|Built to Order
Custom Homebuilders Talk About What They Need from Glazing Contractors
By Ellen Giard
Custom homes can be found in most any town or city throughout the country. Often classified as high-end, price tags may start around $500,000 and shoot up to a multi-million dollar range depending on the geographic location.
In Corona Del Mar, Calif., for example, you can find a “cozy” 22,000-square-foot home, price-tagged at an estimated $75 million. Called the Portabello residence (see the cover of this issue), the house was built by Buwalda Construction and designed by architect Brian Jennette. The home has it all: three pools, two spas, eight bedrooms, ten bathrooms, a bowling alley, movie theatre, café, gymnasium, auto museum and a wine cellar. As if all that’s not enough, it also features a massive display of glazing installed by the Los Angeles operations of Giroux Glass Inc. Richard Mausolf, residential department manager for Giroux, explains that his company got involved when the architect came to them with the drawings to see if they could do it. For Mausolf, their answer was an easy one. “We do what most can’t or are afraid to,” he says. “We take on those challenges.”
Houses like the Portabello may be somewhat common for builders in the land of Hollywood dreams, but it’s not likely that $75 million homes will be popping up in just any neighborhood in any city. Still, high-end residential jobs have been keeping builders and glazing contractors busy.
For glazing contractors taking on these responsibilities, the awards and benefits can be lucrative. But the barriers to entry, even within the glass industry, are high. Builders depend upon their glass suppliers for more than just a product. What is it that custom homebuilders need from the glass industry?
“For the high-end homebuilder reliability and service are most important,” says David Drexler of Drexler Shower Door in Atlanta. “But with the economy builder, it’s price, price, price.”
Whether it’s new construction or a remodeling project, homeowners are looking for ways to bring glass into today’s homes—and not just in the way of windows.
“In the Southeast, premium windows are not the moneymaker,” says Dennis McConnell of the Atlanta-based McConnell Homes Inc. “We’re in a not-too-hot and not-too-cold climate; we worry more about ultraviolet light and solar heat gain … so we’re not seeing the penetration of premium companies here.” But that does not mean there are no top-of-the-line window options in his market.
“We do see a lot of stained glass,” McConnell adds. “With stained glass you can control the views and still allow light in. It also generates color on the inside.” Transoms and skylights are popular, too. “With skylights you can really bring that outside feeling in,” he adds.
In Tualatin, Ore., Greg Heinze of Shelburne Development, says glass brings a lot of function for his customers’ homes.
“It helps make the rooms light, bright and open,” he says. “It’s a good light source here; you can create that with glass.”
The work of Clark Harris with Innovative Construction, also based in Atlanta, focuses on kitchen and bathroom remodeling.
“Our biggest seller is the frameless shower enclosure; we put one in about 90 percent of the bathrooms we do,” he says.
“Two or three years ago we’d have to explain to the customer what these are. Now, they come to us looking for it.”
McConnell says he, too, has seen the growth in frameless shower enclosures.
“We’ve seen them go from expensive to very expensive with lots of variety, from colors, fused glass, etc.”
Remodeling contractor John Benedict with Benedict Contracting Inc. in Redmond, Wash., says a lot of the work he does is in the bathroom. As he describes some of his glass jobs, new ideas quickly unfurl.
“Enclosures, shower surrounds, room and area dividers with ‘floating’ edges … I’ve done those,” he says. “You could also use glass as an accent for artwork—what about a frame made entirely of glass … other popular areas are backsplashes in both the kitchen and showers; glass block is still popular when creating a shower room … the ideas for glass just flow. It’s like a domino effect.”
With so many outlets for glass, builders and remodelers are in need of a reliable source for these products. That’s where the glazing contractor comes in. Builders agree, this relationship is of the utmost of importance.
“Our relationship [with glass companies] is of ongoing importance,” says Greg Smith with GW Custom Homes in Carefree, Arizona. “We want to know that when we order something it will be delivered when the glass company says it will.” He adds that when determining which glass company to work with often times it is a matter of who can do the job for the least amount of money and still be able to deliver the necessary quality.
“We work closely with glass contractors or suppliers because they are our link to the manufacturers,” says Heinze. “You have to have someone who is educated and knowledgeable about the product, and we choose who we work with based on their performance history.”
Randy Reinhart with Reinhart Custom Homes in Charlottesville, Va., says he works with local glass and mirror companies in the small community in which he builds. “I need a glass company that will keep me abreast of the latest uses and types of glass, not only when it comes to new products, but also ways glass can be used in homes,” Reinhart says.
