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Vermont Timber Works rebuilding after headquarters burns down

  • Rich Savoyski, of Andover, Vt., plots a line before cutting a tenon on a beam at Vermont Timber Works in North Springfield, Vt., Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. The company is temporarily operating out of a rented 53,000 square foot space while rebuilding its headquarters that was destroyed by fire last September. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Doug Friant, of South Londonderry, Vt., left, and Dan Kelleher, of Manchester, Vt., started Vermont Timber Works together in 1987. The co-owners stood for a portrait in the 53,000 square foot space they are renting for the business while rebuilding their headquarters nearby that was destroyed by fire last September. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Rich Savoyski cleans up a tenon after cutting the joint into a Douglas fir beam at Vermont Timber Works in North Springfield, Vt., Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Drafter Amos Delay, of Charlestown, makes corrections on a set of plans for a timber frame home at the temporary headquarters of Vermont Timber Works in North Springfield, Vt., Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • A small timber framed entryway was the only piece of the Vermont Timber Works headquarters that survived a fire in North Springfield, Vt., last September. The company is constructing a new 16,000 square foot building, expanding by 2,300 square feet around the original footprint. It is expected to be complete by mid-summer. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 2/1/2020 7:43:45 PM
Modified: 2/3/2020 1:07:42 PM

NORTH SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Doug Friant was about to bunk down in his sailboat on Lake Champlain on a warm September night when his phone rang. On the line was his business partner, Dan Kelleher, with news.

Kelleher was on-site at their business, Vermont Timber Works, and called Friant to tell him their headquarters in North Springfield, where they designed and cut timber frames for their building business, was “fully engulfed in flames” and burning to the ground.

Friant said last week he didn’t recall his reaction when learning the news but he immediately did two things while his boat was moored overnight on the lake: First, he called the company’s insurance agent, and then he reached out to Bob Flint, head of the Springfield Regional Development Commission, to ask his help in finding temporary quarters for the company until they figured out what to do next.

Flint secured Vermont Timber Works 53,000 square feet of space in an underutilized building that once was the home of machine tool maker Fellows Gear Shaper Co. in an industrial park in North Springfield, nearly next door to VTW’s now-destroyed building on Fairbanks Road.

“There were probably six to seven projects in the pipeline at the time, in design, fabrication and various stages of construction,” Friant recalled. “Fortunately, our clients were very understanding.”

The past four months have not been easy for Vermont Timber Works, the company that the two University of Vermont housemates-turned-carpenters began 33 years ago.

Initially working out of Friant’s home in South Londonderry, Vt., as a general contractor, the partners later relocated their business to Springfield, attracted by the area’s workforce in the construction trades, and have since grown the company into one of the country’s most admired builders of custom timber frame homes and buildings.

Although commonly thought of as a builder of homes, about 65% of Vermont Timber Work’s business is for the commercial and public market: ski lodges, hotels, restaurants, barns, college dining halls, churches and park pavilions. Most of the company’s commissions are in New England — iconic projects include the Interstate 91 Guilford rest stop in southern Vermont and Spruce Peak Base Lodge in Stowe — but customers have been as far afield as Bermuda and Belize.

Friant estimates they have completed “hundreds” of buildings over the past three decades.

But two weeks ago Friant and Kelleher watched as work crews began erecting the walls on the foundation of their former headquarters. The roof trusses are expected to be placed within a few days, weather permitting, and the partners hope to move with their 16 employees into the new 16,000-square-foot facility by this summer.

“Dan and I are spending a lot of time designing and building that is taking us away from our core business,” said Friant (the partners are working as their own general contractors on the project, which they estimate is saving them $400,000). “Until we get back into the new building, we won’t be fully recovered.”

Investigators determined that the Sept. 21, 2019, three-alarm fire was caused by spontaneous combustion from waste materials such as sawdust and dirty rags that ignited in a Dumpster on the company’s loading dock. In addition to the building being destroyed, Friant said they suffered a $600,000 loss in “equipment and contents.”

“The trucks burned up, the forklifts burned up, we lost our computers, all office equipment, years and years of records. Pretty much everything,” he said.

(One good thing about cloud-based storage of information, however, is that “we didn’t lose our electronic data,” Friant said.)

For the past four months, Vermont Timber Works has been working out of offices once occupied by defunct kiosk maker Kiosko. True to their trade, employees have set up makeshift desks by laying flat boards across sawhorses.

Vermont Timber Works specializes in the design and building of timber frame buildings, the pieces of which — beams, trusses and joinery — are fabricated at the company’s gymnasium-size workshop in North Springfield and then shipped on a flatbed trailer to the construction site, where they are assembled.

“They are a unique animal, a niche company that does amazing work,” Flint, a longtime development official in Springfield, said about Vermont Timber Works. “They are not the carpenter who is going to show up in a pickup truck.”

One client, Mark Lunstead, a managing director of Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York, had commissioned Vermont Timber Works to fabricate a pavilion roof over an outdoor hot tub he was installing at his home in Winhall, Vt., near Stratton Mountain Resort, which he humorously describes as “not just a hot tub, but finding the most possible way anyone could spend” money on an outdoor hot tub.

The beams and posts were being fashioned in Vermont Timber Works’ workshop and were two weeks away from delivery when the fire struck. Lunstead received a call a couple days later that “everything had burned to a cinder.”

But he said the company was unflappable in the wake of the devastation.

“They said we have every confidence that we can get it together,” even though Vermont Timber Works would have to begin again from scratch. Lunstead said the initial plan called for the Douglas fir timber pavilion to have been completed by last November, although now they are targeting and April or May date.

“They were actually pretty bullish,” the Merrill Lynch honcho said in amazement. “They said we have every confidence we can get it together,” and Lunstead even said that, given the pressure Vermont Timber Works was putting on itself, he let them know he could afford to wait until the spring.

“They are nothing but the most professional,” said Lunstead, who noted that he first learned about the Springfield company through contractors in Vermont he had worked with in the past.

Friant said he is extremely grateful for how Springfield and Vermont businesses responded to help them get back on its feet after the fire — from providing conference rooms, access to blueprint machines and office equipment to regularly sending over sandwiches, coffee and refreshments during the cleanup process.

“The outpouring from the community was tremendous,” Friant said.

One area that has proved frustrating to Friant, however, is the “use tax” that the company has had to pay to the State of Vermont for the purchase of new equipment. He was so upset about it that he sent off an editorial to local media organizations outlining the impact.

In order to rebuild, Friant said, Vermont Timber Works has had to pay $12,000 in permit fees, $5,000 to register new trucks to replace the ones destroyed in the fire and $36,000 in use tax — the tax paid to the state for purchases made out of state — on the $600,000 in equipment, from saws to forklifts, that was lost.

In total, it was some $83,000 in fees and taxes that the company would not have had to pay if it weren’t replacing what had been destroyed, according to Friant’s tally. Insurance picks up a portion of that, but the company is on the hook for the remainder (the building was under-insured, Friant acknowledged, but he said, “most companies are under-insured”).

“We talked to the Department of Taxes and they said, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is,’ ” Friant said.

Doug Farnham, policy director and economist at the Vermont Department of Taxes, said that he’s “sympathetic to the situation” of Vermont Timber Works, but he pointed out, “we don’t have a mechanism in law to address that.”

The law “would have to be statutorily changed,” Farnham said, and while the Tax Department might be “open to it,” any waiver “would have to be designed very carefully because it would be very difficult for the Department to administer.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

Correction

Vermont Timber Works is renting 53,000 square feet of space in a temporary facility in North Springfield. Vt., while it rebuilds following a fire last year. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the size of its temporary space.

 

 




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