Homebuilder promotes new way to build barrier-free houses on concrete slabs

Homebuilder promotes new way to build barrier-free houses on concrete slabs

By Jim Harger | jharger@mlive.com 
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on May 12, 2015 at 5:58 AM


SPARTA, MI – Homebuilder John Bitely says his company has come up with a new way to build a barrier-free house on a concrete slab that’s less expensive than a typical Michigan home with a basement or crawl space underneath.

The new technology uses a thick foam-type border dug into the ground to protect the slab from frost damage, said Bitely, president of Sable Homes LLC. His company’s “Freedom Foundation” saves about $15,000 over the cost of building a house that’s elevated over a basement or crawl space, he said.

“In West Michigan, barrier-free living has not been readily available at an affordable price,” said Bitely, who is currently building a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house in Sparta that will sell for less than $160,000.

Although slab foundations are used in 80 percent of the homes built in the U.S., Bitely said they are not used in northern states because of frost damage that can occur in colder northern climates.

Most builders dig concrete footings down at least 36 inches to get below the frost line with their foundations, Bitely said.

Buyers looking for an affordable one-story home can opt for a modular home that is built off the ground and usually requires steps or a steep ramp for accessibility.

Bitely, who is building the barrier-free home in a neighborhood he has developed on the former site of Sparta High School, said his foundation system offers a more accessible home that’s of higher quality than a typical modular home.

“Using ‘Freedom Foundation’ will save time and money for builders, and makes a shallow foundation install much easier,” said Bitely. “Using these resources, we’re able to provide this style of home at much more affordable costs than ever before.”

Bitely said the foam barriers around his footings provide adequate protection against frost damage without the costs associated with deep concrete footings.

“We feel it is important to offer a safe environment for those who are elderly or disabled. Our new ‘Freedom Foundation’ technology will allow individuals to live safely at lower costs than with traditional building materials.”

David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County, endorsed the barrier-free design in a news release produced by Sable Homes.

“One of the most significant needs for persons with disabilities is affordable housing that is accessible and integrated into exciting neighborhoods,” Bulkowski said. “It’s great that Sable Homes has developed the Freedom Foundation technology to greatly expand the opportunity to purchase the house of their dreams for persons with disabilities.

“With some budgets, home buyers requiring accessible homes are limited to modular homes, or worse, homes that do not fully meet their needs, due strictly to foundation costs,” Bulkowski said in a statement.

Jim Harger covers business for MLive/Grand Rapids Press. Email him atjharger@mlive.com or follow him on Twitter or Facebook or Google+.

Fed won’t raise rates yet, but hike could come later this year

Fed won’t raise rates yet, but hike could come later this year

by Ryan Smith | Apr 29, 2015

The Federal Reserve’s soft outlook on rate hikes today means business as usual in the mortgage bond market, according to Bryan McNee, vice president and senior bond analyst for MBSAuthority.com.

The Fed today said that with the housing recovery remaining slow and inflation running below its long-term objective, its current 0-one-quarter-percent target range for federal interest rates was still appropriate.

“The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term,” the Fed’s Open Market Committee wrote in a press release.

McNee said that the Fed will probably still raise rates sometime this year.

“The bond market already says the Fed is going to raise interest rates this year. It’s the people in the stock market who don’t think rates are going to rise,” McNee said. “But the bond market has very clearly got a bet that we’re going to see something around September.”

The Fed didn’t specify when rates would rise, however, meaning most bond traders will continue to prepare for a rate hike, McNee said. And since that rate hike is expected, it won’t have a catastrophic effect on mortgage rates.

“It’s not going to be a crazy shift if they do it, because some of it is already in pricing,” McNee said. “There’s no doomsday scenario here. Worst case scenario, it would cause us to move off of some of the best rates we’ve seen this year.”

The Fed’s soft stance on rates may not have come as a surprise to bond traders, but many took precautions prior to the agency’s statement, selling off mortgage-backed securities Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of a more hawkish stance.

“Yesterday, Fannie Mae mortgage-backed security benchmark coupons sold off 49 basis points,” McNee said. That’s a pretty big move lower.”

It’s especially unusual considering the relatively weak recent economic reports, he said.

“Rates usually get a little better on a weak economic basis. But the mortgage-backed securities market shrugged (the reports) off and lost almost 50 points. Mortgage-backed securities traders were taking some money out of the game because they were nervous about the Fed meeting.”

