Pro-File Build: Dovetail General Contractors

In 1998, Scott Edwards took a job as a project manager for a small Seattle builder named Dovetail. He left after a few years to work for a large framing company but returned in 2005. In his absence, Chad Rollins had joined the staff, which numbered about 18. With an architecture degree, Chad had previously worked for the Miller Hull Partnership on public projects, and then briefly as a contractor. The men teamed up as general managers at Dovetail until 2011, when the owner had to step away. Then they bought the 20-year-old business, opening a bottle of prosecco to celebrate.

Chad Rollins (left) and Scott Edwards set Dovetail on a new path when they bought the then-20-year-old company from their former boss in 2011. Photography: Jill Hardy. 

Dovetail is a dynamic company that has translated its original name into a well-honed working philosophy. “The wood shop was a component of the previous inception and is part of where the company name came from,” Scott says. “But we have a different connotation for it now: being that strengthful joint that unites the design and execution and management of work and can lock it all together. We expanded it to how we see ourselves in the building scene.”

The past decade has been a transformative period at Dovetail. With about 100 employees working in an adaptive reuse waterfront building in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the company has built a robust regional presence. The partners attribute that to three concepts: a servant leadership approach to management, well-defined processes that are continually being assessed and improved, and attracting talented people by providing mentorship, a clear path for professional growth, and a competitive compensation package—the things people need to be successful outside of work.

To understand how they got here, one need only look at the partners’ own turning points. When Scott was recruited away to the framing world in the early 2000s, it was an opportunity to learn how to run a larger construction firm of about 300 people. “It wasn’t running well, and a consultant hired me to come and fix the problems,” he says. After a time, however, “I had a question in my soul about what I was working on. Dovetail felt better from many standpoints.”

One reason was that when Scott left Dovetail, they had been building Craftsman-style homes. While he was away, Chad had begun to nudge the umwelt in a different direction: Scott returned to a company that architects trusted with the complexities of modern design. “I wanted to be involved with a group performing at a higher level,” Scott says. 

Chad had similar moments of clarity in his career path. Miller Hull’s public projects had three- to five-year timelines from concept to completion. His desire to be closer to the work and to precise craftsmanship led him away from architecture to general contracting.

Purchasing the business in the aftermath of the housing crash presented a sink-or-swim opportunity to examine what they did best and, as Chad says, “tweak all those dials going forward.” Seattle’s food culture was exploding, so they developed relationships with restaurateurs and others in the commercial industry. “We were working with architects trying to muscle their way through the downturn,” he says. “We found that our system transferred from residential to commercial work seamlessly. Carpenters in the field were able to bring something special on their own accord. And to have our work be more public was nice for morale.”

As the company began to produce larger projects, the wood shop grew, acquiring more sophisticated equipment such as a CNC machine. And by 2015, with Dovetail producing shop drawings for vast amounts of metalwork, it opened its own metal shop, followed by a concrete shop in 2018. Then, the partners began hiring in a more intentional way. 

People and Process

Dovetail has grown methodically, expanding its staff by 7 or 8 percent each year. That pace gives it time to test its systems. With 10 or more active projects at a time, each job has a project manager, dedicated superintendent, foreman, and lead carpenter—and most jobs are now large enough to require a project engineer. These well-defined job descriptions create a visible path for advancement. “By building a system and investing in our people, not just financially but through our workforce, people can see how to get from laborer to carpenter 1, then to carpenter 2 and 3, then lead carpenter and foreman,” Chad says.

“If they come in as a general carpenter and are interested in concrete, they learn to specialize in that trade. The more successive people there are on a path, the more stories they have to tell people coming in. Mentoring becomes this nice connection. What I love about construction is that the skill set is handed to the next person very personally.”

Those skill sets plug into sophisticated processes that cross-pollinate the residential and commercial work. Ninety percent of Dovetail’s projects come from architects, and the team forms as soon as schematics are approved to define scope, schedule, costs, and quality. Preconstruction involves using 3D digital modeling to vet the design team’s drawings for constructability. Chad calls it the “conflict resolution process,” and it’s as important for houses as commercial projects. 

“We have a heavy hand in orchestrating mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems,” he says. “Engineers might not be in sync with the architecture, so we’re working closely with the architects to preserve design intention, and with our subcontractors, looking at potential conflicts that will hold up construction and getting it resolved beforehand.”

The 50-50 partners prefer staying close to the work. While Chad oversees process, systems, and technical building proficiencies, Scott heads up human resources and team building. They share tasks such as business development, management, and team leadership. Synergy is a catalyst for growth, and the partners like to stir the pot. 

Dovetail’s ideal project mix is 75 percent residential, 25 percent commercial, because with their longer timeline, houses offer more stability than commercial work. A $7 million house might take 20 months to build, whereas a $7 million restaurant goes up in seven months, Scott says. “Commercial work is fast and complex; we are successful in it because of the sophistication of what we’re working on residentially. Bringing our expertise of craft to commercial projects elevates those projects, maybe through an idea or a hand on the site that makes it better.” The benefits go both ways.

Commercial work has influenced how they manage residential projects by teaching them how to push scheduling and move shop drawings through quickly. The diversity keeps them learning and growing.

