Japanese man pursues construction dream in South Dakota

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Lots of people dream about working in the movie industry. Kaz Kunishige spent 20 years in movie theaters dreaming about construction.

Today, Kunishige owns Handcrafted Log Homes in Box Elder. His company builds about two custom houses a year in the Black Hills and Wyoming.

Finding opportunities to learn was the key to Kunishige’s own construction career. Kunishige is from Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. Before relocating to South Dakota, he worked in movie theaters, and he and his wife were raising two sons. He dreamed of building his own house, even though it was an unlikely idea.

“I’d never have a chance in Japan, and I had no experience with building,” Kunishige said, laughing.

Health problems prompted him to take his family on an extended vacation in the Black Hills, where his brother-in-law lives. Kunishige’s health improved. The Kunishiges’ vacation stretched so long they enrolled their children in school, and later decided to move to South Dakota for good.

“Everybody liked it here,” Kunishige said. “The nice open space, the reasonable prices and the people are so nice. (We decided) here is where we’ll stay awhile.”

When he had the chance to help a neighbor with a construction project, Kunishige realized South Dakota might be the place where he could achieve his dream.

“South Dakotans believe they can do everything by themselves, and maybe there’s a chance I can build my house,” Kunishige said.

He still knew nothing about the building trade, so he began writing to local contractors. One log home builder, DeWitt Construction, responded. After going to work for DeWitt, Kunishige quickly realized he needed to learn about the construction industry from the ground up. He studied carpentry at Western Dakota Tech, then earned a degree in structural engineering at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Four years ago, Kunishige became the owner of Handcrafted Log Homes, which had been a division of DeWitt Construction. Handcrafted Log Homes has won multiple awards from the Construction Industry Center and the Black Hills Homebuilders Association.

Twenty years after the Kunishiges started their extended vacation here, they’re still happy to be in the Black Hills. Kunishige did build himself a house. “But it’s not finished completely,” he said, laughing. “I have to do other people’s first. But we are living in it.”

Handcrafted Log Homes builds houses from the foundation up, designing entire homes or enhancing houses with log accents such as railings, staircases or porches. Each home is meticulously assembled, and every log numbered, in the company’s log yard in Box Elder. This process ensures that every piece fits perfectly and can require weeks or months of work. Then the house is taken apart and transported to the homeowners’ land. There, it’s reassembled, typically in a few days.

From the early design ideas to a finished home’s biennial maintenance, Kunishige is involved. “I do everything from buying materials to running the crew,” he said.

Kunishige guides clients through the design process to determine the floor plan that will best suit them, the Rapid City Journal reported . “I talk with homeowners until I understand what they need. Sometimes they bring in a magazine and say, ‘I want this.’ That’s where we start from. Sometimes they want a big nice dining room but the reality is they use it once or twice a year,” he said. “I talk to them about how they really live.”

“I like to help people enjoy their life. ... They’re designing their future,” he said.

Handcrafted Log Homes are built with hand-peeled logs. “Each log is a different shape and it has a different character, so we have to watch each log to find out the best part and then we use that one,” Kunishige said.

“Our crew feels like we’re building our own homes. ... If they make a mistake, they will fix it. We spend lots of time. We want to be good log home builders,” Kunishige said. “We’re proud at the end of the day of what we’ve done.”

Every other year, Kunishige’s crew returns to the houses they’ve built to do maintenance. Though log homes can be energy-efficient, shrinking, settling and exposure to sunlight and weather affect the logs.

“That’s why a log home is exactly yours. It needs your attention. Give it attention and you’ll love your whole house,” Kunishige said.

Kunishige currently has three employees and strives to be a mentor as well as a builder. He encourages his employees to be innovative and continually find ways to increase productivity and safety.

“I would like to pass all my knowledge on to the younger generation,” he said. “I am looking for people who want to learn or are interested in building log homes. I’m looking for employees who are ready to settle down and be responsible and are willing to learn. ... I want good people to work with us.”


Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com