of a “round” unit design about the same time (the late 1960s) that another Asheville company, Rondesics, Inc., began building and marketing small “round” homes they named “Rondettes.” The Rondette was circular all right, but it had a conventional roof that did little to contribute to stability or efficiency; it was more conversation piece than innovation.
So Robert and Wayne began toying with designs, this time incorporating two of Fuller’s geodesic elements, the overlapping compression rings and a “tension collar” roof system. These two key structural features gave the Kinser brothers’ new design exactly what they were looking for: compactness and even weight distribution, creating a building that was lightweight, yet extremely strong and stable.
The Kinsers called the company they developed around this building concept Delta Technologies, after the pattern of interlocking triangles formed by the crisscrossing compression rings, and made it a subsidiary of Kinco. Initially, Delta Technologies built its “round homes” for only one customer, the family-owned Peppertree Resorts. It wasn’t long, however, before other resort developers became aware of the desirable attributes of the geodesic units and began to place orders for them.
[quote float=”right”]The company is still family owned, and Robert Kinser is chairman of the board of the closely-held corporation. But in 2011 the operations baton was passed to a non-family member, Steve Linton.[/quote]That was when the next paradigm shift occurred. Vacationers and time-share owners who stayed in these half-round houses quite simply fell in love with them. They loved the panoramic views that could be achieved and the fluid design that allowed for maximum individualization of interior space. They wanted geodesic homes as primary residences. The demand, in fact, became significant enough that by the mid-1980s the company was filling more residential than commercial orders. That was when Delta Technologies, to reflect its new residential-driven marketing approach, shortened its name to Deltec. In 1994 the Kinsers completed their change-of-direction commitment by selling Kinco, the parent company, and doing a full-scale rollout of Deltec as both a brand and a manufacturing process.
Deltec Homes’ growing reputation for durability has dramatically reinforced during the spate of catastrophic storms that have struck the United States in recent years. The Deltec design, which because of its shape and construction is highly resistant to wind damage, proved itself time and again in Hurricanes Ivan, Charley, Gustav, and even Katrina, when traditional stick-built houses were turned into matchsticks.
To date, not a single Deltec home has been destroyed by wind. Not one. Zip. In 2008 the television series Extreme Makeover Home Edition tapped Deltec to build the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum-certified house in Louisiana. Thanks to Deltec’s modular approach to construction, the job was completed in five days.
Today, more than 85 percent of all Deltec units are residential (although the company has designed and erected packages for schools, churches, and office buildings). The company, which has never shied away from the term “prefabricated,” produces about 200 custom-designed structures a year, each based on its time-tested design formula but custom-tailored to customer requirements. From its spacious, unpretentious plant off New Leicester Highway in Asheville, Deltec ships completed packages to home buyers from the Caribbean to the Caucasus.
The company is still family owned, and Robert Kinser is chairman of the board of the closely-held corporation. But in 2011 the operations baton was passed to a non-family member, Steve Linton, a young, lanky, bespectacled Midwesterner who looks more like a laid-back junior professor than the president of a company that bills itself as “the original green builder” and is now recognized as the world’s leading builder of circular, energy-efficient homes.
Linton joined Deltec in 2007 and was tasked with heading up its newly-minted sustainable technologies department. He brought to his job a degree in civil engineering from Cornell, the experience of having served as manager of several restoration projects in Boston—including that architectural jewel of Back Bay, Trinity Church—and a considerable knowledge of, and dedication to, green building techniques. Four years later he found himself in the president’s chair, which at that time was a precarious place to be.
“It was in the midst of the economic crunch,” Linton recalls. “The housing market was in survival mode, and we were no exception.”
Deltec, he says, was faced with a tempting but unpalatable option. “We could have just pulled back, cut some corners on quality and method and hunkered down,” he says. But almost as soon as the compromise opportunity presented itself it was rejected. “We decided that from a mission standpoint that would be a cop-out that would come back to haunt us in the long run,” he says.
“Deltec homes run between $150 and $200 a square foot to build,” he says. “That’s slightly above the overall median conventional home building cost, which is somewhere around $145 to $175. The payoff, of course, is down the road, in long term savings on maintenance and upkeep, and on the strength and protection we build in. Sure, we could have reduced those costs and started turning out cookie-cutter houses, but we’re a quality-driven company; cutting back on quality and custom design is not who we are.