Dovetail’s scripted rigor sets the homeowners up for success, too. Year after year, the company refines its templates by keeping track of the things that put pressure on a project, such as not having budget conversations early enough; when people want to move too quickly and skip some of the process; or scope creep during construction. Although every project is a prototype, when clients request changes midstream, previous experience allows the team to adjust quickly. “You can tweak a system when you’re consistent with it, make improvements, lean into it, see what’s working,” says Scott.

The biggest component—and client stressor—is the home’s price tag, of course. “It’s probably one of the most unsavory parts of the conversation,” Chad says. “If we can come together early and vet that design against our historical knowledge of what it takes to build these projects, it makes the team stronger and healthier, because everyone is informed and expectations are aligned. Everyone wants cool things, but they cost money. At any time, we’re building five to seven projects, and also pricing five to seven projects, so we have a pretty deep understanding of what it will take.”

As a bonus, many Dovetail employees come from architectural backgrounds and work hard to find economies while preserving the design intent. “Sometimes just changing the methodology of how something is built puts it at a price point that’s achievable,” he adds.

Locked In

During the pandemic, many businesses were forced to work smarter on the fly. For Dovetail it was a chance to test how well its systems and values held up to adversity. One change the partners made was to procure materials earlier, asking clients to provide temporary storage if necessary and building that cost into the project budget. “The sanity of knowing the material was in our hands was a way to mitigate some of the supply chain issues,” Chad says. They’re also more cognizant now of protecting the health of the group. That means encouraging people to stay home when they’re sick, or Zooming instead of meeting in person. 

Challenges notwithstanding, Dovetail is on the move. Not for the first time, they have outgrown a building. The wood shop will soon expand into an adaptive reuse building at Interbay, just across the ship channel from the office, where it will share a former car storage facility with a brewing company. Historically, moves have occurred every five or six years as the enterprise evolved. “The concrete shop is managed inside our building, and I envision a day when concrete will need its own space,” Chad says.

Looking ahead, Dovetail is positioned to compete as modernist houses become increasingly complicated to build. And as with residential projects, the partners will continue to look for commercial brands that share their values and vision, and for whom design and craft matter to the success of their clients’ businesses. An example is Filson, maker of durable outdoor wear. Dovetail has built Filson projects in Seattle and New York City. Both designed by Seattle-based Heliotrope Architects, the stores’ rustic-refined casework, exposed timber, and metal and brick wood-burning fireplaces create a clear perception of the brand. Dovetail likes working with clients who share their preference for reusing historic buildings—such as the Fremont Collective project—and environmental focus, such as the Klotski Building, with its water collection and recycling systems. Restaurateurs who provide creative food will always be an appealing clientele, too. 

“I love the hierarchy of a restaurant in terms of dishwasher, prepper, sous chef—people can move through the same way as we can in our system,” Scott says.  “A high-caliber chef is like a high-caliber lead carpenter. That duality is always interesting to us.”

In that way, the project types have a direct influence on the company culture, and vice versa. The goal, Scott and Chad say, is to build a strong philosophy that people can identify with, whether they are potential clients or prospective employees. Although the labor market is tight, they haven’t struggled to find talented people. “Because we have these different facets, it puts us in touch with a wide network of people. Our people have made us successful, and they become a magnetic force.”

Women make up about 18 percent of that force. They are performing at all levels, from carpenter to project manager to human resources director. Last fall, Dovetail’s wood shop hosted a workshop by women for women, in collaboration with Patagonia Seattle and Sawhorse Revolution. The latter, a nonprofit that teaches carpentry to youth, received the proceeds from ticket sales. With outreach activities like that, it’s easy to see why Chad says they consistently find young people who love this work. “Don’t give up on the younger generation,” he says. “They want to work too.”

In the simplest terms, the servant leadership model that Dovetail espouses means that the team leader’s job is to set up good days for their team, making sure they have the resources to be successful. Management fills in with people who check the boxes: who are passionate about the work, committed to personal and professional growth, and positive in the face of setbacks. “You have to be able to tell some jokes, too, have fun,” Chad quips. 

Self-assured and possessed with talent, the contractors can see a clear path forward. “We are lucky to be doing amazing work that attracts amazing people,” Scott says.

Projects Built by Dovetail

City Cabin by Olson Kundig

Reclaimed fir, milled from a 2,300-year-old slab, appears on the exterior and the kitchen island of City Cabin, designed by Olson Kundig Architects. Dovetail produced all the cabinetry and metalwork. The passive solar house also has a green roof and PV array. Photography: Aaron Leitz Photography

Homecoming Beach House by Heliotrope Architects

Dovetail’s concrete shop, Fieldworks Custom Concrete, fabricated the board-formed concrete walls, patio pavers, courtyard water feature, and driveway at  Homecoming Beach House, designed by Seattle-based Heliotrope Architects. Photography: Kevin Scott.

The Perch by Chadbourne + Doss Architects

At the Perch, overlooking the Salish Sea, the company used CNC equipment to fabricate elements such as a Corian sofa base, metal staircase rods and walnut treads that can be dismantled for maintenance, and the serpentine portions of concrete and aluminum formwork on the courtyard water feature. Photography: Kevin Scott. See our full coverage of this project here.

Whidbey Farm by mwworks

Whidbey Island Farmhouse synthesizes Dovetail’s flawless detailing of alder, teak, oak, steel, and stone. Photography: Kevin Scott. See our full coverage of this project here.