Construction

Construct Associates Builds Lifestyle Improvements

Home Free

Partners Stephen Ross (left) and Bob Walker

Partners Stephen Ross (left) and Bob Walker

Construct Associates has built a reputation for home renovation and restoration in Western Mass. over the past few decades, which is fortunate these days, since business is surging in that area. The reasons are myriad — among them, plenty of old housing stock in the Pioneer Valley, a generally strong economy, and the continued aging of America and the desire among the senior set to remain in their homes and age in place. It all adds up to opportunity, and Construct is making the most of it.

Stephen Ross says residential renovation is looking up — in more ways than one.

“We’re doing a lot of aging-in-place stuff — personal elevators, residential elevators, additions,” he told BusinessWest. “I like to say that an elevator costs probably 10 months worth of a decent retirement community. There, you’re not going to get that money back. But with an elevator, it’s equity toward your house.”

Ross and Bob Walker, the partners at Construct Associates in Northampton, say aging in place is a major trend in residential construction and renovation these days, with the Baby Boom generation continuing to swell the ranks of the over-65 age group, many of them loath to give up independent living.

“I saw a poll recently where 88% of people want to remain in their home, and a lot of them are trying to do just that,” Ross said, noting again that elevators, accessible showers, and other additions pay for themselves if they make the difference between staying there and moving to a retirement community. “I’ve got two of those in the works now. One is an in-law suite, where they’re making it accessible for the in-laws, and the other is a professional couple that wants to be able to utilize their whole house.”

Meanwhile, Walker is wrapping up a first-floor master suite in Northampton with an aging-in-place concept. “It’s an older home right in the middle of town, but all the bedrooms are upstairs. A couple years ago, they did a big kitchen remodel, and now they want a bedroom and bath and laundry on the first floor, where they can get to all of it. We’re putting in a curbless shower, in case of limited mobility.”

“We did a pretty serious job search back in the fall, but we we got a lot of people we felt weren’t qualified for the quality work we do. Sometimes you do get good people come in who are older guys. The labor pool is aging, and it would be nice to see a lot more young people coming into the field.”

Not only do older people want to age in place, Ross said, but the Five College area tends to have consistent rotation of housing stock, and new owners want to come in and put their mark on their new house. And many newcomers to the region arrive from pricier markets, so they’re getting relative bargains and have money left over for remodeling.

“We’re a high-end firm,” Walker added. “We’ll do the whole gamut of work, but our real money is in high-end residential remodeling. At this point, we really are working off our reputation, our referral base. I’m doing a major house remodel in Longmeadow now — four bathrooms, going through the house and upgrading. I have another major job like that, a big Victorian in town here with a high-end kitchen, a big master bath, upgrading mechanical systems, making it as energy-efficient as possible.”

New home building remains a quieter market, Ross added, so Construct is in the right place these days. “Kitchens and bathrooms are our bread and butter, and it always seems like weve got one or two, if not four or six, going on in the background.”

Innovative Idea

Walker and three other partners — Hobie Iselin, Bob Reckman, and Chris Dawson — launched Construct Associates in 1984 with a bright idea — and good timing.

The idea was to create a construction company based on the model of a law office, where the owners share space, marketing, and accounting, but are responsible for managing their own projects.

This residential addition in Northampton

This residential addition in Northampton features an elevator, an amenity that has become more popular in recent years.

The good timing had to do with the company’s home city of Northampton, which was growing quickly and had recently begun to capture the imagination of developers. Construct had a hand in shaping the commercial rebirth of the city, building or renovating the Northampton Brewery, the Hotel Northampton, the Calvin Theater, two Bart’s Ice Cream Shops, Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, Pinch Pottery, Pleasant Street Video, Silverscape Designs, and other properties.

Other partners have come and gone over the years; today, Walker shares ownership with Ross, who first joined the company as a carpenter in 1988 and became a partner in 2006.

The workload has changed over the years; Construct Associates does far more residential work — mainly home-renovation projects — than it used to. But it still does some light commercial work, notably the recent renovation of New England Treatment Access, the marijuana dispensary a block away from its Northampton headquarters.

The firm’s design and construction capabilities cover everything from antique designs to modern styles, the partners note, but they specialize in older buildings, providing innovative designs and construction for kitchen and bathroom remodeling, renovations, and additions, as well as new construction projects.

“We do all our carpentry. We don’t sub out any carpentry because we have our in-house guys,” Walker said.

While the volume of work has been strong lately, he noted, the staffing issues that plague many contractors may be the only thing holding back further growth.

“We lost a few guys last year, and we’re trying to replace them. We did a pretty serious job search back in the fall, but we we got a lot of people we felt weren’t qualified for the quality work we do. Sometimes you do get good people come in who are older guys. The labor pool is aging, and it would be nice to see a lot more young people coming into the field.”

He said he hired a carpenter last year who recently graduated from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School — one of only three students in the carpentry program at the time. That’s not surprising, as a decades-long emphasis on pushing kids into college has contributed to talent shortages in what are generally well-paying careers in the construction trades.

“The most interesting thing I see in vocational schools is the percentage that are going to college,” Ross said. “Back when we were kids, if you went to vocational school, that meant you were going into a vocation. I’m personally shocked at the kids going on to higher education.”

Walker agreed. “It’s interesting. You can make a really good wage doing this rather than try to come into the job market with some computer skill that every guy and his brother has.”

Smooth Sailing

Other than finding talent, the construction-industry landscape is looking strong in 2019, Walker said.

“One of my lumber-yard reps asked how we were doing because he was really surprised that, right after the first of the year, things are still hopping. He sees it because he supplies a lot of builders. Generally, you get to this time in January, and things kind of slow up, but they’re moving quite well.”

Part of that has been the mild winter — though at press time, shortly after this interview, a major snowstorm was expected to sweep through the Northeast.

“There are jobs where I might have pushed a little harder to get concrete in the ground had I known we would have had this mild weather,” Ross said, “but you had that first [November] snowfall that made you think winter was coming, and then it didn’t.”

He’s expecting a solid spring surge this year, though, once people get their tax refunds and the weather starts to get truly warm.

“One of my lumber-yard reps asked how we were doing because he was really surprised that, right after the first of the year, things are still hopping. He sees it because he supplies a lot of builders. Generally, you get to this time in January, and things kind of slow up, but they’re moving quite well.”

“People are funny,” he said. “They’ll call you in the spring when it starts warming up and want to do something right then, but in reality, some of them should be talking to us right now and planning ahead.”

At the start of 2019, though, the calls have been coming in, partly due to the lack of snow.

“With the weather being mild,” Ross said, “some of them are a little more anxious to get some projects started, when normally they would be hunkered down because they don’t want people tramping sand and salt into their house, and opening and closing doors. So we have more calls than we usually do this time of year, but winter will have to come sooner or later. It’ll be interesting to see what happens then.”

The desire to age in place, however, or simply to turn an old house into something fresh and modern, aren’t ideas subject to the season, and on that front, Construct Associates continues to make its mark on Northampton and the region.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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