Large-scale estate projects are more than just pretty pools

Oee 1108 AqYou have to understand architecture, art, materials. You have to understand the tastes of people who - you know, some of these people are the sort of people who spend $4,000 to $5,000 on a hotel room a night," explains Robert Nonemaker, principal of Outerspaces and Robert Nonemaker Exterior Designs, describing the type of client he deals with on a day-to-day basis.

"A lot of people have a hard time understanding that level of wealth. [These clients have] very complicated lives, and they want somebody who's going to solve all the problems for them."

For the majority of the industry, projects on this magnificent of a scale are something only seen in magazines. And there's a reason for that. Not everybody can do them. It isn't that builders lack the talent or creative ability, it's just that it takes a very special breed to commit to one single project for what can take up to several years to complete. Even then, the execution of these projects reaches far beyond materials and the final product.

Building large-scale estate projects takes on a life of its own. From the relationship with the client to the relationships with the multiple other players needed to make the final waterscape stand in a class of its own, there are many facets to making this type of undertaking come to life.

Preceding Reputation

The success of many high-dollar estate builders relies on the two R's: reputation and referrals. The tight-knit community of big spenders likes to share the wealth, so to speak, and pass along their own good fortune in finding a quality builder.

"No. 1 is our reputation," says Bill Goddard, owner of Goddard Construction Services. "We do not bid any projects. They come to us because of our reputation, and our reputation is built around water features. I won't do a project unless there is a large waterfall and either a pool or lake included in it."

Once a potential client approaches Goddard, he begins the design process, where he gets to know the client a bit more. Like many in the business, Goddard has clients fill out a questionnaire, providing him with more information about their lifestyle, personal design tastes and how they entertain. Unlike like average client, Goddard's often throw charity events, with one hosting at least 500 people in one evening on a sprawling estate.

Nonemaker operates the same way as Goddard. Almost all of his jobs are generated by word of mouth, too.

"You don't really get the high end by putting ads out in the newspaper," Nonemaker says, "It all comes from referrals. The client goes to somebody else's house and says, 'This is gorgeous. We want something like this but we've been having a hard time finding someone we can with deal with.' And sure enough, they give them our number and they give me a call."

Nonemaker maintains his reputation by meeting with clients between five and 10 times before making the commitment to work together. And even then, their relationship extends far beyond the final product.

"It all comes down to trust. They're not buying price; they're buying trust. They are buying a relationship, and I always feel it's great to give a little before you get. They know you are there to help them."

When clients are spending millions of dollars on their properties, both Nonemaker and Goddard agree that trust is the key. And in order to maintain that trust, the project must mean much more than just a paycheck.

When builders spend so much time on a project, it's important to develop a working relationship beyond the parameters of the project. Nonemaker often takes clients out to dinner or for drinks, introducing them to fine restaurants they may not already be familiar with.

"Many people have the same relationship with me that they do with an interior desiger they've had for years. That's really what it is," adds Nonemaker, "They know I'm going to do what's best for them and take care of them."

In order to devote the time needed to create such expansive projects, as well as give clients the attention they need and deserve, a large-scale estate designer's calendar is much different than what some would commonly experience.

Calendar Year

"We're typically on projects two to four years," says Goddard. "We only do what I call one and a half at a time, meaning that we have one main project that we're working on." Goddard will continue wrapping up previous projects or move onto starting another project, but his main construction crew is always just on one job.

Goddard and his crew basically "move in" on his client's property, bringing in an office trailer and a portable concrete batch plant. Because GCS is a complete design/build firm, they do everything in-house, except electric and plaster. Having 24/7 access to the project allows the crew to make immediate changes to the construction process if need be, as well as minor changes throughout the entire building phase.

GCS's current project, the Acampo Estate, has taken nearly six and half years to complete. The 44-acre estate includes a 3.5-acre manmade trophy-bass lake and a 1,400-square- foot swimming pool. Goddard also trucked in 22,000-pound trees because the client requested a mature landscape.