Sable Homes new technology opens the doors to affordable and accessible home ownership

Sable Homes new technology opens the doors to affordable and accessible home ownership


Rockford-based Sable Homes is producing a new type of home in Michigan that provides barrier-free living for individuals who are physically handicapped or seniors at a more economical price.

The homes feature a new technology which allows homes in the northern states to be built on a slab foundation. Although these foundations are used in most southern U.S. states that do not have basements, they are not insulated well enough to be used in northern states with annual frost.

The technology, Freedom Foundation, is essentially a thick, foam barrier which surrounds the slab foundation, insulating it and protecting the cement from frost.

Joanne Feutz, occupational therapist at Disabilities Advocates of Kent County, is delighted with the design but she says these homes follow the precept of“universal design” and they are really for anyone, not just someone with a disability. From her perspective, this type of home fills a big need in the market. “A lot of builders will build a custom home but no one is building homes that are designed to be accessible and affordable,” she says. Feutz says the homes “are beautiful” and are perfect for individuals needing barrier-free living.

Sable is working on organizing an installation team which can assist other builders in setting up these foundations to produce similar model homes to help support this community of buyers.

Sable Homes is one of the few builders that works with Veterans Administration and Rural Development for construction loans for new homes.

To learn more about Sable Homes you can visit their site here.

Technology erases some mobility barriers

Technology erases some mobility barriers

Sable Homes’ process benefits those with physical impairments.

March 27, 2015

The secret to creating hundreds of easily accessible homes for those with mobility impairments was right under John Bitely’s nose all along.

For years, Bitely, president and owner of Rockford-based residential development firm Sable Homes, had been looking for a way to create affordable housing that could be easily accessed by those in West Michigan with mobility impairments, particularly those with disabilities, aging senior citizens and wounded veterans.

His searching eventually led him back to a technology he’s been using since before the Great Recession: foam insulation billets he now calls the “Freedom Foundation.”

“In West Michigan, barrier-free living has not been readily available at an affordable price,” he said. “We feel it is important to offer a safe environment for those who are elderly or disabled. Our new Freedom Foundation technology will allow individuals to live safely at lower costs than with traditional building materials.”

Bitely and his team had originally used the specialized foam to compete with the modular-home industry almost seven years ago.

“One of the frustrating things we’ve seen is we’d been watching what people pay for modular homes,” he said. “They’d drive them in, take the wheels off, slap them on the ground and they were paying an outrageous amount of money for what we thought was a less than adequate product.”

That’s where the foam insulation came in. The foam, which comes from Atlas EPS in Bryon Center, is generally used in Michigan and other northern states to allow homes to be built on a slab foundation while still being well-insulated. The thick, foam barrier surrounds the foundation, insulating it and protecting the cement from frost.

“The first home we built with this project was probably about six years ago. This goes back to when we wanted to compete with the modular (market)… We’ve got this product out and it’s stood the test of time. What is new is how we’re tying this into a market segment that’s underserved,” Bitely said.

“(We asked), ‘Why don’t we just make this out of that type of product?’ In so doing, we developed this piece of foam, which in turn ends up being the form and the base foundation of the house.”

So how does this new Freedom Foundation foam help people with disabilities? It helps because now Sable is using it to build ranch houses with zero steps. Almost all modular homes and traditional homes involve some kind of steps, either inside or by the doors, Bitely said, and that can be trouble for someone in a wheelchair or using a walker. But now Sable is building homes flat enough to the point that raised steps or ramps are no longer required.

Another nice feature about these homes is they can also cost less, Bitely said.

“We have a model home that we built. It’s just under about 1,400 square feet. It’s a ranch style: three bedrooms, two baths. It has an oversize, three-stall garage,” he said. “We will sell that here in Sparta for under $160,000 with the lot,” he said.

Different disabilities require different solutions, and Sable is also customizing its Freedom Foundation homes based on the individual buyer’s needs. One home was created with special door levers and a microwave built into the kitchen island for a woman in a wheelchair with limited hand use, Bitely said.

That’s good news for a number of underserved markets, he said.

“We’re using this technology not only in the world of disability, but also aging … for those who are retiring and they don’t want to ever move from their home, and they know as they get older steps are a problem or they’re going to need a wheelchair. This can eliminate all of those barriers.”

One of the most important affordable housing needs for people with disabilities is that the homes be both accessible and integrated into good neighborhoods. These houses are more likely to be built in areas connected to transportation, including the bus transit system, Bitely said.

“With some budgets, home buyers requiring accessible homes are limited to modular homes, or worse, homes that do not fully meet their needs, due strictly to foundation costs,” said David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County.

