Innovative, green building techniques are a longstanding family tradition at Dickinson Homes.
by Rebecca Tavernini '11 MA
In 1969, when Paul Santoni was about to graduate from NMU, his dad called him and his brother into his office. He was thinking of starting a modular home business. Would they like to join him?
“I was a business student, and I said I know one statistic: You have about a 20 percent chance of making it,” Paul ’70 BS told his father, Evo, at the family’s small lumberyard. “But if that’s what you want to do, Albert and I will work our butts off to make it successful.”
Nearly 50 years, hundreds of employees and thousands of homes, cabins, businesses and specialized structures later, through brutal downturns in the economy, that’s just what they did with Dickinson Homes, and their father’s pioneering method of building most of a house off-site.
“My dad had some health problems and in 1972 stopped working. But my brother and I kept driving forward. We could see that the potential in Dickinson Homes was so much greater than the lumberyard, so we sold it and expanded our pole barn to a 100,000 square-foot modular home production facility.”
Not to be confused with “manufactured” homes, such as mobile homes, modular homes comply to the same codes and standards as site-built homes, but are constructed in large sections in a climate-controlled facility. “When our homes leave, they are 70 to 85 percent complete, depending on design,” explained Santoni. “They then travel on specialized trailers to the building site and are placed on a foundation in a day or two by our crew, or partner subcontractors.” The Iron Mountain-based company also has dealerships in seven cities in upper and lower Michigan, and four in northern Wisconsin.
Currently, about half its market is second homes or lake homes. “There’s a trend of a lot of baby boomers retiring who want to come back to a more simple way of life, or who have never lived here, but find it attractive because of the land, water and medical services.”
He also sees a desire for greener, sustainable features, where modular construction happens to excel. “We’ve been doing this since the start,” he said. “Building inside introduces control. We use fewer materials, have 32 percent less waste than traditional site builds, and the materials are reclaimed and repurposed. A small piece of lumber left over from a bigger board will be used for a window gusset. Even the cut, cut, cut pieces are collected and used by employees to heat homes. When the structure is placed on site, it’s a very low-impact footprint.”
Toward an even simpler way of life, the family business has introduced a new line of tiny homes. Paul’s nephew Mario Santoni designed the 601-square-foot, glass-front beauty that sits near US-2 in their model village, alongside a few other life-size samples of their two dozen available plans. “HGTV has everyone asking about them,” said Mario, a project manager with Dickinson, who will soon take over the mantle of the company with his brother, Anthony.
We have at least ten people a day stopping to look, and many more during the evening. People are fascinated by them. I don’t know if we’ll sell a tremendous number, but it was a way to let people know what else we can do. We custom design for our northern conditions.”
In fact, customers' “napkin sketches” are the company’s most popular model. “We encourage that!” he said, adding that they have a trophy in the back room that will go to anyone who really stumps the designers and engineers with their requests. “It’s still there.”
Paul, who was armed not only with a degree in business marketing, but minors in economics and accounting—and once played against Mean Joe Greene as a tight end on the Wildcats ’67 (undefeated) and ’68 teams—said there are still many obstacles in today’s economic environment. Affordable employee health insurance is at the top of the list. His desire to take care of his employees is palpable. “We have so many wonderful long-time employees, who have been here 30, 40 years. It’s not just ‘our family,’ it’s the whole company that feels like a family to me. That’s been very important to us. You cannot build a business alone.”
In addition, he said, “We are competing for talent. Our educational system emphasizes college and computers, but there should be more of a focus on the trades. There are opportunities. Not everyone is cut out for that, but this country needs trades people. There are a lot of people who like working with their hands—and it’s very gratifying to see something you have built.”
When asked if he lives in a Dickinson Home, he replied unequivocally, “We all do.”