Friday, January 16, 2009
Is Deck House closing its doors after 50 years?
Carlisle homeowners were surprised to learn before Christmas that Empyrean International, the Acton builder of Deck House, had closed suddenly and is in State Court receivership. The private company had undertaken restructurings, layoffs and new product introductions in an attempt to revitalize its business. However, chief executive and principal owner Patrick Gilrane said in an article in the Boston Globe (“Prefab Pioneer Folds,” 12/24/08) that the firm could not survive the Wall Street financial collapse which had led to order cancellations and darkened the outlook for new business. Many now wonder: after almost 50 years, will this be the end of the Deck House?
Stoneham Savings Bank is seeking $7 million it loaned to Empyrean over the past year. Other lawsuits may be forthcoming from suppliers and from customers who pre-paid, although most were insured. The receiver, Attorney Stewart Grossman, is seeking a buyer for the company. The Globe article notes there has been interest, and Grossman is hopeful Empyrean can be revived.
Molly Tee, who was among those abruptly laid off, worked for Deck House/Empyrean for 32 years as a sales and design representative. On Saturday afternoon I visited her Deck House on River Road, a prime example of the environmentally-integrated, woody style. Through the windows we viewed her expansive garden and pond as she looked back on her unique career and speculated on the possible future of Deck House.
Deck House was founded in 1959 by William Berkes who lived on Long Ridge Road in Carlisle until his death in 1991. Berkes was a disciple of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus school of design. He focused on developing pre-fabricated homes to fit a natural landscape. In 1995 his company merged with Acorn Structures, another home manufacturer, and in 2003 became Deck House LLC. The firm was renamed Empyrean International in 2005, and a new modernist product line called Dwell Homes was introduced. The Empyrean website notes that over 20,000 Deck/Acorn/Dwell homes have been built in North and South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Over the years, the firm had seen a number of ups and downs. Tee says the merger with Acorn was not well-handled, and for awhile “there was more competition between the two [divisions] than when they were separate companies.” Sales representatives for many years were dedicated to one product and could not sell the other. And when the company was bought by Gilrane five years ago, it accrued a debt burden that limited flexibility in a down market.
Attempts to modernize the company’s image may have contributed to its failure. According to Tee, the new Dwell product was rushed, and required more on-site work than the old lines. “It wasn’t an affordable house,” she says. But the final blow, believes Tee, was the name change to Empyrean. It confused potential customers and wasted a corporate asset, the recognition and positive image of the “Deck” and “Acorn” brands.
Tee believes the company had a solid niche with the buyer who wanted a unique home without the cost of custom design. She describes the Deck customer as ”a little eccentric, different, do-your-own-thing.” Empyrean homes were made up of paneled components that allowed for design flexibility, what Tee describes as “custom within a pallet of design and details.” The company specialized in consulting with clients to develop their own designs, which could include such oddities as a pet-friendly shower or a shooting range. In addition, each design took maximum advantage of landscape features and the solar direction of the building site.
Tee loved her job, which allowed her to exercise her creativity and meet a variety of interesting people, including engineers, inventors and sports stars. For example, she worked for seven years on the design of a 30,000-square-foot home for Dean Kamen, founder of Segway, that included a geothermal pond and helicopter pad. While enjoying the challenge of that project with no limitations, she says it took time to explore all the possible tangents. As a result, she laughs, “I love limits now.”
Looking back over 32 years, Tee says, “It was a gift to have a job I would do even if I didn’t get paid.” In fact, she’s not getting paid as she continues to work with stranded customers to locate new sources of materials. On the plus side, most customers had performance bonds, and many are finding they can save money with alternate sources. Tee jokes that, if nothing else works out, she may continue to work with customers and start a website called “Life after Deck.” But, she quickly adds, “I think the company will be back in some form.”
In the meantime, Tee advises customers with questions to send them her way. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 1-978-369-5092. The website (www.deckhouse.com) refers inquiries to receiver Steve Grossman at email@example.com. ∆
© 2009 The