“The Freedom Foundation will provide barrier-free living at a more affordable price point for many, many families.”

One individual who appreciates Sable’s new mission on a personal level is Bri Keeshan, owner of a home that features a Freedom Foundation.

“Having a home that is designed to meet my needs impacts my daily life in many ways,” Keeshan said. “Ever since my car accident in 2009, all I’ve ever wanted was to live ‘normally,’ and win my freedom back. Although things aren’t exactly the way they used to be, having this home has put me, and my life, in the right direction.”

Builders discuss lack of skilled workers before House committee

Builders discuss lack of skilled workers before House committee

Youth Employment Standards Act hinders minors from working construction jobs.

By Mike Nichols

Could the lack of available skilled labor currently facing West Michigan’s construction industry be partially solved with a legislation change?

Members of the Home Builders Association of Michigan testified earlier this month before the State House. In a hearing held Feb. 5, they urged the House Workforce Development Committee to enact legislation to help increase the number of people entering the skilled trades.

The hearing comes on the heels of HBAM having completed its annual member survey of about 4,500 members. The survey found most HBAM homebuilders have a positive outlook for 2015, with about 90 percent of survey responders saying they expect business to go better this year than last year. But the issue of finding talent was still a major concern, with about 71 percent of HBAM’s members agreeing the biggest issue facing the industry is a workforce shortage, according to HBAM.

“Homebuilders in Michigan lost 60,000 jobs to the Great Recession. Literally, when the housing industry went south, so too did many of our workers,” said Dawn Crandall, public affairs director for HBAM.

“Fortunately, the industry is coming back, and there are good paying careers ready to be had. We will be working closely with Michigan policymakers and educators this year to increase the number of high school graduates seeking careers in the home-building industry.”

One of the members who testified Feb. 5 was John Bitely, owner of Rockford-based Sable Homes and co-chair of the Home Builders Association of Grand Rapids’ Next Generation Committee.

“The lack of workers going into the skilled trades is the biggest factor impacting the growth of Michigan’s home building industry,” he said. “The shortage of labor is resulting in construction delays and increased labor costs, and it’s dragging on our state.”

There are a couple of Michigan laws that make it unnecessarily “cumbersome” to hire younger workers, Bitely said.

He cited the Youth Employment Standards Act 90 of 1978, which essentially states that anyone under the age of 18 “may not work in any occupation deemed to be hazardous, which includes work on construction sites,” without parent, school and employer signed work permits, he said.

“(The) Youth Employment Standards Act 90 of 1978 defines a minor who is less than 18 years of age, including but not limited to employees, volunteers, independent contractors and performing artists,” according to Michigan.gov. “Minors under 18 years of age must obtain a work permit or have their school complete a training agreement before starting work. Work permits can be obtained from the school the minor attends or the school district where the minor will be employed. If the minor changes jobs, a new work permit is required for the new employer. A work permit may be revoked for poor academic performance. A work permit is required even if the minor does not attend school.”

The Act’s work permit process does more to hinder high-school students and the construction industry than it does to protect students, Bitely said.

“There are lots of high school students who could gain valuable work experience in the building industry over the summer, but the current law forces them into flipping burgers,” he said.

“With that in place, as a residential builder, I cannot hire ‘Johnny B. Tough’ to come carry lumber on my site or come seed the lawn because it’s a construction site. … The common joke I use is Pizza Hut. They will not let you cut the pizza unless you’re 18 years old. A lot of people don’t know that.”

Laws like this hurt the middle class, Bitely said, adding that such laws are a complete deviation from how many of the industry’s current leaders got their start.

“If you go back in years past, a bunch of us started our summer job with ‘Uncle Joe’ or ‘Neighbor Fred,’ and we got in his truck and helped out at a construction job,” he said.

“I cannot put a 16-year-old youth on a sawhorse and teach him how to use it. That’s considered too dangerous. But (they can) at Kent Career Technical Center in a shop class. Why can’t we do it in the field?”

Bitely said he was encouraged by the committee’s response, saying they seemed genuinely interested in working on the issue. He hopes they’ll act in time for his upcoming trade skills event for students, which is being held April 28 at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids.

The event — Career Quest — will highlight about 25 potential trades for the 2,000 West Michigan students expected to attend, ranging from 7th-12th grade.

Career Quest is being co-hosted by Michigan Works! and the Construction Workforce Development Alliance.

Bitely’s plans to combat the construction industry’s lack of labor goes back to 2013, when local leaders in the industry realized many workers had either aged out or left during the recession, and new talent wasn’t being trained.

