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Precision was the key to building house in 99 hours

Building a spacious two-story house for the Swenson-Lee family in Minnetonka in six days required a dedicated crew and a plan with no wiggle room.
By Kevin Duchschere, Star Tribune
Last update: August 28, 2007 – 9:52 PM

So, just how do you build a 5,600-square-foot custom home, landscaped and completely furnished, in only six days' time? Simple, said Tom Budzynski, owner of TJB Homes Inc. of Blaine. You need a working schedule that breaks down the job hour-by-hour and a team of building partners that can stick to that pace or exceed it.

In the case of the Swenson-Lee home in Minnetonka, TJB and its 200-plus crew of contractors and subcontractors went beyond expectations. "Extreme Makeover" producers had asked that the house, the biggest in the show's history, be built in 106 hours. "It was a very scary goal," Budzynski said Tuesday.

But he turned the keys to the house over to the design team on Monday afternoon, after 99 hours of construction labor. Budzynski declined to discuss how much the house might cost on the market, but allowed that it certainly wouldn't sell for less than a million.

TJB is a family business, and leadership on the project reflected that. The mastermind behind the construction schedule was Budzynski's son Jason, who served as senior project manager. He was assisted by Budzynski's brother Rick and another son, Justin, who was site supervisor. Budzynski's daughter Tiffany was volunteer coordinator.

The walls were prefabricated off-site, so they would be ready to go. And Budzynski required all workers to be ready on the job site two hours before they were scheduled.

Outside, the house is a Craftsman-style two-story, painted taupe with sage and redwood trim and chocolate shingles, with a three-car garage and a porch set off with white squared columns. Inside, the house has seven bedrooms and five bathrooms, and its decor is said to be more contemporary and eclectic, in some rooms reminiscent of a Manhattan loft design. And it comes with a stained-glass window, a feature in every TJB home.

It's "a six-month house," Budzynski said, that was assembled in six days. A ccording to him, here's how they did it:

Once the family is gone, their personal belongings are packed and moved. At 2 p.m., the demolition crew arrived with volunteers from a local church to strip the old house of valuable materials -- wood trim, doors, windows and so on -- that can be reused. Some neighbors readily agreed to help.

The crew marched onto the site, in "Braveheart" fashion, under arches created by four large backhoes. At noon, each backhoe took a corner of the house and began to tear into it; in 20 minutes, the old house was no longer standing. It took until 4 p.m. to clear the hole, and then work began on footings for the new house.

The crew had until 7 a.m. to finish surveying the site, putting in the footings, installing the wall panels, pouring concrete for the walls, waterproofing the foundation and then backfilling around it. They finished at 5:45 a.m. The concrete is an exceptionally strong, heavy-duty variety used for bridges and skyscrapers that hardens faster than the type typically used for houses.

Framers began at 7 a.m. to put up the walls, floors and windows. By 6 p.m. the basement was covered, and the mechanical crews -- electricians, plumbers, heat and air workers -- moved in. At one point Friday night, an estimated 450 people were working on the house. By midnight, the house was totally framed, complete with roof and shingles.

The mechanical crew finished its work at 2 a.m., making way for the insulation crew, which needed only an hour to do its job. At 4 a.m. the Sheetrock crew arrived -- 160 people to unload, hang and tape the panels. The work took five hours. Outside the house, the siding people began working at 4 a.m.

At noon, work began on inside trim -- woodwork, cabinets, doors. Painters began work on the exterior in the afternoon and on the home's interior about 7 p.m. Landscapers began work on the yard.

As painting and landscaping work continued, pavers were laid by hand for the driveway. Interior trims -- wooden floors, ceramic tiles, countertops -- were installed.

At 6 a.m., trimmers finished woodwork and tiles. Carpeting was laid, and some painters returned for touchups. By midafternoon the landscaping was finished. At 3 p.m. the builders turned the keys over to the designers, who worked on customized designs and furnishings for each room.

"It was a good old-fashioned barn-raising," Budzynski said.

Extreme Makeover: Minnetonka Edition

By Adam Johnson, F&C Staff Writer
August 28, 2007

How do you build a house in four days that would normally take six months to complete?

That’s the challenge that underpins each episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and the latest project in Minnetonka is no exception.

Overseen by Blaine-based TJB Homes, workers began demolishing the existing home of the winning family — Vicki and Erik Swenson, their three children and four adopted children — at 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning. In its place, a 5,600-square-foot showcase was completed at noon Monday, and interior designers are scheduled to complete the finishing touches early today.

The house is smaller than the show’s design team originally envisioned, due to required setbacks and a portion of the secluded property that is considered wetland. But it’s still a thing of opulence in a corner of Minnetonka that doesn’t normally boast such extravagance.

Virtually all of the labor and supplies were donated, including the landscaping plan that includes a hot tub, “outdoor kitchen” area and waterfall that contains boulders from the home of a relative. On-site workers estimated the landscaping alone would cost more than $200,000.

“You can’t even imagine how much this thing would cost,” said Tom Budzynski, owner of TJB Homes. “It’s way beyond what you would expect for something like this.”

The amenities in the seven-bedroom, five-bath home are impressive. But what’s most amazing is the pace at which the house was built.

“We put together a schedule that breaks down into half hours, where on a normal project it would be days and weeks,” Budzynski said.

Of course, there are physical limitations that prevent traditional homes from being built in less than a week. That’s where some high-end materials came into play.

The process that needed the most acceleration was the concrete foundation. In a matter of hours, T&J Concrete of Ham Lake laid 125 yards of concrete that would have taken 10 to 14 days on a normal project. Using special high-performance concrete donated by Mendota Heights-based Cemstone, the material was able to achieve load-bearing strength within three hours.

Project officials said the process went smoothly, but the special concrete had to be rushed to the site quickly so it wouldn’t harden in the truck.