“Sure enough,” he says, “the housing depression bottomed out and started to turn around last year. We’re moving forward again without having to make up ground we would have lost by compromising. It’s gratifying when you don’t take the easy way out, and it turns out you made the right decision. A vast majority of this country’s ‘green’ homes are made in Asheville, most of them right here.”
Out on a spacious, neat, and remarkably quiet shop floor, the company’s director of sales and marketing, Joe Schlenk, makes an all-embracing gesture, taking in equipment, home components packaged together like stacks of saltines, orderly stacks of plywood sheets, and various lengths of lumber. “Notice all this is inside, out of the weather,” he says. “Raw material is brought straight in here from the supplier. It won’t see the outside world again until it’s unloaded at a building site on the day assembly starts. It’s not left outside at the mercy of the weather. Why would we take a chance on something this valuable getting warped?”
“We have our own lumber contractor, who selects and cuts to our own specs,” Schlenk says. “Every board is stamped with our specs right on it,” he says, indicating a code in red ink on a two-by-four. “And instead of X-raying each board, which was the old way of doing things, we use Sonar to read uniform quality.
“You start with the best, you’re going to end up with the best,” he says. “The beauty of wood this dense is that climate extremes have very little effect on it. Some of these homes are going to the Caribbean, where it’s humid and rainy. The wood is so dense it not only doesn’t warp, it repels termites. Some of these are going to Mongolia, where its forty below in the winter with almost no humidity. The dense wood will retain moisture there and won’t get brittle and crack.”
He shakes his head and grins. “Mongolia,” he says. “They invented the yurt. They know about adapting homes to their climate. And we’re selling to them. Anything can be improved upon.”
Schlenk walks over to precisely stacked roof trusses waiting to be packaged. “See these nails?” he points. “They’re solid stainless steel. They’ll never rust or warp. And they’re driven into that same super-dense lumber you just saw. Barring a catastrophic fire or direct hit from something like a wrecking ball, this truss is good for generations. Maybe centuries.”
“Look at this,” he continues, coming to a nearly completed modular wall panel. “See this header? Same prime lumber, but in two-by-sixes. The panels themselves are a special five-ply plywood sheeting made especially for us. Five plies,” he says.
“And here,” Schlenk says, stopping before a deceptively simple-looking piece of equipment that appears to be a sort of computerized, conveyor-fed saw, “here’s the backbone of all our green building capabilities. It’s an optimization scanner. We feed it specs and it calculates exactly how many different uses we can get out of a piece of wood. Say we’re cutting joists. This machine will tell the saw what length we need, then tell up how many scraps we’ll have left over and what size. If we’ve thought of a use for the overage, we program that info in and it will perform that cutting also—all during the same run. Those blocks over there came from a run. They’re exactly nine inches long. We’ll use them to reinforce header joints. Even the sawdust that’s created is collected in this bin, and we’ll use it to pack and reinforce panel spaces; what’s left, we’ll use for mulch.
“Altogether,” he says, “a Deltec home creates 81 percent less waste than a conventional stick-built home. We’re trying for zero percent waste, and I believe we’ll get there.”
[quote float=”right”]“Mongolia,” Schlenk says. “They invented the yurt. They know about adapting homes to their climate. And we’re selling to them. Anything can be improved upon.”[/quote]“Remember, all the component assembly is done indoors, right here,” Schlenk says. “Look at the work areas and the conveyor belts. They’re all waist high, which greatly reduces worker fatigue. You don’t have a bunch of people reaching up or scrooching down all day long to put things together. When the components leave here, all nice and waterproof-packed, they don’t have to be exposed again until the site crew is ready to put them together.”
So what does the future hold, for modular circular house and for Deltec?
“Well,” says Schlenk, “we can’t say it’s the wave of the future because we’ve already been doing this a long time. But more and more new home builders are looking at the alternative we offer. We’ll keep on doing what we’ve been doing, learning and refining as we go along. We were ‘green’ before ‘green’ was on most people’s minds. Now it’s on more and more people’s minds every day. So we’ll keep trying to stay in front of that.”
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