Unless the problem is addressed soon, it could begin to slow the growth the area’s been enjoying lately, he said. That would become problematic for everyone.

“It’s going to stagnate us a little bit or greatly diminish the amount of growth and recovery that’s available. I don’t know any residential builder in West Michigan that isn’t ready to hire people or a design firm ready to hire. They cannot find people to fill the positions,” he said.

“(We want to be) telling young people, ‘There’s jobs for you and hope for you. I don’t want to be negative about college, but you can make a good living with us without student debt.’”

How Lower Mortgage Insurance Premiums will Affect West Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) — The housing industry has been steadily improving in West Michigan, and on Thursday, President Obama announced plans that could boost it even more by shaving the FHA mortgage insurance premium.

The President announced Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance premiums will be lowered by half a percentage point, from 1.35 percent to 0.85 percent which means more Americans can afford to become homeowners.

Karin Kay from Sable Homes joined WZZM 13′s Meredith Terhaar to share what this means for West Michigan.

Sable Homes Exceptional in Customer Service & Quality Builds

We pride ourselves on our quality customer service along with quality homes. It’s great to hear others are happy with the work we do! This is from our friend, Ryan Gardner of SVG Real Estate Firm:

Sable Homes Exceptional in Customer Service & Quality Builds

Affordable. Energy efficient. Trend-right.

These are just a few benefits of buying a Sable Home. The West Michigan based company has been making families proud to call these newly built houses ‘Home Sweet Home’ for over 10 years.

What sets Sable from other builders? Well, to begin, the people behind the company name are doing more than just building homes – they’re building abundant communities where families can live a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle in a safe and friendly environment.

Yes, as an experienced Realtor, I can confidently tell my clients that Sable stands out when it comes to quality homes as well as communities.

Let me give you an example – I recently worked with a first-time home buyer couple who was looking for affordable options for a quality new-build home. I suggested that we look into Sable Home communities, and the rest, as they say, is history. Our home search process took off as soon as we reached out to company representatives at Sable, where our dedicated representative made herself readily available on a daily basis. If I had a question that my home-buyer needed an answer to, I could count on our rep to offer prompt assistance. Working with Sable was 100% hassle-free. The service was beyond staggering. Sable makes the home-search and home-buying process smooth, simple and even fun.

Not only was my client happy with the service provided by Sable, the first time he toured one of their quality constructed home, he left wanting to write an immediate offer on what he called his “dream home.”

Given the level of service and ease of transaction, not to mention the home quality, I can proudly say I would work with Sable Homes many times in the future. Already I am referring many of my clients who are looking for new-construction to this remarkable company. Sable Homes is a true stand-out housing developer in the West Michigan community.

Thank you for the great review Ruth!

“Chris Anderson was wonderful to work with.  She was always available when we needed to ask a question.  I picked Sable on how the model looked and how Chris described the construction to me and how energy efficient the home was.  The siding color and the stone made the home so wonderful.  The granite on the island and kitchen counter top with the back-splash are just beautiful.  They are eye catching when you enter the home.  The archways in the dining room made it separate but very open to the rest of the house.  There is lots of storage space in the basement plus the partial finished area for whatever you choose to do with it.”

Ruth Evans – Scotsmoor II – Caledonia, MI


Sable Homes sees major construction spurt

Our president John Bitely was interviewed by Mike Nichols of the Grand Rapids Business Journal to discuss Sable Homes’ recent growth spurt and how we got to where we are today.

Sable Homes sees major construction spurt

Mike Nichols – Grand Rapids Business Journal

There are bad problems to have and there are good problems to have.

John Bitely currently has what he believes are a number of very good problems. He can attribute those “problems” to being the owner of Sable Homes, a Rockford-based residential development firm that has been seeing phenomenal growth in recent years.

2013 was a breakthrough year for Sable, a year in which the company built and sold more homes than ever before, Bitely said. In the years before and during the Great Recession, the firm sold about 25 to 30 houses a year, he said, a number the firm was comfortable with maintaining.

In recent years, however, that average has changed dramatically.

“We finally broke the 100-homes market last year. Last year, we sold 100 homes and we built about 10 percent more than that,” Bitely said. “If we wouldn’t have gotten buggered up by municipalities, we were on a pace to build 140 this year. As we get things ironed out, we’ll get there.”

Professional Builder Magazine recently ranked Sable No. 285 on its annual House Giants list, which includes 293 of the nation’s largest builders.

