Building Big on a Small Scale
Building Big on a Small Scale
to the main business of Rehkemper & Son.
The St. Louis area is not a mountain wilderness. There are no dense forests. When you think of the massive-beam charm of a rustic lodge or the exposed-structure appeal of half-timber housing, you’re probably not thinking of the American Midwest.
Rick Kurwicki, who does the design and manufacturing of heavy timber products at Rehkemper & Son, might change your mind. “We don’t have any mountains here,” he said, “we just have a big muddy river.” Just that—and some absolutely stunning heavy timber trusses.
Heavy timber, both structural and decorative, is not the core of the Rehkemper business. The main plant, started by Jerome Rehkemper in 1975 and still owned and operated by him and his son Mike, builds conventional metal plate connected roof and floor trusses as well as wall panels. The company also supplies steel trusses, beams and even flooring to a six-state area around St. Rose, Illinois.
When Kurwicki’s expertise is called for, he’s generally not alone on the project. “Most of the timber construction around here,” Kurwicki explained, “is hybrid construction: timber trusses on conventional walls.” That pairing of heavy timber with conventional truss framing works well for Rehkemper. Even though the market for heavy timber is a niche, it’s surprisingly wide-ranging. Rehkemper’s heavy timber shows up on both residential and commercial buildings, in high-end housing, hotel entryways, and even outdoor structures like pergolas and gazebos.
Heavy timber, Kurwicki said, is “touchy-feely stuff.” It provides the luxury vibe that people associate with going on vacation. “It’s the look. It’s the feel. When it’s done right, it really stands out.” And because heavy timber trusses dominate any space they’re used in, it’s important that Rehkemper maintain close customer relationships to get all the details right, even when that goes against the grain of standard procedure. For example, some customers beg for Kurwicki’s worst pieces of wood. “They want the super rugged look,” he explained; they don’t want their heavy timber trusses to have the same smooth polish and perfect finish of their kitchen cabinets.
“Nothing is hidden,” Kurwicki noted, which means Rehkemper is always ready to go above and beyond in terms of customer service. An up-front attention to detail is critical because a heavy timber truss is both a significant investment and an ever-present feature. If homeowners choose heavy timber for an entrance or ceiling, Kurwicki said, “they’ll see it every day.”
The high-visibility of the exposed structure makes every project a showpiece and a soft sales pitch for Rehkemper products and services. Whenever a project is finished, there are inevitably follow up questions from homeowners and contractors throughout the area who suddenly realize new possibilities for future building. “Once it’s up and on their house, it’s really cool,” Kurwicki said—and one happy homeowner can lead to a string of interested friends and neighbors. They come to Rehkemper asking about timber, and might leave with a complete truss package.
Spread the Word
Generating buzz is always a critical part of making a sale, but that’s even more true of heavy timber trusses. The best result of word-of-mouth advertising, Kurwicki explained, “is when I can get face-to-face with the homeowners and their architect.” That in-person discussion is the foundation of the customer relationship and a way to build market share for Rehkemper.
Talking to architects helps Kurwicki build a base of professionals in his market who have Rehkemper products in mind. Heavy timber in particular is a now-or-never decision. “If you don’t design it in when you build the house,” Kurwicki said, “you can’t go back and do it later. There’s no good way to fake it. They make the plastic and Styrofoam beams, but they don’t look like wood.” The more familiar architects become with Rehkemper products, the more their drawings reflect those options from the start. The next step is really making the possibilities clear to the customer. “When you’re in the business, you know what it’s going to look like,” Kurwicki explained. “It’s every day for us; it’s once in a lifetime for them.”
It’s the everyday experience Rehkemper has had over past few decades that lets Kurwicki help customers make those once-in-a-lifetime decisions. “You see things cycle through the years,” Kurwicki explained. A particular truss style will become wildly popular (he says curved bottom chords are in right now, at least in the St. Louis area) only to be replaced by a new style a few years later. Familiarity with a wide variety of truss shapes and sizes makes it easy, Kurwicki said, to create 3D renderings that capture customers’ desired look for a finished building.
He can even offer stylistic or budget-conscious options, such as cosmetic timber trusses that sit underneath conventional truss framing. "A cosmetic design can be cheaper because I can make one part thinner or eliminate some webs. You still get the look, but you don’t get the massiveness of the timbers. Instead of a six by eight, you might go down to a six by six to try not to overpower everything in the room.”