John Lee, who handles engineered sales for Cemstone, said the trucks received police escorts from Cemstone’s Minneapolis plant to the site, where the load was mixed with a non-chloride accelerator that made the material begin to set within minutes.

Such material would be cost-prohibitive on most houses, though it is sometimes used on specialty jobs and road construction projects that must be able to bear traffic loads within hours.

The material quickly achieved the strength of a normal foundation and will continue to gain strength far beyond what the project requires.

“The foundation is going to be very high strength as time goes on,” Lee said.

Other materials helped to overcome physical limitations inside the house as well.

Quick-drying Sheetrock mud, along with industrial fans and dehumidifiers, allowed workers to paint rooms almost immediately. A crew of about 140 Sheetrockers were able to hang, tape and sand a room in 20 minutes, Budzynski said.

The materials allowed workers to move on quickly, but the pace of the project’s round-the-clock schedule was fueled be sheer manpower.

“Some of it is the performance of our concrete, but it takes such strong coordination and effort between the various parties,” Lee said. “There’s really no margin for error.”

The house was framed in 14 hours by a volunteer team of 125 framers. More than 20 electricians moved through the house in eight hours, while inspectors were on call 24 hours a day to ensure the work was done properly.

And before the house was torn down Thursday morning, volunteers removed as much recyclable material as possible, from appliances to doors and windows. Much of it was in top condition, as the 1955 home had been largely remodeled within the past seven years.

“We had about 50 people in there just tearing stuff apart,” said Justin Budzynski, senior project manager on the site.

In all, several hundred volunteers were lined up in the span of a week or two. Eric Soe with Cemstone said the company lined up the concrete order in less than a week.

Dozens of local corporations, from Cub Foods to Target, donated endless supplies to the effort. But the work itself was done almost entirely by local builders.

Once TJB was approved to start building — by a phone call “out of the blue” from the show’s producers, who had heard of the contractor through a company that had worked with the show previously — the staff at TJB got on the phones and networked with counterparts and competitors to line up the volunteer work.

Tom Budzynski noted that the donations of time and supplies have been especially generous as builders face dramatically lower building activity this year. It was also a selling point, as the show gives local builders a platform to show the quality of their work and their character.

“This is something we can do for our community,” Tom Budzynski said. “This is also something we can do for our builder community.”

Show uses loophole to help winners avoid taking tax hit

By Adam Johnson, F&C Staff Writer
August 28, 2007

With the completion of the Swenson-Lee home in Minnetonka, ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has given 100 families mortgage-free homes beyond their wildest dreams. But how do the disadvantaged families avoid the heavy tax burden that comes with such a prize?

The show’s producers won’t disclose their contract agreements with the owners, and families contacted for this article said they had signed confidentiality agreements that prevented them from discussing it.

But tax documents first obtained by Newsweek in 2005, and later confirmed elsewhere, have revealed a clever contractual arrangement that allows families to accept the equivalent of a multi-million dollar home virtually tax free.

“If you win a prize on a game show, that’s explicitly stated to be income unless it’s excluded,” said Linda Beale, an associate professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit who has written about the show’s contractual process on her law blog.

On paper, the show’s “winners” — selected from thousands of entries nationwide — don’t technically receive any prizes. Instead, the “Extreme Makeover” crew rents the family’s existing home for one week and reimburses them with $50,000 for the use of the home.

That rent isn’t paid in cash, but rather with the high-end appliances and furniture that are installed in the house, from couch to stove to refrigerator. The fact that these items are considered “rent” is important, because the federal tax code includes a loophole for short-term rent agreements.

“It essentially states that if you rent your house out for less than 15 days, you don’t have to report the income for that period,” said Paul Linstroth with Leonard, Street & Deinard of Minneapolis, who specializes in real estate taxation.

That way, owners are also relieved of any tax liability for the improvements under a “leaseholder improvement” loophole. In principle, it’s the same as if a house sitter fixes the deck while the home owner is away.

Some tax experts, however, think there’s reason to be skeptical about the show’s arrangement.

“The catch here that is difficult is that this is often a knockdown and rebuild,” Beale said.

“When you level a building, is that within the spirit of the law of renting out property?” Linstroth said.

It turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to that question. But for the purposes of the show, it is assumed that the rental agreement is written to specifically apply to the property rather than just the family’s dwelling.

Once the house is built, “Extreme Makover” hands over the home mortgage-free. Of course, the opulent house that is left behind inevitably means a substantial rise in property taxes and general maintenance costs. But with no monthly mortgage payment, most families will save money as long as they plan ahead for tax time.

So a show that appears too good to be true at first glance really does leave families with a relatively low tax burden, considering what they’ve won.

“If you look at this and ask whether it’s within the black-and-white definition of the law, it would appear it is,” Linstroth said. “But is it within the spirit of the law? And is this good tax policy to let this [money] go? That’s less clear.”

Of course, while the appliances and furniture can be written off as rent on paper, few would argue that the home owners are winning a prize. The families must even enter for a chance to be on the show in the first place.

“I think the biggest drawback here is that prizes and awards are explicitly included as income,” Beale said. “What this hinges on more than anything is Section 74 [of the federal tax code] and whether this is a prize and award.”

Virginia Harn, a tax principal at LarsonAllen in Minneapolis, said it appears the show has structured its entire plan within this IRS exception, and there may be little precedent for what “Extreme Makeover” has done because its methods are so, well, extreme.

A lavish home is built within a window of 100 hours, which is virtually impossible to do without the organization and resources of a network television show. So while the tax shelter could be used for less altruistic reasons, it’s a process that’s unlikely to be duplicated often.

“I think there’s a bottom line to consider in this case, and that’s the fact that these are very sympathetic taxpayers,” Beale said.

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