Incorporating such things as trees and boulders to complete the look is an extremely difficult job, especially on large-scale projects, and can take extended periods of time to complete.

Chris Kane, co-owner of Kane Brothers in Burr Ridge, Ill., creates water features for these types of estates, and explains that stone placement alone can take anywhere from a few weeks to months to over a year.

Kane relies heavily on engineering, as bringing in boulders for a multi-acre estate is daunting. After multiple visits to the quarry to determine which rocks will best fit the project, transportation becomes the next task.

"Organizing the transport of that material is always interesting," says Kane. "It's usually multiple trucking companies. And depending on the size of the stone - there are weight restrictions on the road - so often times we'll have one single boulder on a semi trailer, and even then, we'll need a permit because we'll be overweight with one of the boulders."

Piecing It Together

Once the materials make it to the site, builders need to mobilize them again and then start the placement. Piecing together every minute aspect of the project is an integral part of the process, making sure one flows with the next, and vice versa. In order to maintain that control, Nonemaker, like Goddard, doesn't take on more than he can handle.

Nonemaker says he may have two large estate projects going at any one time where his company is designing the entire estate. He also has a lot of projects where he is just one part of the project.

"At least half of our business is where we're a piece of it," he says. "I have a number of those $40 million or $50 million home projects where we may have $700,000 or $800,000 or $1 million worth of work. But we sit right at the table with the architects and the owners."

So how do they do it? How is it possible to balance the everyday rigor of managing and creating a project of this scope?

Making It Work

"The hardest piece of the entire puzzle is communicating effectively between all of the team members," says Nonemaker, "What's going on, what's coming up and what needs to be done. And the other piece is the communication with the client.

"It's very, very important. That's really the only way that these sort of projects happen and are considered to be successful in the end," adds Nonemaker.

Before the BlackBerry, e-mails and faxes between the cast of players, knowing your own personal role in the grand scheme of the project's success is critical.

"Having the right people in place early on is definitely a key element," says Kane. "I think a lot of times, people get in over their heads. They see a large project and see the commission possible for it, but the other side of the coin is where you're now playing with big dollars and bigger players who are typically working in these conditions."

Kane suggests that larger projects bring opportunities to make bigger mistakes. Understanding the scope of the project and working with the right people are what makes it work. Because it takes so many different types of people to complete this scale of project, unifying as a team is a must.

"You have to be a really good team player and understand the nuances of the interpersonal relationships and the politics of a project," says Nonemaker. "Sometimes you'll have little power struggles inside these projects. You have to understand what those relationships are and what the politics of things are, and you have to adapt to that and not cause problems."

Organization is also a key element in making these projects so successful. Nonemaker suggests pre-planning and looking forward one week, one month and six months out. He admits there is always room for improvement in the organizational department, but notes that letting clients in on the inside scoop helps build the reputation that gets them their business.

"The client usually won't freak out if you tell them two weeks ahead of time, 'Look, we ordered your glass tile blend, and it's not going to be here for another three weeks. I know you thought it was going to be here in two, and we told you it's going to be here in two, but it's going to be three.'" He says clients will be extremely appreciative and continue to build their trust if you tell them ahead of time.

Part of that trust is being completely open with the client before the work even begins. "I'll tell clients that I have to make sure that we're the right contractor for you and that you're the right client for us," says Goddard. "It's got to be a two-way street because the worst thing that can happen when you get into these multi-year projects is where you don't get along, where there is friction, and then it's bad."

Dedicating years to one project definitely requires a certain mentality. But spend only a few minutes talking to the likes of Nonemaker, Kane and Goddard and you can tell their passion for their craft is far from ceasing.

"We're creating a piece of artwork," says Goddard. "I get paid to have fun. What I'm able to do daily is amazing. We are paid to create artwork. And that's what we sell our clients."

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