Tilton, N.H. — On a wall in the office of Andy and Barbara Prokosch is a gallery of fuzzy color snapshots sent to them from an array of enthusiastic customers. Although taken in different locations the photos are all variations on a theme -- families engaged in the ultimate domestic project of building their own house.
The industrious people in the photos, some not yet out of grade school, are not ace carpenters by any means. Many had not previously wielded a hammer for anything more serious than hanging a picture or mirror on the wall.
Yet, with the aid of the Prokosches' carefully detailed housing kits, they are building sturdy structures that will stand up to rugged winters and the kind of wear and tear that families normally inflict on the places in which they live.
There are plenty of kit houses on the market these days -- everything from Lincolnesque log cabins to prefab suburban split-levels. But the houses from the company the Prokosches call Shelter-Kit, Inc. -- simple structures that can be erected by almost anyone on even roadless wilderness property -- are uncomplicated and the cost is low.
Unfortunately, however, the kits can only be economically shipped within a 200-mile radius of Tilton, N.H., where they are built. Ultimately, wider distribution may be possible.
Other companies also produce low-cost units, such as Dana McBarron & Sons of Lopez, Wash., which markets some cedar models as low as $10 a square foot.
Catalyst for the 10-year-old Shelter-Kit business came during the summer of 1969, when Andy Prokosch and his parents and three brothers built a cabin in the midst of an 80-acre New Hampshire woodlot. The design of the simple shelter was created by his father, Walther Prokosch, a well-known architect whose far-flung credits include the airports in Tehran and San Juan as well as the Pan American terminal at New York's Kennedy Airport.
"Doing something with my father particularly meant a lot," he adds. "Although he had been designing buildings all over the world since before I was born, that experience, because I got to share it, was the first time I had any idea of what his work was all about."
The enthusiasm of both father and son over the family effort led to a much-discussed idea -- the development of a method enabling other novice builders to erect their own vacation cabins or even year-round homes with a minimum of time, effort, and money.
The homes, they decided, should come in kits light enough to be carried, in a few trips, by two people deep into the woods or loaded onto small boats and transported to underveloped islands.
At the same time, the kits should include all the tools, materials, and instructions needed to build structures sturdy enough to withstand a harsh climate.
Fortunately, Walther Prokosch had also had considerable experience in designing small rustic cabins, including those at Laurance Rockefeller's Little Dix Bay resort in the Virgin Islands. And during the 1930s he had developed a system of prefabricated, low-cost housing.
Such background proved invaluable while planning the initial 12-by-12-foot structure now known as Unit One.
Fronted with sliding glass doors, the pine-clapboard building can stand by itself or serve as the nucleus for as many Shelter-Kit decks, enclosed porches, and other modular components as the owners care to add.
The creation of Shelter-Kit Inc. took two years, during which Andy Prokosch quit his job at an electronics firm in suburban Boston and moved with his new wife to the family cabin. While they built their company, the couple also built a home on nearby property, using the ideas they were formulating for their business.
The current Unit One took several prototypes to develop, the challenge being to simplify it as much as possible without compromising on durability.
On that building, just as with every other design since, each detail was checked by Ted Kwoh, a structural engineer specializing in wood.
With the design completed, the task fell to Andy of writing a construction manual that could be read and understood by someone not knowing a washer from a bolt. Flipping through the result reveals lucid instructions that cover every step of the way and include an illustrated glossary of any building terms used and what each part of the kit is for.
Jeanne Taylor, who does all of the company's graphics, provided illustrations that show precisely what each operation should look like.
For the slightly less than $3,000 purchase price of a Unit One, a customer gets a series of containers each weighing 100 pounds or less. Inside them are 46 bundles of spruce, pine, and exterior plywood, each piece marked and numbered , four glass doors and two screen doors, two windows, and four cartons of bolts, nails, aluminum angles and brackets, tar paper, and wood preservative.
All the tools needed are also supplied -- even two stepladders and two carpenter's aprons.
The result adds up to the shell of a house. The plumbing, wiring, insulation , heating system (a small wood stove does the job), and interior finish are up to the owner.
"Usually it costs the owner about $4,000 to $5,000 more to have a finished house," Andy says. "So, on the average, you're talking about $10,000 for the end result. What really keeps the cost down is that many owners, after building the shell, are confident enough to do some or all of the finishing work themselves."
Although Shelter-Kit can suggest various floor plans ranging in price from $3 ,200 to $13,700, the customer is free to design one that is unique.
Although Unit One and all of its various additions have largely been a success, some local customers have objected to their flat roofs.
"New Englanders just don't trust a flat roof; they think it will cave in with the snow," Andy explains. "Although that's not true at all, they feel more confident with our Lofthouse, which has a pitched roof.
"Our biggest challenge now is dealing with the ever-increasing costs of building materials and the corresponding decrease in their quality. We have managed to keep our prices under the inflation rate, but it's very hard."
Yet it is exorbitant costs -- in construction, real estate, and mortgage money -- that Andy believes are directly responsible for much of his business.
"Our construction costs average the builder about $8 per square foot, which compares to about $35 for most houses built by conventional means," he adds.
"In California those costs are closer to $60 a wuare foot."
To date most of the Shelter-Kit homes have been built in country settings, although not always in spots as remote as a Maine island. Andy says he doesn't foresee many of them springing up in metropolitan areas.
"Land there is too expensive and, as such, is not really compatible with this type of house," he adds.
While the Prokosches do not know of a way to ship the kits all over the country, they will deliver them anywhere within 200 miles of Tilton, where they are built.What can be shipped coast to coast is the newly devised Frame One, the skeleton of a Unit One to which builders add their own flooring, roofing, windows, and doors. It costs about $1,000 and is designed to take two people two days to build.
"Our construction is done on a modified post-and-beam frame, which means that the walls are not load-bearing," Andy Prokosch reports.
"Because of that they can easily be knocked out to accommodate new additions.
"It's possible, for example, to turn a simple Unit One into a nine-room house."