Posts Tagged ‘Tienanmen Square’

Building Houses In China

September 29, 2009

In the late 1990’s, I opened an office in downtown Beijing, China, near the intersection of Second Ring Road and Chang An Lu Boulevard, with a friend of mine from California, Tate Miller, who is currently the Dean of Advising, Careers and Student Services and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Tate had been living in Beijing for a couple of years and contacted me in 1997 to start a new business representing US building material companies in China. He would run the operation ‘in country,’ while I traveled back and forth between China and the US. Appropriately, we named our company “American Western Homes and Building Materials, Inc.,” and we represented several building material companies, including a family owned business called Precision Panel Structures located in Eagle, Idaho. Precision Panel manufactures Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs).

Although I enjoyed traveling throughout the country, I found China to be a very difficult place to do business, particularly if you are trying to sell and ship product to China. My experiences were parallel to some of the people in the book, “The China Dream,” a tale about Western business woes in China stretching back 700 years. However, after a couple of years of hard work, we finally found a customer who actually conducted business the way we preferred. As a result, we were the first Americans to build houses in China using Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) and all engineered lumber. And, even though the manager of the Chinese port held our shipment for a $10,000USD ‘ransom’ before he would release it, our customer was happy with the end result of the project.

This first project consisted of six homes in the northern part of Beijing in an area called “Fragrant Mountain,” a high end ‘neighborhood’ reserved for the Chinese political elite (The Presidential House is located in this area). Considering most every building in China is built using concrete, this sale was a major accomplishment. I helped build the shell of these six homes made from SIPs and all engineered lumber, mostly from Idaho manufacturers and suppliers. But, the primary construction managers were customers of mine from Idaho who also happened to be ex-Navy Sea Bees; they were used to working in unknown and difficult conditions and were eager to go to Beijing to work on this project. They considered it to be quite an adventure!

Consider this: it normally takes about 4 to 5 months for 25 to 30 guys to build the shell of a 4,000 square foot (approx 400 square meters) Villa out of concrete and bricks in the metro areas of China. We had sold these six homes to our customer telling him we could build all six shells, tight to weather, within 2 months from emptying the shipping containers. Our goal was aggressive, but we knew we could do it. What could go wrong, right? We had drawn and engineered the projects in Idaho, so we knew the houses (each one a different design) were fairly easy to build. All the pre-engineered wood was reliable to work with, and we bought trusses from one of the most experienced truss plants in BC, Canada (the only non-Idaho supplier, by the way). But, the fact there were no ‘formal’ plans for the development sent up the first red flag.
The Master Plan drawn in the mud for reference..... The ‘master plan’ (above) was drawn in the mud for our 2 man crew when they arrived on the site to get concrete slabs ready for the shipment from Idaho. Our guys had to know what they were going to build, right?

Despite the difficulties experienced on the job site (language barriers, minimal tools and equipment for building wood framed houses, etc.) in the end we easily met the schedule of erecting the shells of six homes in less than 2 months. We accomplished this goal with 2 Americans on the job site instructing 8 Chinese on how to build with our materials. After the shells were built, the finish materials were purchased ‘in country’ and it took another 3 or 4 months to complete every house to a move-in condition. To make it even more interesting, there were no ‘official’ building permits for this project….. This is a project I will never forget.

Because all of these homes were built using Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) for the shell of the structure, I know these were the most energy efficient modern-day homes built in China. And, quite possibly, they still are.

This is what I do now: Impact Imports


Meeting Zhang Zemin, the President of China

August 23, 2009

In the late 1990s and very early 2000’s, I co-owned and operated a business in Beijing, China with a partner in a company called American Western Homes and Building Materials. Because China had recently “opened up,” there was a huge influx of Western companies trying to capitalize on the (potentially) HUGE market in China. Needless to say, I took every opportunity I could to help get our little company get noticed, and trade missions with representatives of the state of Idaho were one way to accomplish this.

In 2001, I traveled throughout China with Idaho Senator Larry Craig, the Idaho Department of Commerce, Idaho University Presidents, the Idaho Department of Agriculture and other Idaho businesses. Although some trade mission attendees often find these trips to be unfruitful, I have always garnered extra business from them; maybe not immediately, but within 1 or 2 years as is usually the case in any Asian country.

On this particular trip, an opportunity arose giving me a ‘golden ticket,’ so to speak: I met then-President of China, Zhang Zemin in the Great Hall of the People in Tienanmen Square and snapped a hand shake picture with him. You might conclude from the picture that he was ‘camera ready’ while I was stumbling over some Mandarin Chinese…. this would be a correct conclusion. He really knew how to work the cameras and the room to his advantage. All of the trade mission participants then sat in the Great Hall of the People for about 1 1/2 hours discussing our businesses, doing business in China, etc. And, interestingly, there was NO security when we went into the Great Hall of the People. None. However, I quickly surmised that all of my stuff was probably inspected in my room at the Beijing Grand Hotel while I was attending meetings at the US embassy the night before.

This picture opened many doors for me and my business partner in China over the next few years. Keep in mind I am a free market, independent capitalist, so the best part of this meet with President Zhang was strictly for propaganda purposes to promote my business in China. 10 days later, I met the first democratically elected president of Taiwan and that was even more exciting to me.


By the way, this is what I do now: Impact Imports, USA