If you read trade magazines and other publications geared to
builders, you already know that there are all kinds of local,
regional, and national awards programs for excellence in
building and remodeling. On the surface, these might seem like
an excuse for builders to get together and pat one another on
the back. The reality is quite different. After more than 20
years of competing for and winning awards, I'm convinced that
good builders win awards because they're good, but also that
winning awards can help make a good builder even better.
There are some obvious benefits to being able to present
yourself as an award-winning builder. First, it attracts new
customers by putting your name before the public in a favorable
light. Local newspapers often cover awards presentations as
news, and this is the best advertising you can get. I have many
customers who first heard about our company in this way.
Second, awards are very reassuring to customers who have heard
about you from other sources. When I hold a sales meeting in my
office, I don't have to say anything about the many awards
we've won over the years -- they're right there on the wall.
This tells the customer that we're a solid company with an
established reputation for doing top-quality work.
Building a portfolio. But
there are also some important spin-off benefits. You need good
photos to enter awards competitions, and that forces you to get
more and better photos of your jobs than you otherwise
We enter six or eight competitions annually, and over the
years we've built up a large photographic portfolio of our most
successful past projects. When customers describe the type of
kitchen they have in mind, for example, we can often pull out
photos of a similar project. This often helps bring the
clients' ideas into focus, and it also demonstrates that we're
organized and experienced.
Web fodder. Our collection
of photos also came in handy a few years ago when we made the
decision to set up a website. We were able to scan a selection
of before and after shots and post them on the site, allowing
potential customers to take virtual tours of many different
Customer participation. A
builder who plans to enter a project in an awards competition
has to obtain a signed release from the client before doing so.
In my experience, that's not a problem for most people. (To
protect privacy, contest rules usually prevent customer names
and addresses from being made public.)
Many of my customers, in fact, are interested to learn that
their home may be in the running for an award. If their project
wins, they're often far more excited than I am. Besides being
tickled to death that we did our best work on their house, the
customer is also left with the feeling that they hired the best
possible person to do the job. They're quick to share the story
with their friends and neighbors, and that often leads to more
Planning a Campaign
How do you go about winning awards? It's simple: by entering
contests. Lots of builders do potentially award-winning work,
but most of them either don't realize it or feel that they
can't justify spending time entering contests when they have so
many other things to do. That's understandable, but short
Seed money. Contest entry
costs are a budget line item for our company, because that's
the only way to make sure the necessary work gets done. This
year, we've budgeted $2,500 to cover entry fees, photography,
and the hours that a staff person and I will spend in preparing
a half-dozen or so applications.
Contests and categories.
I've found that local awards benefit my company most directly.
Several years ago, we competed for and won a prestigious
national remodeling award. That made us feel great, and the
medal looks good hanging on the wall, but as far as I know it's
never brought me a single customer. On the other hand, I do a
lot of work for clients who hear about me through an awards
program run by our local NAHB affiliate, the Peninsula
The Showcase Awards program, as it's called, includes about
ten entry categories, such as Residential Interior, Kitchen,
Bathroom, and Residential Exterior. Each of these appears in
two different price ranges: one for projects under $50,000, and
another for projects that cost more than that amount (see
Figure 1). Contest entries are due by the beginning of
September, but we start planning many months ahead.
Figure 1.Awards competitions are usually divided
into categories by project type and price range. Concentrating
on mid-range projects in less popular categories improves the
odds of success.
Early each year, we compare the list of contest categories to
the jobs we have coming up, to decide which projects to enter.
One of the first things we consider is the amount of
competition each category is likely to attract.
For example, builders and remodelers take special pride in
their biggest, most spectacular projects. (I think of projects
like that as potential "salesmanship awards," since selling a
job like that is often the real challenge.) As a result,
contests receive a lot of entries for big, high-end projects
and fewer entries for middle-sized and small jobs.
Small is beautiful. Don't
overlook very small projects that turned out extremely well
within the limits of a tight budget. We've done well in the
Small Job category of our local program, which has an upper
limit of $5,000. Because these aren't as exciting as larger
projects, they attract fewer entries, so the odds of winning
are a lot better.
We also try to spread out our entries. If you enter several
projects in the same category, you're effectively competing
against yourself. It's usually more productive to play the odds
and enter as many different categories as possible. Don't
overlook the possibility of dividing a single large project
into several smaller categories. When we do a whole-house
remodel, we may enter the master bathroom in one category, the
exterior addition in another, and the remodeled kitchen in a
Photographs and Applications
In most cases, the photos you provide will be all the contest
judges have to go on when evaluating your entry. (In a big
national competition, the judges may also make a site visit,
but the right photos are still necessary to get you to that
stage.) A project may be a tremendous success in every way, but
if you don't have good photos, the judges have no way of
Before and after. I take the
before and after photos of our jobs with a fully automatic
35-mm camera loaded with print film. Even though I don't know
much about photography, this gives me good results.
A professional photographer might come up with nicer-looking
photos, but I'm not entering a photography competition. What
really matters is that the judges can clearly see what's going
on. Taking the photos myself lets me focus on the sort of
construction details I want the judges to notice. (The Showcase
Awards judges are remodelers, architects, and other building
The right lens. Small spaces
like bathrooms and kitchens are difficult to photograph
successfully with a standard fixed lens, because you can't pull
far enough back to fit everything into the frame. A wide-angle
lens gives you a wider field of view but introduces a
"fish-eye" distortion. On the advice of a local camera shop, we
bought a 20-70-mm aspherical zoom lens made by Tamron. The
aspherical feature means that the lens is designed to reduce
the distortion found at the edges of photos taken with a
conventional wide-angle lens. It's also very versatile. At the
20-mm end of the range, it gives me good interior shots.
