By MIMI SWARTZ
When Karen Lantz, a Houston architect, was in high school, the Armco steel plant where her father had worked for two decades shut down.
“He was 47,” she said. “It was tough.”
He found other jobs, but the financial loss stung, and the family’s options became more limited.
Lantz put herself through community college and then architecture school at the University of Houston. Now 37, Lantz is a working architect, but in 2009, when she started planning her dream house in the grip of a recession, her father’s experience weighed on her.
People all over the United States were out of work; if she bought American-made products for the house, she could do her part. But how far could she take it? Was it possible to build a house entirely of products made in America?
Some things were easy. Lantz traveled to a quarry in Lueders, Tex., to find chocolate-brown limestone. The marble chips that made up her terrazzo came from Marble Falls. She found Heatlok Soy 200 foam insulation in Arlington and windows manufactured in Stafford. Other items required her to look further afield: Lantz bought shower drains from Iowa, a skylight made in South Carolina, hose valves made in Alabama, fences from California and baseboards from Georgia. She developed the skills of a private investigator.
Some companies would claim “Made in U.S.A.” when they had just a sales office in the U.S.; others claimed an American provenance when they were assembled here from foreign parts, like the pool finish that contained Australian sand.
Lantz’s toughest battles were over what she calls “the jewelry and accessories in architecture,” like appliances, faucets and lighting fixtures. “If you Google ‘made in U.S.A.,’ it can be bad,” she said. “It’s not high design. That’s what’s tough, and that’s what our industrial designers are weak on.”
So it was with the edge pulls: the handles that would fit flush along the face of cabinets made of shimmering, dark-hued sinker cypress reclaimed from Florida river bottoms. Lantz showed me two such pulls.
To my eye, they looked pretty much the same. Each had clean lines and a soft finish of gently weathered bronze. Each felt equally heavy in the hand.
“This one?” Lantz said, picking up the pull on the left and turning it over for my inspection. “From Italy. Nine dollars.” She picked up the one on her right. “This one?” She paused. “China. Four dollars.”
The U.S.-made pull that was closest to what she wanted cost $72. She called company after company trying to do better. When she asked why the American pulls cost so much more than those made overseas, the answers ranged from “We make them here” to “It’s a classic.”
Time passed; the cabinet installers grew restless. Finally, Lantz gave in and bought Italian. (She has tried to avoid Chinese products since problems with contaminated drywall surfaced in the early 2000s.)
“I needed 160 of them,” she explained. “It was a big price difference, and I just couldn’t do it. I tried, but I just couldn’t do it.”
Near completion on the house, Lantz estimates she came within 90 percent of her goal. In addition to the pulls, she gave in to sinks from Germany and faucets from Italy, and when Lantz fell in love with solar panels designed in Colorado but manufactured in China, she threw in the towel.
Lantz calculates that the cost of her Made in the U.S.A. house to a client — who would have to pay an architect, contractor, etc. — would come in at around $250 a square foot, more than some custom luxury homes in Houston but less than most. Lantz figures she made something of lasting value.
“I built it to be here 100 years,” she said. “But if the day comes, it’s all recyclable.”