Sonoma County needs high-end housing beyond the wildfire reconstruction, says Christopherson Builders
Keith Christopherson was a stalwart of North Bay homebuilding, building thousands of homes over nearly three decades until the Great Recession, and now he’s applying his big-project prowess toward the big wildfire rebuild in Sonoma County.
He started as a carpenter’s apprentice in the 1970s, then he and his wife, Brenda, started Christopherson Construction, later Christopherson Homes. They relaunched in home development as Synergy Group with son Andy and other partners a few years ago. Just after the October 2017 wildfires destroyed over 5,000 Sonoma County homes, they went out on their own as Christopherson Builders.
Focused on rebuilds and speculative homes on burned lots, they are working on projects for over 100 families. Five homes have been completed, and nearly 40 are under construction. The target pace is 1.5 home completions a week.
Ahead of his participation in the Business Journal's May 29 Building the North Bay conference, Keith Christopherson talked with the Business Journal about homebuilding now versus during the big-subdivision days before the Great Recession and about what lies beyond the rebuild.
How has insurance-fueled rebuilding changed local homebuilding?
It’s a totally different animal. We were subdivision builders. We built everything from first-time buyer to million-dollar-plus homes. Here, every home is a little bit different. Every home is on a different type of a lot. Every home is a custom home in many ways, regardless of where and what you’re building, from the moderate end to the high end.
So it’s a much higher overhead business. There’s a lot more day-to-day management than there was back when we were building large subdivisions.
You talked about young people getting ready for jobs in the trades. What have you found at the construction management level, now that you have higher demand for this day-to-day management of projects?
We don't have a lot of people for those positions. You're really trying to take your own people, and you're trying to train people up. It's a challenge; I won't lie.
With the construction management side, we've been lucky, because we bought back quite a few key people from back in the Christopherson Homes days. We just gotten great people with great aptitude and a lot of energy and, and desire to really get this done and make it happen.
We spend an inordinate amount of time working on processes in our company, and this is paying dividends, since we are in a business that's really quite a bit different from what we were accustomed to in the past. Not for the weak of heart.
When you're talking about putting systems in place, is that also how you explain the rebuild process to your clients?
Absolutely; that's a big piece of it. In the beginning, we were trying to do the best, but we didn't have the systems and the structure to back it up. We've been working with for the last year to try to smooth the road for ourselves, the customers and for our trades that are on the job.
The objective is to deliver a great home at a competitive price, in a timely manner. That's really the three legs of the stool: time, quality, and price. There's a balance to be achieved between all of those disciplines.
What challenges have you encountered in balancing quality, timeliness and pricing?
In the beginning, there were trade (subcontractor) problems. We’ve been working through that, and we’re trying to get ourselves down to a couple of really good trades in every area. We’re only as good as the people that are working with us. If you've got a turtle in front of a rabbit, the rabbit is going to be sitting there at the starting line and waiting to go. They can't do what they got to do until the turtle gets there. It's really a growing process.