Residential architects are used to congregating as a monoculture with each other—for learning, networking, and soaking in fresh inspiration in new locales. Last fall’s sold out Custom Residential Architects Network Symposium (CRAN) in Sonoma, Calif., was replete with such congregants, gathering continuing education credits and honing their design chops. CRAN, a group within the American Institute of Architects known as a knowledge community, focuses on the concerns of architects who practice high-end residential work. So, it was a bit of a surprise to find an executive from a high-end custom homebuilding company in attendance. In fact, it was rather intriguing. The builder was Horizon Builders of Crofton, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., and they didn’t just send a representative, they were a sponsor of the event. The plot thickens.
Horizon is well known in Washington’s custom residential market as a builder focused on excellence, especially with respect to building performance and the execution of rigorous residential design. The company works at the very top of the food chain in the region, with more work and project inquiries than they can handle. But, as we learned from Susan Sapiro, the Horizon business development manager at the CRAN event, the company has set sights even higher. Not quite as high as world domination, perhaps, but certainly dominance as a builder of the biggest and most demanding houses in the eastern United States. Says Susan, “For us, it’s really been organic growth based on what we’ve achieved. It’s catapulted us into even bigger and larger projects.”
And the key ammunition in the catapult, the company believes, is their relationships with architects, the primary source of the very best projects. That’s what brought Susan to Sonoma in support of CRAN, along with the obvious attractions of Northern California wine country.
The new math for Horizon means they are no longer accepting jobs in the $800,000 to $3 million range, as they can’t underwrite the intensity of the company’s production process. Instead, the team is working on a $40 million, multi-year project in upstate New York, and that’s the new high water mark it aspires to. It’s opened an office in Greenwich, Conn., to service the New York job and others in an area so rarefied, it makes D.C.’s wealth seem like a poor relation. The leadership hopes to penetrate the suburban New York market, but also the top jobs in Manhattan. It’s not snobbery fueling Horizon’s push for more expensive and expansive projects, it’s the company’s drive for perfection and excellence in homebuilding.
As Joe Bohm, who runs the business side of Horizon, likes to say about his partner George Fritz, “He’s probably one of the top three builders east of the Mississippi. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of not just one thing, but of everything.” Everything construction related, that is. Like any strong organization, the principals have complementary skills. “I can’t swing a hammer,” says Joe, “But George can’t balance a checkbook.” Susan has a Bachelor’s degree in architecture and a Master’s in engineering to balance out the mix.
That eye for the missing but critical piece is important. It drives the way the company runs construction projects, always searching for what could go wrong, how a system might fail, or, especially, how water might infiltrate the house—George’s special calling. In business, the principals have weathered 30-plus years of construction storms, including the deep downturn in 2008 and subsequent years. There was a time when those $800,000-to-$3 million jobs kept them afloat, albeit on a starvation diet. It wasn’t necessarily that the client base didn’t have the money to build at the highest end anymore, but that they didn’t feel secure enough to loosen the purse strings.
Once the market returned, Horizon’s management thought about how the company could operate more deliberately and strategically, capturing the very high-end jobs that were returning, pursuing even larger ones further afield, but also not completely relinquishing the smaller projects they might need if or when the market slows again. So, the principals looked at all the work they wanted to or needed to retain and their longtime employees and executives of the company, and they divided up the pie into separate entities. Joe and George lead a newly reminted Horizon; longtime executive Abe Sari now runs a new company called Alliance Builders that handles those $3 million and under major projects, and Geary Deptula spearheads Horizon HouseWorks, a repair and maintenance company that also takes on remodeling jobs under $300,000 or so. The companies continue to reside in the same Crofton offices, and Joe and George retain a stake in each and contribute advice when called upon. “We are silent partners,” says Joe.
The new structure allows each business to optimize its organization and processes to best serve its target market. “Now we can do projects from $100 to $50 million,” says Joe. “We’re a total construction solution.”
Horizon employs the largest complement of people, but the companies can sub to each other—with special synergies between Horizon and Alliance. “We do our own insulation, waterproofing, flashings, framing, interior and exterior trim, and we have our own painters, plaster guys, excavation, demolition, and backfill,” says George. Backfill, too?
“Backfill is critical,” he says. “We can do our own grading plans and silt control. We have our own dumpsters in-house, and they’re on wheels. So if the neighbor complains, I can move it in two hours. They’re tagged, so I can park them on the street. And I can start each job on time. That’s customer service.”
Among the three companies, all those tasks add up to about 65 people. Horizon has about 35, Alliance and HouseWorks about 15 each. And, given the amount of work that’s coming in, they can’t grow fast enough—especially Alliance. “If Abe could hire 10 people right away, he would. He doesn’t even have a website, and he can’t stop the work from coming in,” says Joe.
Finding good people, particularly ones who can build at the Horizon level George has set, is more than a challenge these days. “There’s just nobody out there,” says Joe. “They say they have 20 years’ experience, but what they really have is one year of experience 20 times over. And with the amount of detail that goes into our projects, that just doesn’t cut it.”
George concurs, “Our job is to build a damn near perfect house.” The ability to hit that mark repeatedly is what keeps architects coming back to Horizon and clients recommending them to friends. And that’s what will solidify the company’s position in those new markets they’re pursuing.
Says Joe, “We’re at the pinnacle of construction; everyone wants these artisan projects. But it’s so tough to do these; there’s no leeway; the details are crushing. But you have got to get them just right.”
PROJECTS UNDERWAY: 6-7
HEADQUARTERS: Crofton, Md.
RELATED ENTITIES: Alliance Builders, Horizon HouseWorks
PRINCIPALS: Joe Bohm; George Fritz; Susan Sapiro