“That relationship [with the glazing contractor] is the most important thing,” adds Harris. “My biggest fear is that no one shows up [to do the job] when they are supposed to, so there has to be a lot of trust.” Harris says he likes being able to work with small companies because that way he is dealing directly with the owner, rather than just a salesperson.
Benedict says he, too, needs to be able to rely on the glass companies with which he works.
“The contractor has to be concerned with all aspects of the job, so we need the glass contractor to be reliable and to be personable with whoever’s running [the job] because a lot can happen to cause delays and setbacks [i.e. the weather].”
This means staying in communication throughout the process is also important to builders.
“Communication ... that’s why we use certain companies,” says Heinze, “because we communicate so well. And with custom glass you can’t afford downtime as it’s not something that’s readily available.”
“And try to make sure everyone is happy with the job,” advises Benedict. “Even after it’s done, make a phone call as a follow up to make sure everything is OK.”
The Good and the Bad
While communication is of extreme importance when it comes to the builder/glazing contractor relationship, there are other qualities important to builders. One such important quality is the ability to be flexible.
“If a company has been doing mostly commercial work, they don’t always understand that custom work is different,” says Smith. “They may be an experienced glazing contactor, but they need to be flexible when it comes to working with homebuilders and custom glass … you need to have the ability to work with everyone involved.”
Benedict says he’s looking for a high level of professionalism.
“Be respectful and presentable when you arrive to the jobsite, as these are high-end homes—it’s someone else’s home you’re going into so it’s important to have a clean look and to be respectful.”
For glass companies taking on these jobs there are still challenges to overcome. In California, for example, Giroux’s Rick Lawler, a project manager, says the California Energy Commission’s title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standard, which was adopted in 2005, has posed some challenges. He says that, at times, it has been tough to meet the energy requirements and still give the homeowners the glass they want.
Another challenge is actually being able to find the needed products.
“We have to find glass suppliers who can make what we need,” says Lawler. “Often it has to be made specifically for the project. So it may start out as unique but then ends up being a standard product that we helped [our supplier] develop,”
He continues, “Pioneering is the name of the game [when it comes to custom homebuilding]; homeowners want what’s unique.”
When it comes to working with builders directly, though, challenges mainly involve scheduling.
“But we’ve worked with most of [our] builders for many years so we’re very familiar with each other and have a good relationship,” adds Mausolf. “Builders rely on us to help them throughout.”
Ahead of the Game
When it comes to business growth, custom homebuilders are just like any other company: they want to stay ahead in the game and ahead of the competition. With glass being a hot-ticket item, builders are relying on the professionals in that realm to keep them informed.
Harris says it’s good when a glass company offers him information about new products.
“It gives me a competitive advantage when I can tell the homeowner about a new product that [others bidders] might not have known about,” he says.
Heinze agrees. “[As a glazing contractor] being able to suggest and having awareness of products is important to me as it helps in staying ahead of the competition,” he says. “We look for what will set us apart from others.”
“It’s good for us to know what products are available,” adds Benedict. “Glass companies can bring more of this to the table … the homeowner has to be able to see it and visualize it,” he says, adding that glass companies can help with this by bringing in brochures, samples, etc.
“I look for innovation and being current … companies trying to create the best value [not necessarily the lowest price] they can with the use of their products,” adds Reinhart.
John Myers of North Wilkesboro, N.C.-based Gardner Glass Products says all parties involved can be helpful in bringing new glass products to homeowners’ attention.
“If you [the glass company] can get the architect, builder, designer, etc. to grasp an idea or a new product and they like it, then the homeowner will start seeing more of it,” says Myers. “You have to get them to buy into it,” he says, adding that typically when it comes to glass and mirror products, builders like to see a proven success before they entertain ideas of using it. “And that’s where the glass shop can step in,” says Myers. He explains that by showing builders what can be done with the products in actual applications, you’re likely to see more of a success rate than without.
Are These Right for You?
Accuracy in ordering; being timely when it comes to delivery; having a creative mindset and the ability to work well with others on the job—these are just some of the qualities that custom homebuilders want from their glazing contractors. For those thinking about entering the market, take heed, and these words of wisdom.
“You’re creating something from scratch; you have to be flexible, you have to be open-minded and not have a ‘we can’t’ attitude, but rather a ‘how can we’ attitude,” adds Lawler.
As homes continue to become more and more unique, expect to see increasing uses of glass, which will, in turn, bring more opportunities for glazing contractors. To prepare for those roles, Smith offers a few final words: “Be responsive and bring something to the table; try and think outside of the box, be creative and have ideas; try to get involved early on in the design process; and be unique.”
Ellen Giard is the editor of USGlass magazine.
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