Zooming into the 50-mm midrange gives me a normal lens, and
going all the way to 70 mm provides a short telephoto that's
often useful for exterior shots.
Assembling the package. The specifics of completing an
application will vary from one competition to the next. The
Showcase Awards competition requires the following:
* a completed project information sheet (Figure 2)
* before and after photos with captions describing the work
* blueprints and/or floor plans
* a signed release letter from the homeowner
* a written description of the job
Figure 2.A project information sheet sent with
each contest entry provides the judges with basic facts about
the job. A separate written job description, blueprints, and
photos with captions add detail.
All of this information goes into a three-ring binder provided
by the contest organizers, along with a separate cover letter
on company letterhead. Once we have all the photos, plans, and
the signed release in hand, it takes about four or five hours
to complete the application.
We try to make it as easy as we can for the judges by
arranging the photos in a logical order with clear
descriptions. We strive for a varied and interesting photo
package by including a mix of 8x10 prints with smaller 3x5s.
The four or five large prints provide the big picture
(hopefully producing an overall "wow" in the minds of the
judges), while the smaller ones fill in the details.
When you're looking at plans and photos of a remodeling
project, it's not always easy to tell how they fit together
without puzzling over them for a while. We make a practice of
identifying the locations of the photos on the prints or floor
plans. This saves time and effort on the part of the judges and
may give us a slight edge over the competition.
In both the photo captions and the written project
description, we try to provide complete information without
telling the judges what to think. For example, we might
describe an expensive front door as a hand-carved solid
mahogany door. Calling it beautiful or elegant or lovingly
handcrafted might make you feel good about your writing skills,
but it won't enlighten the judges much.
On the other hand, it's a good idea to include detailed
information about features that were important to the
homeowner. We recently had a customer who specifically wanted a
bright light over the toilet so he could read comfortably. We
provided one, and mentioned it on the entry form we filled out
Games contestants play. Each
contest entry goes into its own binder, and the judges review
each one separately without knowing who submitted it. To help
keep the judges guessing, though, we alter each application
slightly by using different type fonts and different paper
Although this probably isn't necessary, it's sort of a game
with us. We enter a lot of categories and win a lot of awards,
so we think it's to our advantage to make them appear to come
from different sources. That could prevent the judges from
saying, "Well, it's really a tie, but this entry looks like it
came from Criner. He won last year, so let's give it to the
other guy this time."
Being a Winner
If you win an important national award, the organizers will
let you know with a phone call. The winners of local
competitions like the Showcase Awards are usually announced at
an awards dinner. These can be a lot of fun, and they can
provide some useful insight into the judging process.
I often find that the project I'd felt was a surefire winner
turns out not to be, while the less exciting job I'd entered
almost as an afterthought does win. The lesson is that it pays
to place as many entries as possible, because you can't
necessarily predict what the judges will be looking for.
Don't forget the white
shirt. After the awards have been given out, the winners
usually pose for photos. The Showcase Awards places a photo of
the winners on the back cover of a special supplement on
remodeled homes that appears annually in our local paper.
That's a very visible location, so I make an effort to show up
well in the photo.
One of my strategies is to remember to wear a white shirt to
the dinner and take off my jacket for the photo session. That
way, the dark-colored awards plaques I'm holding will show up
well against the light background (Figure 3).
Figure 3.Local awards programs are often showcased
in local newspaper supplements and other media. When posing for
photos (above), the author -- sitting on the front row, far
right -- wears a white shirt to provide a contrasting
background for his many newly won plaques.
This is also where winning multiple awards can really pay off.
If you're juggling a half-dozen or more plaques while the
others around you have one, two, or three awards apiece,
potential customers who see the photo are more likely to notice
Boosting company morale. An
awards ceremony can also be a good way to recognize the
contributions of your employees. The lead people on the
projects we enter in the local competitions come along on
awards night (at company expense, of course) so they can be
part of the excitement.
When we won the National Remodeling Quality Award, we went
even further. I took the whole company -- all ten of our
employees -- to the awards ceremony, which was held in
Indianapolis. We did it up right and had a lot of fun.
When it came time to go from the hotel to the ceremony, for
example, we hired a stretch limo to take us there. It probably
didn't cost much more than hiring the three or four taxis we
would have needed otherwise, and it was much more
We all came home feeling great. The whole company was
practically walking on air, and you can't put a price on that.
Okay, you can: There were airline tickets, hotel rooms, meals,
and all the rest. But it was worth it.
Keeping it going. Once you
start winning awards, it's important to keep winning them.
Customers actually read the award plaques on your office wall,
and they notice the dates. If you have awards from 1991, 1992,
and 1993 but nothing more recent, your customer may wonder why
your company isn't as good as it used to be. It probably
doesn't hurt to miss a year here and there, but you will
inspire more confidence if you can point to a continuous string
of awards leading all the way to the present.
Robert Criner'saward-winning remodeling business is
located in Yorktown, Va.