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Inside Job — Builder Roundtable

We talked to top local builders to get the scoop on everything from hot trends in building (think tricked-out garages, geothermal heating, and smaller master bedrooms) to costly mistakes that are easily avoided. Their advice will save you time, money and headaches—and help your projects go smoothly.

At The Table: David Dall, Clarke Builders Inc.; Foster Lyons, Coastal Point Construction; Ian Hobbs, Hobbs Inc., John Ruddy, J.N. Ruddy Building and Restoration; Arnold Karp, Karp Associates; Dave Prutting, Prutting & Co.; Ross Tiefenthaler, Tiefenthaler Fine Home Builders; Todd Drury, TR Building and Remodeling; Rick Krug, TR Building and Remodeling; Kelly Wright, Wright Brothers Builders Inc.; Kate Hogan, editor; Amy Vischio, creative director. 

AMY VISCHIO  What’s on your clients’ wish lists these days? We’ve heard that media rooms are out and more practical features like mudrooms are in. Is this true with your projects?

RICK KRUG  We still find that kitchens are big. The best bang for your buck is when you invest in your kitchen. That’s the first thing people look for when they’re buying a house: Is the kitchen updated? Kitchens and master bathrooms.

FOSTER LYONS  His-and-hers closets. People want shelves that are custom built in a cabinetry shop.

ARNOLD KARP  I think master bedrooms have decreased in size. People realized that having an 800-square-foot master bedroom with a bed, a chair, a seating area, a shuffleboard area [laughs], is just more space than they needed. It’s a place to sleep.

ROSS TIEFENTHALER  Family rooms are changing too—they’re not warehouse-size anymore. People figured out that it’s really hard to decorate a 30-by-30-foot room. Conversationally, it’s not intimate. I’ve had a number of clients and architects who are pulling in. 

JOHN RUDDY   The economy has motivated clients to be a bit more conservative with how they choose to spend money. Clients want to take advantage of finishing or restoring underutilized areas of their home. Media rooms are still being built, but I am seeing more conservative projects being in demand now. Poorly designed McMansions are out, which is a plus for everyone.  

ARNOLD KARP  Clients seem to be wanting more garage space. We took what used to be the basement areas and we’ve created gyms and home theaters, so now that’s no longer storage, it’s finished-off space. And we still need some place to put our stuff.
IAN HOBBS  The level of finish in the garage has become a big thing. There are tile floors, tile walls, cappuccino machines. It’s a hangout for the man and his buddies—the man cave.

DAVID DALL People seem to be focusing more on practical things like larger mudrooms with plenty of built-in storage space for shoes, boots, winter/summer wear as well as sports equipment. Garages have more storage space for the kids (both young and old) outdoor toys. When a garage footprint is tight, we have been increasing ceiling height by dropping the garage floors and installing lifts to store sports cars or anything that needs to be out of the way but easily accessible.

Name an area of the home or an aspect of the building process that homeowners should never skimp on.

FOSTER The roof. That’s the obvious one! Realistically, we have clients who are thinking about resale and image. Where should you not skimp? Millwork seems to be a big thing. If you skimp on the millwork, people notice.

ARNOLD Don’t skimp on mechnicals, the nuts and bolts of the house. We can’t go back and fix them. Waterproofing, drainage, those things there’s no second shot at.

DAVE PRUTTING  Good design is the single best dollar you can spend in reconstruction and remodeling.

KELLY WRIGHT  I agree. No matter how well we build it, if the design is flawed, the project will be flawed.

ROSS   Insurance! Chubb has the best homeowner’s insurance. It’s the only company that gets aggressive upfront about safety measures like smoke detectors and motion sensors. If you’re going to spend half a million on a finished basement, make sure you have good insurance, a backup generator and a sump pump in case of flooding.

IAN  Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are so important. Homeowners often want to go with the low bid on HVAC systems, but you live with that forever and it really dictates how you feel in your house. Once you realize that you’ve made a mistake it’s too late.

JOHN   Never skimp on the initial architectural design, the mechanical systems, and all phases of insulating the home for maximum efficiency.

DAVID   Don’t skimp on insulation and sheetrock. I’ve seen architects specify thin sheetrock in a $4 million dollar home. For four or five thousand dollars more, 5/8” sheetrock will be much more soundproof and give a good, solid feel to the house. Add insulation in all the interior walls and the home will be nice and quiet.  Always insist on cast-iron plumbing (not PVC) in waste-line drops. It’s things like this that would be a big production to change later but cost very little during the construction process.

Where can people save money?

IAN  Kids’ rooms, kids’ bathrooms, laundry rooms.

KELLY  You can save a lot on plumbing and electric fixtures. There’s a huge spread between the high-end fixtures we see specified and some of the more moderate priced fixtures. For finishes, millwork, paneling and trim are also a large part of a job. Some clients are choosing to omit or limit some millwork. Or you can choose to add millwork or upgrade fixtures at a later date.

DAVID   You can upgrade appliances or add copper gutters or even more extensive millwork over time. Stick with good quality windows like Pella, but try to stay with stock sizes. A few inches in size can make the difference between an $800 stock window and a $2800 custom window. Trim work can be extremely expensive. Again, stick with stock profiles. Instead of 4 or 5 piece crown moldings, look at the one- or two-piece composite moldings of the same size.

ARNOLD  Landscape and hardscape has become a business unto itself. We get done building the house and all of the sudden there are months of stone wall building and tree moving. I’d rather see a client built the best house they can and defer the outside.

What can homeowners do to help the building process go more smoothly and stay on budget?

