Strong Foundation

Integrity Development & Construction Builds a Name for Itself
Strong Foundation

Peter Jessop, president of Integrity Development & Construction

A summer job more than 30 years ago turned into a career for Peter Jessop, who launched Integrity Development & Construction in Hartford and later moved the business to Amherst. In those three decades of building homes and businesses, he has seen abundant change in his industry, from a computer revolution to an increased focus on environmental impact. Throughout it all, he says he’s tried to build a reputation that lives up to his company’s name.

Construction wasn’t exactly Peter Jessop’s first plan for his life.

In fact, back in the 1970s, he was working at Hartford Hospital, partway through a master’s degree in hospital administration, when that field started to seem unsatisfying.

“I had a lot of ideas about how a hospital should be organized and run, but I realized I was trying to shift the Titanic; it wasn’t going to move very much,” he said. “Between government regulations and the general inertia of a 3,000-employee operation, I couldn’t move it the way I wanted.”

Meanwhile, Jessop had worked as a carpenter during summer breaks from college, and he always enjoyed the experience. From there, an idea — and a construction business — eventually grew.

“It took me a little while, but I started working on some smaller projects with people I knew in the Hartford area, and it blossomed into a slightly bigger operation, and that blossomed into an even bigger operation,” he said. “I did a lot of low-income housing, tax-credit deals in Hartford, Bridgeport, even Arizona.”

That proved to be a bit too much travel, he decided. “Fortunately, we’ve enjoyed good success working within an hour of our office.”

That was the case for more than a decade working in Hartford, and remained true when he moved his operation, Integrity Development & Construction, to Amherst in 1992.

His first project there was Pioneer Valley Co-housing, a living community that melds private condos with communal space to create a unique sort of planned neighborhood in North Amherst. Jessop lives in the complex, too, and built his company’s headquarters there as well.

As in Hartford, Jessop has balanced residential building and remodeling with commercial, industrial, and institutional projects, from Northampton Brewery to a new building at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley.

“The wonderful thing about this business is the tremendous amount of variety,” he said. “Every project we do is different, and we always get to meet new and interesting people. It’s wonderfully varied that way — which wasn’t the case early in my career.”

Indeed, while hospital management left him feeling stifled and bored, as president of Integrity, “I feel we make a difference in people’s lives in terms of the way they live.”

In this issue, Jessop talks with BusinessWest about Integrity’s steady growth, how the construction industry has changed over the years, and those difference-making moments that convince him that he made the right career decision three decades ago.

Greener Pastures

One example of making a difference is energy efficiency, which has long been a priority for Integrity and has since become industry dogma. All the units in that first co-housing project were designed as Energy Crafted homes, a status that preceded today’s Energy Star designation.

“There’s an emphasis on energy efficiency in the building trades,” Jessop said. “We’re pretty conscientious about air seals, insulation, window packages, appliances — everything that goes into making a building as energy-efficient as possible. A lot more people are doing photovoltaic and solar-related projects; that continues to be strong, and that’s a good thing.

“I think this is a very exciting time to be in business,” he continued. “We have a lot of opportunities to raise people’s consciousness about energy use and siting of buildings. The whole field is changing, moving toward a greater awareness of how building affects the global environment.

“Some people think driving cars is a horrible thing,” he continued, “but a much greater percentage of greenhouse gases come from buildings than cars, so making our buildings more efficient, thinking about things like deep energy retrofits, will make a difference for our children and our children’s children.”

This increased focus on the environment is only one way the building trades have shifted in the past 30 years.

“The industry has changed a lot since 1979,” Jessop said, noting, as one example, that materials are different, with much more engineered lumber being used, offering higher performance and a healthier ecological impact.

“And, certainly, the use of computers and the amount of information generated digitally has radically changed the business,” he said. “We’ve moved from doing everything on paper and pencil to a digital world. Of course, every industry has seen that, and contracting is no different.

“It’s been a blessing,” he continued. “Everything from accounting to drawings to project management and communications with clients — we still produce paper, obviously, but much of our work is done digitally. That saves a lot of time and makes us more efficient and makes the industry more professional.”

Jessop came back to the notion of professionalism more than once during the interview. It’s an element he said is reflected in the company’s name, and also echoes a more-savvy clientele.

“Customers are more sophisticated, which forces us to be more professional,” he told BusinessWest. “And we certainly take pride in our level of professionalism — in our presentations to clients, our contracts and documents, and our knowledge of the industry.”

Even professional journals, he noted, have become more sophisticated. And, not surprisingly, “I think tradespeople are more knowledgeable than they were 30 years ago. They’re more cutting-edge —from the technological point of view, obviously, but also just in general knowledge. These kids seem brighter, more on top of things than they were 30 years ago.”

What does that all mean for builders? “You can’t relax,” Jessop said. “People know better what they want, and the Internet has opened up a whole host of opportunities for folks to learn about things.

“Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” he added, “and we’ve occasionally had to set clients straight on information they learned on the Internet that might not be accurate as our take on the situation. But there’s nothing wrong with an informed consumer. They help us stay on track, help us stay professional.”

Work and Play

Integrity tackles plenty of design-build work, but also works with local architects, reflecting a willingness to work within a client’s needs and budget, Jessop said.

“We have a great respect for architects and do many projects with an architect; I’m a believer in good architectural services. But some projects don’t need the services of a full-scale architectural firm.”

Many home-remodeling projects fall into that category. “Renovations have always been a strong part of our mix,” he said. “We find it a wonderful challenge working with older buildings, adding on or making interior spaces more functional. We enjoy that process. Some builders don’t have the patience for that; it’s a slightly different animal.”

For one thing, unlike new construction, there’s the issue of working around a family who actually lives in the space, kids and pets often included. But it’s an expertise that has proven valuable in the Hampshire County region, where new building space is at a premium.

“In this area, land is relatively costly, and there aren’t tons of land available to build new construction,” he said. “A lot of people are finding that an investment in their current homes is a much better way to go. They may like their neighborhood, they like the school system, but they need more space. So they reconfigure the space they have, put in a new kitchen or new bathrooms.”

The ability to take on many different kinds of projects allows a builder key flexibility during an economic downturn when all contractors need to be nimble, Jessop said. “We’re in the midsize of construction companies — not big, but not two guys in a pickup truck, either. The ability to be flexible, and be able to do anything from smaller projects to $2 million to $3 million projects, is certainly a benefit.”

As for that recession, Jessop said the Western Mass. region is fortunate not to experience the economic peaks and valleys — and the resulting rollercoaster of real-estate valuations — seen in other parts of the country, and added that the many colleges and universities clustered in and around Amherst also provide some stability for his industry, as people are constantly moving into and out of the area.

“There has been enough work to go around, and although the last year or two has been tough on everybody, we’ll turn the corner on that,” he said. “We’re proceeding apace, booking work for the spring and summer.”

Indeed, while business could certainly be better across the industry, Jessop is confident that his company’s diversity and reputation will continue to see it through.

“There are a lot of good builders around here, but I don’t think you can work here in the Valley without having a decent reputation,” he said. “People know we’re trustworthy, and that word gets around and helps you stay in business.

Even the need for modern tools such as a Web site hasn’t changed that.

“Our Web page is nice, but it’s a bit of a glorified electronic yellow pages,” Jessop said. “Our work comes from architects who know us, people in the community who know us, past clients who refer us, and other personal contacts we make.”

He believes in that personal touch, and doesn’t think a Web site can tell everything about how a company does business anyway.

“You might find a doctor online, but would you stay with him just because you found him on the Internet — or because you like this person and trust him? When people work with us, they understand they can trust us.”

That’s a reputation to build on.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]