FREELAND, MICH. — Building, holding, and maintaining apartment complexes can be complicated business. Rent’s paid late, but the bills are still due. Equipment can fail and tenants will complain, inevitably at the least convenient moment. But none of this comes as a surprise to Jim Boufford, owner of Boufford Builders, JB Enterprise and Real Estate, and JB Rentals, all located in Freeland, Michigan. He’s been in the business for 20 years.

“We have 10 guys, and we build homes which we keep and rent to tenants,” said Boufford. Dow Chemical Company is also based in Midland, Mich., and the colossal firm works with a leasing agent to secure housing for their employees. As a result, half of Boufford’s units are under contract before they are under roof. All of his complete units are at capacity.

“Things have changed for us,” said Boufford. “We used to build a lot of single-family structures. Halfway through the last decade, that all changed. Single family just isn’t profitable. Now we do multi-family structures almost exclusively. When things aren’t working, I change the way we work.”

If it ain’t broke…

If Boufford is quick to alter his business plan when needed, he’s equally hesitant to change a good thing. His 15 year relationship with Answer Heating and Cooling is proof. Based in Freeland, Mich., Answer’s 46 employees handle all mechanical needs that Boufford’s companies may have. 

Answer and Boufford worked together through part of the 90’s, when it was hard to lose money on a business venture. A decade later, when the housing market dropped and the economic playing field shifted, the two companies refocused.

“We used to do 100 or more new homes each year with Answer,” said Boufford. “Now we build about 45 rental units every year. Answer is a great company, and I’ve no need to go looking for another contractor.” 

Their latest collaboration is Perry Creek Townhomes, a 38-acre development located about a mile from the Dow Chemical headquarters. One, two and three bedroom models are available in a row-home configuration. Phase one — which started in late 2011 — is now complete, with phase two well underway. The 24 complete units are all occupied, while most of the incomplete units are already under contract. When Perry Creek is finished, 300 families will call the subdivision home.

Changing the game plan

“The buildings at Perry Creek Townhomes have six rental units, each with an attached garage,” said Jeff Kipfmiller, sales manager for Answer Heating and Cooling. With models anywhere between 800-sq.ft. and 1,500-sq.ft., Boufford wanted to keep as much area as possible for living space. So Answer eliminated the need for a mechanical room.

Fujitsu ductless split systems heat and cool the homes, allowing Answer to remove all indoor equipment except the water heater. Evaporator units occupy only the smallest wall space while the compact condensing units reside outside. 

According to Boufford, another advantage of using mini-split systems was the ability to get rid of ductwork and crawlspaces. “At some of our other projects, we get complaints about the floors creaking. The only way to entirely eliminate that was to use slab-on-grade construction,” continued Boufford.  “Until now, we’ve just installed gas furnaces and 13 SEER AC units.”

According to Boufford, the utility gas in their area is relatively impure. The gas-fired furnaces in many homes can be a maintenance nightmare as the flame sensors constantly corrode. “I spoke with several manufacturers about the problems we were having, and none were willing to offer a solution,” said Boufford. “It was just one more thing that made the switch to the Fujitsu units an easy decision.” 

Split systems in a northern climate

“Since Boufford keeps the properties he builds, he has far more interest in the mechanical systems than most GCs would,” explained Kipfmiller. “Energy efficiency and ease of maintenance were definitely the main driving force behind the change in equipment.” The Fujitsu systems at the facility range from 18 to 27.2 SEER, dismissing the concern of efficiency almost immediately. 

“When we first looked at split systems, our concern was the ability to provide adequate heat in our climate,” he continued. Average winter low temperatures in Central Michigan are in the upper teens.

“We later learned of Fujitsu’s Halcyon line, which operates at lower ambient temperatures than other ductless heat pumps on the market,” said Boufford. The units that Answer chose are able to provide sustained heating until outdoor temperatures drop below -5°F.

A 3kW wall-mounted Broan electric resistance heater is installed in each bedroom and living room. This gives Boufford and his residents’ peace of mind, knowing that if an exceptionally cold night presented itself, the house won’t freeze before morning.

“One problem we thought we’d encounter was air balancing,” said Boufford. “But with the flexibility of the dual-zone systems, and registers between common areas, it wasn’t an obstacle. The T-stats are simple to use, and none of the tenants have any issues with them.”

The majority of the units are single-story, ranch style structures, served by one 15,000 BTU 15RLS2.The evaporator is located near the entry to the home, moving conditioned air towards the kitchen and bedrooms. In the two-story floor plans, an 18,000 BTU, dual-zonecompressor is connected to two 9,000 BTU indoor units. 

“When a tenant first moves into a Perry Creek home, they receive a letter from Boufford explaining the savings and comfort advantages of using the mini split approach,” said Kipfmiller.

According to Herman, energy information gathered from several Perry Creek rental units that were occupied in the summer of 2011 shows significant savings over three other subdivisions that Boufford owns. The month of July showed that a Perry Creek home with Fujitsu ductless systems averaged $140 less per month than a home in another nearby subdivision with heat pumps and central AC — a savings of 63%. Comparison to two other nearby developments showed average monthly savings of $80 and $20. Although the heating season savings stats aren’t quite as impressive, Perry Creek is still the lowest energy consumer of the four subdivisions, with savings of $72, $20 and $18 in the month of October.

Jump start

“We’ve been installing Fujitsu equipment for about four years now,” said Kipfmiller.  “Doing 20 or 30 ductless installations each year, you get to know the equipment pretty well. Still, we like our initial load calculations and designs to be a collaborative effort.” 

Before Answer’s Perry Creek design was set in stone, they enlisted the help of Shoemaker Inc., a wholesaler headquartered in Holland, Mich. The firm has seven locations in the state. With Fujitsu on their line-card for eight years, the pros at Shoemaker removed all the guesswork from the equation.

“The Holland office has two full-time guys focused on designing systems,” said Shoemaker’s Territory Manager Terry Herman. Using Wrightsoft design software, they’re able to help dealers start the job with a leg up.

“I take care of the hot water and domestic calculations, and my associate handles the commercial calculations,” said Brian Evenson, design/bid engineer at Shoemaker.  “Shoemaker was already using Wrightsoft programs to calculate all their loads when I started working here 12 years ago.”

“I really like the ability to draw a house or room, and calculate the loads off of the drawing.  It didn’t take me long to get acclimated to the software.”

Nationally, the rental market is up, and looks to remain that way for the next decade.  The future of Perry Creek Townhomes looks twice as bright, with the Dow family of companies next door, constantly recruiting more talent. 

Boufford will keep building the craftsman-style town homesat a rate of 40 units each year.  Answer will install the low-maintenance, high-efficiency mechanical systems, and Shoemaker will continue to provide equipment and expertise. But, if the winds change, they’re all sure to adapt.