Building a big house requires a big crew
High Country Business Review
VAIL ” As skiers glide by the Forest Place Residences, scores of roofers, framers, trim carpenters and others work on the last project of its kind here.
The Forest Place residences, four large single-family homes within whistling ” and skiing ” distance of two ski lifts, represent the last ski-in, ski-out single-family homes in Vail. The man who’s building them knows they’re something special.
Since 2005, general contractor Tim Olson has run this crew of professionals from a construction trailer hard against Vail Mountain. In that time, the group has finished one of the $15 million homes. Another will be ready by summer, and a third by the start of next ski season. The fourth will be ready in 2008. The four homes are a rare chance to see most of the waves of people it takes to build a large home in one place at one time.
With all those people on site, how do people stay out of each other’s way?
“We don’t!” said Dick Raymondo, owner of Eagle River Trim, whose company is doing the fine woodwork in the homes. “But that’s all right. Sometimes we help each other out inside.”
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The scene inside a home can get pretty hectic, especially the closer it is to being done.
“Mostly, working with other people is easy,” said Jim Sale, whose Denver-based company is handling the lighting systems for all the homes.
The Forest Place project has all the elements that go into building a big home on one site. But except for the size, cost and manpower required, building a mansion isn’t that much different than building a home just about anywhere in the country.
“There are a minimum of 30 different suppliers and subcontractors on just about any home project,” said Erik Peterson, owner of OAC Management, an Edwards company that helps owners shepherd a home to completion.
Any construction project has to meet standards in 16 areas, Peterson said, from soils tests to roofing integrity and everything in between. Like a general contractor, a construction manager sets a construction schedule, hires subcontractors, then supervises all the work until handing over the keys to the new owner.
Perhaps the key difference between a general contractor such as Olson, and a construction manager, is fairly simple: who carries the insurance.
A general contractor takes on the liability for his crews and subcontractors, Peterson said. Construction managers hire people to build a home, but the homeowner takes on the liability.
Either way, building a house is a tricky job. Building a big house is even more so, and takes careful scheduling.
Before a home project breaks ground, Peterson draws up what he calls a “critical path schedule,” essentially a timeline that indicates when excavation, roofing and other jobs will be done and how long those jobs should take.
He then asks for bids on all those jobs. But there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead.
Of all the mistakes an owner can make on a home project, Peterson said perhaps the biggest is setting too ambitious a schedule.
“That’s a fatal error,” he said. “Subcontractors will sometimes take on more work than they can schedule, or something else will happen.” Sometimes, for whatever reason, a subcontractor won’t be able to do the job at all.
“It’s important to build ‘float’ into the schedule,” Peterson said. “And you need a plan B. I get at least three bids for every job. A lot of times it’s not necessary. But if one (subcontractor) can’t go, you’re covered.”
The process is a little different for Olson, who has been building expensive houses in Eagle County for years.
After all those years, Olson has a group of people he relies on, and who he calls first when it’s time to build.
“We have a great group of subcontractors,” he said. “They know the quality of work we expect.”
Raymondo is a little more modest.
“He uses me because when he calls, I’ll come,” he said.
With a trusted crew on the job, Olson can concentrate on the fine points. And when a contractor is building $15 million homes that weren’t sold when the project began, those fine points can change.
As the price of resort real estate has gone up, so have the expectations of the people who buy it.
That can mean some big changes on the inside.
“There were no owners when work started on these homes,” Sale said. “When the houses have owners, that puts another level of complication into the process.”
And “complicated” is just part of the way the business has changed over the years.
In the 1970s, a home of 4,000 square feet that cost $1 million was a big project, Olson said. Now, that’s the size and price of a comfortable home in Eagle.
The Forest Place homes average 11,000 square feet, and carry those $15 million price tags. Owners expect a lot, and contractors either deliver or don’t work.
“There aren’t nearly as many powder days as there used to be,” Olson said.
But there’s still fun on the job site.
“We’re all here to make some money and have some fun,” Olson said.
But, Raymondo said, there’s a little more to it.
“We’re here for the professionalism,” he said. “When we’re done, we know what we’ve done here.”