Barron & Jacobs Continues Its Tradition of Melding Old and New
Building on the Past
Chris Jacobs has construction in his blood.
“I’ve been with the company since it opened in 1986,” said Jacobs, who succeeded his father, Cecil Jacobs, last year as president of Barron & Jacobs Associates Inc. “I was 15 then, working summers, and I kept working summers through college.”
After graduation, he came on board full-time and worked his way up the chain, serving long stints as general manager of construction, then general manager of the whole company, before taking the reins from his father.
Growing up, he doesn’t recall a time when he didn’t want to work in the family business. “What young kid doesn’t like construction?”
But he also has an appreciation of history and tradition, and Barron & Jacobs is steeped in both, starting with its offices in an 1895 Victorian home in downtown Northampton, purchased from the city’s historical society and restored to its original look.
Behind that home sits a carriage house that once sheltered the first car-repair garage in Northampton — a garage visited frequently by Amelia Earhart early in her flight career, to learn about reciprocating engines.
That sort of history reflects the value that Cecil Jacobs, who’s known as “Jake,” places on the historical and architectural integrity of a building — a quality that has informed his company’s work and helped him forge a pioneering name in design-build construction — a tradition Chris Jacobs is excited to continue.
“We invented design-build back in the ’80s; previous to that, it was all general contractors,” he told BusinessWest. “Then everyone became design-build companies, even if they didn’t have designers and drafting people on their staff.”
His father established a philosophy at the company that whatever enhances a home should not take away from it — to have alterations and additions look like they’ve been there from day one, and to duplicate existing architecture and at the same time bring in modern conveniences.
“We’re doing a lot of the same: kitchens, additions, bathrooms, whole-house renovations,” the new president said. “The recession put a little slowdown on the bigger residential projects, but they are definitely coming back.”
Cecil Jacobs began laying the foundation for his future company in 1963 when he completed his tour of duty in Vietnam with the 6143rd Engineering Group, and went to work as a designer for the Architectural Building Products Division of Reynolds Metals Co. (also known as Reynolds Aluminum). In the mid-’70s, he was appointed vice president of the division, overseeing the development, sales, and marketing of energy-conserving building products.
He loved working there. But his future started to shift when, in the early 1980s, David Reynolds, the company’s president, asked a question: is there another market for us other than remodeling and building new homes? In other words, is there something remodelers weren’t doing because it was too big, and that homebuilders didn’t want to do because it involved existing structures?
That was the birth of design-build. Jacobs was tasked with investigating the feasibility of a third major market that would encompass whole-home renovations and other major projects beyond the scope of smaller-scale remodeling. Over a two-year period, he conducted that study for Reynolds, establishing test locations in Springfield, Boston, and California, and became convinced there was a significant market.
However, Reynolds retired soon after, and the new president had virtually no interest in the project. Then, In 1986, the head of Jacobs’ division, Jim Barron, retired, and Jacobs, at age 45, felt that was a good time for him to leave as well. So after the company agreed that he could pursue and develop his design-build research on his own, Jake launched his own firm with his wife, Kathleen, putting Barron’s name on the door symbolically, to honor his mentor.
The company has benefited from the fact that Western Mass. isn’t a hotbed of new building, but there are plenty of older homes in need of renovation, meaning existing structures take on a higher value than they would in a more booming region for new construction.
As for individual projects, Chris Jacobs said, “it’s really up to the individual whether they want a European style or a traditional style. As full-service design-builders, we go shopping with them.”
That’s when many decisions are made, he went on. “The shopping is a crucial piece. Many homeowners don’t know a good cabinet from a bad cabinet, so the shopping is a crucial key to making sure the project goes correctly. We make sure they’re getting good appliances; the industry is plagued with bad appliances. We have people that we trust, that we’ve been shopping with for years.”
It takes not only skill to tackle whole-home remodels, he said, but also the personal touch and flexibility to interact with the homeowner, who may change their minds several times during a project. But, generally, detailed planning and productive shopping create a strong foundation for a successful remodel.
In addition to home remodeling and whole-house renovations, Barron & Jacobs’ portfolio includes additions, add-a-levels, kitchen and bathroom remodels, screened porches and porch enclosures, three-season rooms, sunrooms and conservatories, garages and carriage houses, attic and basement conversions, as well as business renovations and expansions.
In the commercial realm, the firm recently did a rec-room project for Coca-Cola in Northampton, and is currently working on a financial building in West Springfield. While commercial building rebounded from the Great Recession quicker than residential construction, and most of Barron & Jacobs’ work is residential, the company managed to ride out those years successfully, thriving on its reputation. “It’s a tradition of building satisfaction,” Chris Jacobs said. “We’ve been doing it for over 30 years.”
In fact, the recession didn’t really hit the company until three or four years after it began in 2007,” he added. “We had a little bump in the road — as it turned out, bigger than a bump — but we could see it coming back last year, and this year is already looking good.”
As for new building, it’s not something the company pursues, although it recently built a house in New Hampshire for a past customer. “It’s usually a past customer who requests it. We don’t have our own building lots.”
Meanwhile, the firm has strived to develop a reputation as an environmentally friendly builder, both in its emphasis on energy-efficient insulation, windows, and other materials, and through an extensive focus on recycling building materials.
Through all of this, the company, which boasts 15 employees, continues to grow, with Jacobs and co-designer Adam Skiba — who comes from an architectural background and has been on board for a year and a half — looking to add another designer this year.
And, of course, the new president is already eyeing the third generation of leadership at the company, although that transition is far off — specifically, his 5-year-old adopted son.
“He’s already banged his first nail, and he’s good at it,” Jacobs said. “No pressure, though.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]