Finding The Builder ??‍♂️

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Drew in his natural habitat
Drew in his natural habitat

John, our architect, emailed us with a worrying discovery. He said that the house we planned to build to replace the Yurt might need to have a sprinkler system. Needless to say, this was a shock.

The problem is that our road on Orcas Island doesn’t have infrastructure we took for granted in the city, like fire hydrants and city water that can help douse a house fire. To avoid installing a sprinkler system, a big fire truck needed to be able to turn around on our property. To get over this hurdle, the county Fire Marshall needed to come out and take a look.

I expected, with a title like Fire Marshall, for the person to be a grizzled and close-to-retirement firefighter. To our surprise, he was a friendly, young guy who lives on the island. We seemed to have things in common.

At the time, we were still in planning mode and very far from building a house. In fact, we faced an uphill climb in the context of finding a builder on the island who was affordable and available. We did some research and met with a few who were scheduling new projects more than a year out. They all had good reputations and did nice work, but seemed to be going through the motions. They were overwhelmed with demand and didn’t seem hungry for business. We didn’t know where to turn. How do you find a good builder in a new place? 

The nexus of Orcas Island serendipity is the farmer’s market and it was there that we crossed paths with the friendly Fire Marshall. We reintroduced ourselves, and chatted for a bit. I learned his name is RJ and just before moving on, he invited us to see live music at his barn that night. I was psyched to get an invite, if not a little anxious about appearing at a party where we knew exactly one person.

That night we arrived, met RJ’s partner, Ali, in the house and eventually found a group of people around a campfire along with an assortment of potluck dishes, a half keg of beer and music emanating from the metal barn. As we made our way to the campfire, RJ saw us and said to a friend, with a bit of surprise, “Hey – They came!”

He didn’t know, but we had recently committed to acting on this exact kind of situation. Meeting people and becoming a part of a new community isn’t easy. It requires putting yourself out there, accepting invitations and importantly, showing up.

After a few introductions by the campfire, we wandered around and tried not to look too awkward. I chatted up a guy named Matt and eventually the conversation turned to our story. We told him about splitting our time between Seattle and Orcas, the Yurt, and our hope to someday build a house on the same property. I told him that we were working on plans, but still needed a builder.  

After hearing our story, Matt smiled said, “Well, I’m a carpenter and work with a contractor who builds custom homes.”

That get our attention. We expected him to follow that statement with something like, “But we’re booked out until 2021.” But that didn’t happened. Matt said he was working for Drew Reed and gave us his phone number. Drew would be happy to talk about a new project, he said. I thought there must be a catch.

We talked to Matt a bit longer and something he said stuck with me. He liked working for Drew and felt that he treated his employees well. That mattered to us.

Within a few days, Drew came to the Yurt to look at our plans and talk about his experience. He was a contractor in California for many years. After moving to the island, he cranked up his contracting business and had recently grown to have one of the bigger teams. He looked at our plans and immediately saw the concept and the challenges we were likely to encounter. It was clear to us that he had experience in building homes like the one we were designing.

Drew (left) and John (right)
Drew (left) and John (right)

We were cautiously optimistic. Working with a contractor means having a long term relationship that involves all the things that make a relationship work or not: constant decision making, money, expectation setting and trust. If you don’t choose wisely, you could end up in a messy and expensive divorce. 

Being friendly isn’t enough to feel good about a long term relationship. With any builder, the proof is in the building. To help, Drew took us on a tour of a few projects.

At one location, a team of about six workers were renovating a house and they seemed engaged and even happy. They joked with Drew like a peer instead of the boss. And it seemed authentic.

Next we visited a house under construction and we got a glimpse of how he works with clients. He said, “I have a policy. If a decision needs to be made, I’ll tell you my opinion three times. After that, the decision is yours.” It was clear that Drew has opinions about how to build a house and that’s what we wanted.

Before long, Drew was our guy, in sentiment at least. Everyone we asked thought Drew would be a solid choice and his work spoke for itself. We still had many hurdles and plenty of relationships to form before we could actually work with him, but he seemed like our first pick.

When we got down to specifics, Drew said he could start in a matter of months and would be happy to provide an estimate once our plans were close to final. We came to call this estimate “the number” because of its outsized power. More than any other factor, the number could set us back or even ruin our plans.

With the guest house available and a possible builder interested, the momentum seemed to shift in our planning. It was like a window was opening that created a draft of fresh air. For the first time, it seemed we could actually build the house rather than just look at plans and dream. 

What we feared was the potential for the window to close before we could act. The guest house could be taken by someone else. Drew could get new projects. The number could be too big. If we waited too long, it could all fall apart and this put real pressure on us to keep pushing.

Looking back, finding Drew and the guest house were only possible by showing up, shaking hands and telling our story. By putting ourselves out there, we met the owners of the guest house at a Christmas party. We accepted RJ’s offhand invite, which led to meeting Matt and Drew. That doesn’t happen from the couch or even a computer screen. There’s no replacement for showing up.

And in the end, we didn’t need a sprinkler system. So that, too, was a win. 


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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