DAVID   Homeowners need to communicate well and trust their builder. Hire a builder who has an outstanding history of good, quality work. Someone who has been in the business for a long time and under the same name is a good indicator.                      »

KELLY  Be part of the team. Understand that construction is a messy, complicated business. Things may not go exactly as one might expect. But if you’re not expecting a perfect process, it will actually seem to go more smoothly. Also, I like to see homeowners enjoy the process. For many, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Enjoy it and don’t let it overwhelm you. 

DAVE   When in doubt, invest in design pros and trust them. Something I tell my clients is ‘Look, I didn’t go to Pratt, you didn’t go to Pratt. Why don’t you hire a guy or girl who went to Pratt?’ Many clients can afford anything and when you can have any door handle on earth, the decision is overwhelming. Design pros can help. 

ROSS  Exactly—get a decorator. Sometimes the builder winds up making choices. A client will ask me, ‘What do you think of this?’ And I’m thinking ‘I’m not a decorator. But if you like it, I love it.’ [Everyone laughs.]

ARNOLD  My advice is to find and put together your team (architect, site engineer, construction manager, landscape person) earlier in the process. Then you will avoid reaching the end of the building project and saying, ‘Nobody told me that I would have to put shrubs here.’ Or, ‘What about the driveway and the pool?’ Also, when you are adding up your budget, think about the total finished project (with landscape, etc. included). Otherwise, the plans for just the house will eat up all of your funds. 

TODD  I’m a firm believer in the design-build process. We hire the architect and we work as a team to hold everyone accountable to the client’s wish list. The budget is a critical ingredient in that process. Every time something changes we’re addressing it with the architect and figuring out the costs involved. There should be an open dialogue about budgets— not something that just comes up at the end of the project.

ROSS  Most change orders come from people upping the ante. They go from wanting average wood floors to antique limestone. Then we’ll have to go back and reinforce the floors underneath. People don’t realize how much time that can take.

FOSTER  One of the things I like to do with a client is walk through the existing home. I ask them, ‘Show me the stuff that you like and the stuff that you don’t like. What bugs you?’ They can really relate to things that they live with.

These days there’s a lot of buzz about building green. Are your customers requesting green building materials? Which green products are a good value? 

FOSTER  The normal question always is, ‘I want to be green, what can I do?’ The average client doesn’t quite know and then we have an obligation to try to educate them.

IAN  Green means something different to everyone. It falls under three general categories:  You’ve got efficiency, air quality and sustainability for the environment. Usually people focus on one of those areas. One thing that the government’s doing right now that is a great opportunity is with the geothermal systems. There is a 30-percent tax credit, which makes it much more affordable.

TODD  Part of being green is to build buildings that are architecturally significant, that are worth keeping around. So many buildings are energy efficient but in 30 years they may get bulldozed. The quality of the architecture is important.

JOHN    Start with solid basics: high-efficiency HVAC systems, energy efficient doors and windows, and a properly insulated home.

KELLY  Geothermal and foam insulation are a good investment.

DAVE  Energy-efficient appliances

ARNOLD  Bear in mind that being green is markedly more expensive.

ROSS  Green has an initial cost. Solar panels cost money. Geothermal systems cost money.

FOSTER  Photovoltaics are legitimately expensive.

DAVE  I have a little different take. At a recent AIA convention on energy efficiency and green architecture, there was a really dynamic speaker who spoke about how the single biggest threat to security in the United States is dependence on foreign energy. It has become more than our obligation as Americans to be green, it’s a patriotic imperative. Of course, it’s expensive. Solar thermal is very efficient. I’ve heard that heating swimming pools using solar thermal has a two-and-a-half year payback. These are smart investments. There isn’t a job I look at now where we don’t talk about geothermal, radiant heat. Radiant heat is spectacular heating. Energy efficiency should be a general direction for the population.

FOSTER  Houses in Connecticut typically lose 30 to 40 percent of their energy through air leakage. We need more weatherproofing. There are some easy recommendations for going green:  low-formaldehyde finish on cabinets, low-VOC paints. Also, build a house so that it lasts.

ARNOLD  Weather-strip a few doors. Some times you can get better payoff on the simple things.

What are a few adjectives that describe your ideal client?

RICK  Decisive

FOSTER  Decisive one time [laughs], reasonable, organized

DAVE  Fair

TODD Particular

JOHN  Practical

ARNOLD  Willing to listen to people who have knowledge—preferably not their neighbor.

ROSS  Being available to you and communicating effectively

KELLY  Knowledgable

DAVID   A client who communicates well and makes choices in a timely manner greatly helps the process. 

ARNOLD  The biggest difficulty is that a lot of clients don’t know what they’re building.
I really would like the client who understands what they’re getting into from a design standpoint and a financial standpoint.

JOHN  An educated, decisive client always helps the building process go smoothly.  Prior to starting the project, look at books, magazines and actual homes that have design elements that you’d like to implement into your own home. Once the project has started, have the mindset of always being a few steps ahead of the project with decisions that have to be made.

Why is 2010 a great time to build?  

JOHN  The subs are definitely eager to get the work that’s out there. So there is more cooperation with getting the jobs done.

ROSS  The project manager may not have two or three other jobs going, so you’ll get more face time.

DAVE  Many of my clients don’t need what they’re building. A lot of them are building weekend houses and they’re into it. They do it because they’re passionate about fine architecture. They have been on the sidelines waiting for the right opportunity and now they’re going to go ahead with it.

IAN   There is a group of educated consumers who see this opportunity now to push ahead with plans. They’re eager to get going and want to start as soon as possible. They feel that this is the bottom and they’re trying to time it right. We have seen people who rush their plans to get going.

ARNOLD  People have figured out that this is an excellent time to build. Good, competent contractors are available. Labor can be bought at a good price. It’s a great window of opportunity.