Building on a Strong Foundation
Seth Lawrence-Slavas isn’t looking to change the mission of Wright Builders all that much. After all, it was designed to be sustainable.
“Whether it’s residential, commercial, or institutional, the first keyword is a resilient building,” he said, noting that the Northampton-based contractor has been at the forefront of innovation, energy efficiency, and sustainable, high-performance construction since it began. “We create resiliency in terms of how long the building lasts.”
In December, Lawrence-Slavas bought Wright Builders from founder Jonathan Wright after he decided to retire. Wright and Mark Ledwell, then co-owner, welcomed Lawrence-Slavas as a project development engineer in 2019 after he graduated from UMass Amherst with a master’s degree in building and construction technologies. At UMass, he contributed to groundbreaking research on local forest-product utilization for cross-laminated timber as part of carbon reduction and advancing economic development for rural New England.
Lawrence-Slavas told BusinessWest that his goal after college was to own his own company after joining a company like Suffolk, Consigli, Turner, or another “huge place” that would teach him more about project management.
“The more I found out about those platforms to those companies, the more I didn’t want to do it. So, by the time I graduated, I had figured that out; I didn’t want to be in a company like that,” he said.
As it turns out, Wright Builders was a much better fit. “I really appreciated the way that Jonathan looked from a business sense at this. He is absolutely a holistic man, but he’s a businessman at the end of the day. And that rang true to me. I felt like there is a responsibility of a company for their employees, for the greater good of the community.”
Even though Wright Builders works on all construction fronts — residential, institutional, and commercial — Lawrence-Slavas was drawn to its small-business, family feel. That’s another reason why he chose the company as a place to grow his success — and why he’s excited to be its leader today.
Working His Way Up
Lawrence-Slavas grew up in a trades household; his father was a chemist and engineer by day, but a post-and-beam builder on nights and weekends. With an old-school approach, his father would only use hand tools, milling and block planing the wood himself. This work ethic was entrenched in him and his brother from the start.
“Whether it’s residential, commercial, or institutional, the first keyword is a resilient building. We create resiliency in terms of how long the building lasts.”
By age 16, Lawrence-Slavas had been working for a few years helping his father until his dad decided he was going to be more conscious about what projects he could take on, both physically and time-wise.
“At that point, I started branching myself off and looking,” he recalled. “I know I loved the trades. I loved working with my hands, and I didn’t have a lot of experience other than post-and-beam building. I started to get more of a feeling for the commercial work in that time of my life, understanding more about the owner dynamic. And that part of it kind of intrigued me.”
He packed his bags after graduating high school and moved to Colorado to work in the trades. When he got there, he had to work on things “you don’t necessarily want to do to make it work.”
He told BusinessWest that experience taught him a lot about resilience, self-motivation, responsibility, and the need to network. “I didn’t have the option to look at my feet when I talked out there. I really had to be engaging and build myself.”
Still, as he progressed in Colorado, he felt the work was not where he wanted to be, and that he was having a “midlife crisis at 25 years old.”
He was building gorgeous homes, he explained, but they were being used only for a short amount of time during the year, and most of them were energy-inefficient. With internal conflict growing, he questioned whether what he was doing was something he felt good about, and that was the catalyst for creating a new goal. So he decided to move back to New England, where he met his wife, who pushed him to go back to school.
Lawrence-Slavas attended UMass Amherst for his bachelor’s degree, and the university offered him a master’s track in building and construction technology, in which he worked with the school on creating local initiatives to increase financial gain in the region by using low-value wood, like white pine and hemlock.
Once he started looking for work outside of UMass, Lawrence-Slavas had a chance meeting with Wright.
“I want this company to start off what Jonathan has created and to push it well beyond where he ever thought it could go.”
“We just talked, and it became apparent that we had a lot of the same ethos to the way we live life,” he explained. “I’m a very different person than he is, but we had the same underlying principles to the way we work and the way we see things.”
As noted earlier, he started at Wright Builders as a project-development engineer, but Wright noticed that “it wasn’t my passion at all,” Lawrence-Slavas said.
He added that he’s always been able to manage people because he can connect with them well and feed off their energy. Wright recognized that and soon moved him into a managerial role, allowing Lawrence-Slavas to grow his knowledge for the business.
At the time, Ledwell was looking to retire, so the founders started to groom him for the president’s position. It was important, Lawrence-Slavas said, for them to have a clear and concise way to transfer ownership of the business. He eventually gained half-ownership of the firm and worked alongside Wright until he decided to retire as well.
Low Impact, High Performance
Wright Builders was started 45 years ago, with the goal of building high-efficiency, high-performance buildings that emphasize sustainability and energy efficiency.
For commercial projects, Lawrence-Slavas explained, the builder typically gets to choose its products, but it can be a little more difficult when it comes to building residential homes.
“We are not somebody who goes and builds a code-minimum commercial building. And for the most part, people know that about us. It limits us a bit on the commercial side, but a lot of these new energy codes for commercial buildings are where we’ve been for the last 20 years in those buildings already.”
Wright Builders tries to use products that will leave as little carbon impact as possible, as well as materials that will be less harmful to occupants and the people making the products. For example, instead of using steel and plastic materials, the company tries to use wood and natural materials, and as few off-gassing materials as possible.
“There’s too many stories about saving costs on the backs of working people, and that’s really a standard that we’re not willing to ever have. We care about it,” Lawrence-Slavas said.
He went on to explain that sustainability and low impact used to be a niche market, but now it is being brought to the masses, and Wright Builders is in a good position because it has specialized in that for a long time. The firm knows how to construct a net-zero building — which is a building that produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy-consumption requirements — and is now focused on the microeconomics of those efforts.
“How can we make sure that rk MILES stays in business? How can we make sure that Greenfield Glass is still creating glass? These things are really important aspects of what we do,” Lawrence-Slavas said. “And, looking from a microeconomic scale, we really look in this radius to our suppliers, to our subcontractors, to everything.”
But if materials have to be bought in from a farther distance, he said Wright Builders wants it to come by rail or other means of efficient transportation and not through “a bunch of small trucks that move stuff around.”
Indeed, because efficiency matters to the company, it focuses on transportation and embodied carbon — the greenhouse-gas emissions arising from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials.
The innovation at Wright Builders is currently stepping “way beyond the operational efficiency of buildings,” Lawrence-Slavas said, and thinking harder about conception. That’s innovative in the industry, he added, because the field is typically driven by money, and the way to enforce change in construction is through code mandates — and that’s what sets Wright Builders apart.
He told BusinessWest that he is trying to take what the company already knows about sustainability and carbon goals and bring it into the next generation. “I want this company to start off what Jonathan has created and to push it well beyond where he ever thought it could go. And one of the areas that we’ve always struggled in is affordable housing for people.”
Which is why that’s a key part of where the company is going. In the past year and a half, Lawrence-Slavas has worked with entities that can provide the backing for affordable home ownership and understand the pathways to the funding sources.
“I came from a background where I did not grow up in a million-dollar house with these extravagant things,” he said. “And when I look at some of the houses we build, as much as I feel good about what we’re doing, the people that need them the most are still the people that have the hardest time acquiring them.”
It’s just the latest societal concern that’s making its way into the operating philosophy of Wright Builders under its new generation of leadership.