Sable has the potential to grow its home sales and builds by about 20 to 30 percent for the next three to five years, Bitely said. The growth is good, but it’s one of those “good problems,” he said.

“Most companies, if you’re growing more than 20 to 30 percent per year, those are numbers that make people pretty nervous,” he said.

Sable’s growth found its roots in the intense “grow or die” environment of the Great Recession. When the housing market was hit hard, the firm found it needed to expand its market area to keep its head above water.

“If we go back before the crash, we were selling 25 to 30 homes a year. … We were a big frog in a mud puddle,” Bitely said. “We traveled further to do (jobs), but after we had already begun travelling, we stayed in those areas.”

Need drove Bitely to create a system that became a production. Housing is like manufacturing in the fact that it is systematic and needs to be controlled, he said. Although the firm originally kept to the northern region of Greater Grand Rapids, it began to do business as far south as Wayland and as far north as Cedar Springs, he said.

“(The Great Recession) forced us to be a larger company today than we ever intended to be, because we had to expand into the markets to survive,” he said. “Well, when it turned around we were already there working and we had put these systems in place to reinvent ourselves into a larger company.”

Bitely believed if he could figure out how to build and sell houses under the adjusted prices, Sable Homes would survive the recession. Sable pushed hard to keep its volumes up through the downturn, and when the weight of economic turmoil were lifted, the firm found itself sprinting ahead.

“We paid our price to survive. … What wound up happening is we gobbled up market share as other people left the business,” he said.

“The homes we were delivering two to four years ago are going to go down in our history as the ‘Vanilla Age.’ There weren’t a lot of options. It was housing, and people could only afford to house themselves — and we built a lot of plain vanilla. But vanilla ice cream is still better than no ice cream. Now we’re building Moose Tracks and Cookies ’n Cream.”

The unexpected sudden growth of Sable Homes created a number of good problems, Bitely said. The Great Recession changed everything in the real estate industry, and the issues facing Sable are issues construction companies nationwide are attempting to address, he said.

“The problems we’re dealing with today are very different than the problems we dealt with three years ago,” he said. “They’re good problems, but still problems.”

The first major issue is a labor shortage, Bitely said. The industry currently needs more carpenters, cement layers, dry wall installers, roofers, electricians and other types of tradesmen, he said. Many of these jobs are trade jobs that are traditionally a younger person’s job. Often, subcontractors will hire teenagers to help out during the summer, and many of them eventually become part of the trade, he said. By the time they are in their late 30s or early 40s, they’re no longer “running and gunning” out on the job, but are in management or running a crew, he said.

However, during the recession, subcontractors weren’t as likely to hire teenagers as extra help, Bitely said, and some of the men in their late 30s and 40s — men who had families relying on them — wanted to get out of construction and into safer industries. That created a vacuum that is now a labor shortage.

“With the crash, we didn’t train people for six years, so we don’t have 18- to 20-year-olds in the cycle, and now we have no 40-year-olds because they got out,” he said. “A lot of people were jaded. We’ve got a lot of that because that last crash was so bad. Traditionally in West Michigan, we don’t get hit as hard (by national economic ups and downs), but this time, we led into the recession.”

The industry now has to train new workers and spark interest in the trades, Bitely said, adding that since there’s such a pent-up demand for work, he strongly believes it’ll be a long time before work runs out.

Sable is one of the firms looking to get key people hired right now, he said.

“We’re at max expansion right now. Businesses can only grow so much a year without having maxed out at the amount we can grow right now,” he said. “Our growth is controlled by how fast we can grow, be successful and not overextend it. I’ve got enough, but I’m not overstaffed and I’m still looking for key people.”

Another major issue is with the municipalities, he said. It takes about two years to get through all the procedures of land development in Michigan, he said, which means the current shortage of housing will not be cured any time soon because demand will continue to outstrip supply, leading consumers to face an uptick in prices.

“(There’s too many) systematic regulations that require a box to be checked and not enough people to check the boxes,” he said. “And they can’t hire enough people to check the boxes because of their budgetary restraints.”

As for the future, Bitely said he’s undecided about how much longer he will continue to run his business. In the next five years, he’s considering either selling Sable Homes or handing it off to his daughter, who is currently studying sustainable business at Aquinas College and works as Sable’s assistant general manager.

One thing is he certain about, however, is that residential construction is back in West Michigan and will be for a long time.

“We’re going to get by and we’re going to be strong. It’s going to be great industry to be in for a number of years,” he said. “There’s lots of work for those of us already here. We’re going to be busy for a while.”