Of course, there’s always the other end of the spectrum: customers who “want everything 12x12. They want the really heavy look.” That’s overkill, Kurwicki said, and he won’t go any bigger than 12x16. At that point, though, it’s not just the homeowner that he needs to work with. Building officials are another audience that is often unfamiliar with with the unique products Rehkemper offers.
“You have to explain timber trusses,” Kurwicki said. “What it usually comes down to is the mounting of the trusses on the walls.” He says triple studs are sometimes necessary to support the extra weight of the timbers, but the timbers also tend to have bigger spans than conventional trusses so there aren’t as many to be supported in any given project.
The extra work that it inevitably takes to get heavy timber trusses through the code compliance inspection process, particularly in commercial applications, is worth it. There is “always a bit of learning curve,” with heavy timber trusses, Kurwicki said, “because not everyone is that familiar with them.” Just like any other business or product line, though, Rehkemper has found that educating the market about what you can do is the way to open new opportunities.
Of course, market education is a two-way street. Rehkemper entered the heavy timber business only because customers were asking for it. About a decade ago, Kurwicki recalled, heavy timber details started showing up on house plans. As Rehkemper saw more and more projects that included heavy timber, Jerome and Mike Rehkemper began to see it as a viable product they could be selling themselves, one that was both a good fit and an innovative support for their main business.
“Delivery really isn’t that bad,” Kurwicki said. The pieces can be loaded onto the same trucks Rehkemper uses for conventional trusses. “With all the design being in house here,” Kurwicki added, as well as his own understanding of what his software and saw can achieve, the suite of services Rehkemper offers lets them come as close as possible “to the homeowner’s or architect’s idea of what they want.” Rehkemper is ideally placed, Kurwicki said, to help those with a vision for the building find a balance between “what’s pretty and what will work.”
The customer service aspect is at the heart of why Kurwicki’s unique position exists. What the Rehkempers realized, Kurwicki explained, was that “if you can’t apply heavy timber framing along with conventional, [customers will] find someone who can. People want a one-stop shop.”
Growing up in the construction business, Jerome Rehkemper had the foresight to see trusses as the future of the building industry. Today, Mike Rehkemper continues to differentiate the business by making it an all-in-once resource. Few building and component suppliers in the St. Louis area do heavy timber framing, Kurwicki said. When customers find they can get the heavy timber and everything else they need for the project in one place, they’re thrilled.
The unique sideline business has also opened up connections between Rehkemper and the handful of other companies that have ventured into heavy timber framing. “It’s actually a friendly relationship,” Kurwicki explained, “because there’s a limited amount of people that do it and rarely do we go into each other’s territory.” In fact, the small world of heavy timber framing is made up more of collaborators than competitors. Kurwicki admits that at least once he’s had to pass along work, “because I was swamped and they had an open schedule.”
Sharing the burden of volatile demand, somewhat inherent to both the building and manufacturing industries, has been positive for everyone. “It’s kind of a hit and miss thing,” Kurwicki observed, but in today’s recovering, post-recession housing market, it’s been more hits than misses. “This has been a pretty good year so far,” Kurwicki said. People seem willing to spend a little extra on high-end details, like a heavy timber entry way or exposed trusses in a foyer.
Rick might puzzle over a design challenge for days, but he knows that when he’s truly stumped, he can always turn to Jerome Rehkemper (pictured at right with Rick). With decades of experience, Jerome is the “wise old carpenter of knowledge” who can figure out the most complicated issues. Also, Rick’s road to a job that so perfectly blends his interest in a challenge with his remarkable ability to get a machine working in just the way necessary to turn a design into reality was hardly smooth.
“When I started working for Rehkemper, I was doing conventional trusses,” Rick explains. “I came out of the plant, and I became a crane operator.” Then there was a wrench in the works: “a nasty little brain tumor,” as Rick puts it, and the drug treatment side effects put a quick end to his career operating heavy machinery.
“After they got that thing yanked out of my head,” Rick recalls, he was kind of at a loss; fortunately, Rehkemper was there for him. “Mr. Rehkemper had seen this timber saw,” Rick remembers, and he came to Rick with a proposition: “‘If you figure it out, you got a job.’ So,” Rick says, “I figured it out.”
Today, Rick says of running the Reh-kemper heavy timber division, “I’m just in this to have fun.” He’s also proof of the claims on the Rehkemper homepage: that the father-and-son owners pride themselves on their people as well as their products, and that no job is too big, too small or too niche for them to take on.
About the Author: Dale Erlandson joined SBCA staff last fall as the assistant editor of SBC Magazine. She has written for a variety of publications over the last decade and thrives on the challenge of learning something new and passing that knowledge along through the written word.