Local business owner Thom Baker seeks to leave Columbia a gift when he retires. Tucked away in his equipment-lain home office, Thom Baker of...
1. What are the most significant factors that have changed the homebuilding industry in the past five years? Ten years? Twenty years?
Cale: In the past several years, we’ve seen an explosion of “smart” products; in the most recent past, we are seeing these products “talk” across brands, so we have true integration. Nest thermostats talk with Mercedes-Benz so you don’t even have to let it know you’re coming home; it sees that you are. Nest also talks with Whirlpool washer and dryers to run the cycles at the most efficient times (you do still have to put the clothes in and take them out to fold them!). Nest also talks with LIFX light bulbs to greater enhance the safety of its smoke detectors by flashing all its lights in the house red so other people outside the house — even outside of earshot — can see there’s something going on and can call for help.
One of the more exciting things we’re doing right now is sharing information with our clients. Through our online portal our clients can access all of the products they’ve selected; their schedule for their home renovation/building project; photos of before, during and after; as well as a place for all messages and daily communications to be kept in one place so everyone is sharing the same information.
The significant factor in the past five years is the clients’ demand for these changes. Most people watch enough HGTV to be expecting great product ideas as well as constant communication.
Ten years ago, in 2005, we were in the middle of a housing boom. Houses were going up like crazy. The greatest technology at that time would have been the cellphone! Most contractors would be known as late adopters. At that time, if they had a notebook (instead of a 2-by-4), they were advanced. The main reason most folks used cellphones so much was because they had so many jobs going in different places, they had to be able to stay ahead on each project.
CAD would have to be the greatest change in the past 20 years. With CAD the draftsman didn’t have to completely redraw the plans for every little change. The biggest challenge here was finding a person young enough to run one of those new-fangled computers.
Dan: The recession has reduced the number of smaller builders. Now we have several much larger companies that build most of the homes.
2. How has technology changed the homebuilding industry?
Cale: How hasn’t it? I remember when Dan, my dad, got his first computer, which he primarily used for accounting. Then he got a drafting program. And I remember when he had a phone that was attached to his truck! Now we can communicate through our online client portal, and we can see our houses in 3-D before we’ve ever put a shovel in the ground. Technology has also made our houses safer, and the codes have become stricter as product development has become more advanced (some may say too strict).
Dan: With ICR, we know to the penny our cost to build. Computers have made accounting much easier and the information more available. Everyone should know their cost, especially the overhead cost to run your business, which really kills most companies. You can always tell which builders do not understand or know their true overhead. They always say, “I’ve worked all year, and I don’t have any money left.”
3. What recent advancements in technology have made building homes easier, simpler or better?
Cale: From my perspective, it’s communication. Sounds crazy, right? Now we’re providing several avenues of communication to be able to allow the client to communicate in a format that’s comfortable to them. Some people don’t want to know what’s going on day to day; others want to know every single task that’s going to be done. Each person can choose how he or she sees his or her project. Do you like to know what color light switches we’re going to put in, or are you going to assume we’re going to put in the same kind as you already have? Clients can choose how much or how little they see each day during their project. Keeping all that information in one spot to be accessed from anywhere allows us the privilege to offer that to our clients. It really comes down to working with a client who is 70 or 27.
Dan: Programs that work with the cloud system. Our clients now have access to all their selections, contracts, plans and schedules, warranty and much more right at their computer, 24/7.
4. Tell us about some of the coolest tech that people are putting into their homes today.
Cale: Right now we’re seeing a lot of smart products, and those products are being updated even while in place. Think about how simple a thermostat can seem, but after a short time of you modifying how you like your temperature, it creates a memory of that and continues it. Once it learns that, and you link it to your Benz (maybe other cars will get on board), you don’t even have to let it know you’re coming home because it knows. Then you’re wanting to do laundry, but energy rates are higher in the summer during the middle of the day, so the dryer waits to run the cycle until later in the night, but it also runs on an ultra-quite mode and turns off the beeps at the end so it doesn’t wake anyone up. Oh yeah, it also continues to tumble the clothes every once in a while until you get up. No longer does one company have to create every product for a home. Companies are working together to specialize in their own wheelhouse but create a truly integrated home.
