Building the best firm starts with collaboration and ends with excellence
Have you ever found yourself inspired by a great design idea, but held yourself back when picturing the builder’s reaction?
Collaborating closely with builders can be well worth it, and some will even encourage you to take those risks.
Nick Schiffer is one of them. His company, NS Builders, is driven by curiosity and a desire for excellence. He shared with us how his construction business brings daring designs to life. More and more, this involves working hand-in-hand with architects.
Allow builders and architects to join forces
If you’re an experienced architect, don’t get stuck in the status quo.
Nick finds that while seasoned architects are the first to get excited about collaborating with builders, they’re often the last to actually pursue it.
“The younger architects are more open to it. When I pitch it to the older architects, or architects that have been doing this for awhile, they all love it. They all think it's incredibly valuable. But it usually is this whole shit sandwich, where it's like, ‘you know, that's not going to work. I love it. I think it's super smart. I think it would bring a lot of value to the client. But you know what, our clients just aren't going to go for it,’” Nick said.
If you believe an idea or approach has merit, it’s important to keep an open mind and experiment.
Nick finds that once you start collaborating, it’s hard to go back. “Once we go through it one time, they're usually sold,” Nick said.
If one thing is clear, it’s that when builders and architects work together, the result is often far superior than when they work separately. Nick hopes to bring a designer in-house at NS Builders for this very reason.
“I think having on-staff architect/design will be huge, especially as we grow into what the future company will be,” Nick said. “Frankly, I would love to. Because I want to be part of that. And a lot of the decisions that I make in the field could be discussed earlier on.”
Seek out feedback to build better budgets
The first hurdle that builders and architects can surmount together? Budgeting.
Architects are often not best suited to provide holistic project quotes. In fact, it can be tricky even for builders to know if a fellow builder’s project was successful financially—unless they get on the phone and ask.
“You can take, Hey, the last house that we did, that one up there on the board, yeah. I remember that budget being $2 million. But do you know if that building made money on that job? Do you know if that was a success for that building?” Nick said.
Maybe that building cost a million because the builder did extra work out of the kindness of his heart. There's often a false understanding of costs, especially when communication lines aren’t open between professions.
When the process is collaborative, you can get on the phone and say “Hey, how'd this house go? I got another similar project. That one costs $2 million to build, did that end up in a good position? Was that a success for you? And get that feedback, and then go back to the client,” said Nick.
The earlier you can loop a builder into a project, the better value they can help deliver for the project as a whole. Many of Nick’s clients bring him on in a retainer role at the start.
“We're in a position right now where they've designed the house to a point where it's an $8 million project and their budget was less than half that. If we had been brought on earlier, we could have done some preliminary homework to make sure that we guided that design in the right direction,” Nick said.
The more informed you are about how things work on all sides of the design-build process, the more you can start to develop SOPs to guide future estimating.
“Let's build this out in a way that we can streamline this. Is it by room? Can we look at each room and figure how many square feet each room is? Can we quantify certain things, rather than quantifying materials and quantifying each and every surface? I do think that there's an opportunity for that to be connected back to the architect,” said Nick.
Take an intentional approach to design and construction
In the spirit of collaboration, Nick is constantly on the lookout for tips and tricks to perfect his construction craft.
Each time he notices or is inspired by something, it goes into his own playbook for the future.
“I talk to different architects and dig into: why does that look so good? It's like, well, we really thought this through. The shadow gap really shouldn't be a quarter inch, it really should be five-sixteenths or three-eighths because of the level of discrepancy. And I'm like, okay, that's noted. Never doing a quarter-inch shadow gap again,” said Nick.
Once you start to absorb knowledge, it influences your approach to how you do everything else.
Being observant is how Nick fell into his obsession with Australian contemporary design, which he hopes to bring to life through his practice in the United States.
“On a job site, I'll be walking around. Dissimilar materials has been this thing for me recently. Where if they're dissimilar, don't touch them. Completely celebrate the fact that they're a totally different material,” he said.
“I think mckimm down in Australia does a fantastic job at that, where a vanity might be close to the wall, but he's not scribing the stone to the wall. It's left off, and it's intentional. And it looks intentional. It doesn't look like it was cut wrong, it was intentionally done. I start grabbing those things and realizing that there's a better way to do these things,” said Nick.
His advice? Start getting more intentional in how you approach everything.
Get innovative when solving design problems
Designers are hired to come up with creative solutions, and Nick embraces the same mentality on his construction projects.
Sometimes the details are worth looking at, even if the execution is more complex than it first appears.
Recently, Nick worked with an architect who had done a design. When he paid to have it rendered so that he could share the end-goal vision with his team, he noticed something.
“After I rendered it, I realized that there were these HVAC vents on this wall that was otherwise really blank. And it was the first thing that you saw when you walked in,” he said.
He proposed to the architect a new solution based on his experience with buildings.
“I'm like, what if we get rid of those HVAC vents and we throw them up into a reveal below the steel truss, so it comes up and over this plastered return? You'd never see it. It would supply the air appropriately, but we don't have the vents on the wall,” Nick said.
While it took some extra time to execute the new design, it was rewarding work.
At the end of the day, architects and builders are both hired so they can be creative.
Pursue excellence at all costs
Nick is fixated on creating a finished product that he and his team can be proud of.
If there is any doubt that the final product is less than perfect, he doesn’t hesitate to go back to square one.
“I want everyone to be able to stand back and look at it and be like, ‘this is my best,’” he said.
Once, he ripped out an entire kitchen.
“We stepped back and said we missed the bar. And we missed the bar big time. It cost a ton of money. But we sat in that room, and Ken who runs my shop and I were standing there. And him and I spent the whole day trying to fix some of the issues,” said Nick.
He asked Ken: Is there anything we can do in this space to get this to a point that you go home and feel like you would be proud of this?
The answer was no.
“I picked up my phone. I called the client. I said, we're ripping your kitchen out. Let us know when you can go away on vacation, and we'll do it around that week,” Nick said.
While it sounds extreme, Nick is pursuing a clear vision for his building practice. And that vision sometimes means taking big risks.
“I don't want to go my whole life wondering if I could have risked and made it. Everyone usually tells you worst-case scenario. Like what happens if you get sued? What happens if you lose a million dollars on that deal?” said Nick.
“But what if that didn't happen? What if it was a massive success?”
These are the types of questions that can drive us forward as creatives—builders and architects alike.
Join us on Thursday, May 6th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Nick Schiffer of NS Builders.
Nick Schiffer established NS Builders in 2014, and has carefully filled his team with other enthusiastic creatives. Driven by a collective passion for quality craftsmanship, NS Builders has grown into one of the most renowned home builders in the Eastern Massachusetts area. Far beyond Nick's regional practice, Nick has become a global resource to contractors, architects, and owners across the world through his popular Instagram and YouTube channel, where he shares detailed knowledge and processes during site visits and shop tours. Nick also co-hosts The Modern Craftsman Podcast and contributes to Fine Homebuilding magazine.
In this 2 hour deep dive, we'll talk to Nick about the business of building quality.
- Secrets to achieving quality architecture during construction
- How architects can work more effectively with general contractors and subcontractors
- Insights Nick has discovered as a result of sharing his methods, ideas and details with the community
- And more!