Dan: I love the new tiles, color and kitchen cabinet features.
5. There have been all sorts of tech developments that allow people to basically control anything about their home from their smartphones, such as controlling the thermostat, security system lighting and more. Have you built any homes with these capabilities?
Cale: We haven’t built new homes that are fully integrated, but as we do specific remodels, many folks have been using smart products that allow them to control different aspects of their home. Some people are more open to the idea of this than others. We’re finding more and more people are recognizing the advantages of these types of products, and they are becoming more open to them.
Dan: The front door lock with a KeyPod. We control the code so we know who comes in and when. It also controls the thermostats to the HVAC, and you can check or change them on the Internet.
6. What has been the most teched-out home you’ve built recently, and what sorts of cool gadgets and abilities did it include?
Cale: We still have a high number of people who are a little skittish of these changes in technology, so our technology doesn’t always have computer chips in it. We are using insulation that seals the envelope of the home and windows that expand and contract less than they used to.
Dan: See No. 5. Plus, we put pods in the house so you have good Internet access anywhere in the house. The install company that sells the products maintains it.
7. When you’re tasked with high-tech systems in homes, who’s responsible for completing those projects? And when tech breaks, is special maintenance required?
Cale: Most of the high-tech products are set up off Wi-Fi, so the electrician gets power to the product, and from there anyone can set up the product. With the advances in wireless technology, we’re no longer tied to the one spot we ran the cat 5 cable. If there is an outlet, we can have our technology there. Some people are more comfortable having an IT specialist set up their systems and having them maintain the whole system (many times the tech may even be able to maintain it from another location).
Dan: You need to leave it up to the company that sells the systems (they’re highly specialized). The key is to know who is the best at their specialty and stick with them.
8. Overall, what are the most significant current trends in homebuilding?
Cale: Sustainability is the greatest trend in building right now. We have clients who don’t want to redo what we’ve just done in 10 or 20 years. Our clients would rather have the best-built home over the spiffy countertops. Granted, they normally have the spiffy tops, too, but we have to start with great bones.
Dan: Insulation products, LED lighting, HVAC equipment.
9. What are the biggest challenges facing homebuilders today?
Cale: HGTV! Just kidding — sort of. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and it confuses people. Shows on TV talk about renovation budgets, and clients see a super fancy kitchen remodel for $20,000, and all the homeowners had to do was rip out the cabinets. They don’t talk about the fact that the hosts of the show are not charging for their time because they’re getting paid by the show or that the furniture they put in there isn’t part of the cost because it’s just staging. Then folks go online and try to research how much a kitchen remodel costs, and they get everything from $5,000 to $100,000 or more. How can anyone plan based on that? Each remodel or build is so specific that you can’t just look something up and know you’re going to fit into what someone else did on their project or their expenses. It can be very confusing for clients.
Dan: Keeping costs in line with clients’ dreams. Every day they come out with new products. Our job is to help the client discern what is important to them and to get the most out of their budget to meet those needs.
10. What might surprise the average person about your profession?
Cale: That a bathroom remodel can’t be done in a weekend, and it is nearly impossible to build a new home for $100 per square foot. A well-planned-out project shouldn’t be rushed and needs to be methodically done, and with the costs of a new home on the constant rise, we’re just into a new era of house prices. By working with clients to determine their desires and dreams, we can specialize a project to their budget, and once we have the project planned, we can create a schedule that tells us when we will be done with it. Whether that’s three weeks or eight months, our clients will know when we’ll be done when we start, and they’ll have a guaranteed price that won’t change unless they add or take something out of the project. Each client and each project is unique, and it’s a lot of fun to work with each one to come up with a great plan specific to them.
Dan: That we are 100 percent focused on them having the best building experience — even better than they thought. I love it when people say, “It even exceeded my biggest dream.”