Working in and around Wrightsville Beach, N.C., a good number of
the projects that D.P. Thomas Construction complete each year are
on or near the water — whether it's the beach, tidal
saltwater creeks, or the Cape Fear River. Projects range in cost
from $150K to well past the million-dollar mark, but owner Dave
Thomas likes to continue to service past clients and friends, so
he's not at all adverse to the smaller jobs. Above all, Thomas
looks to creating a good business relationship. If the chemistry is
right, says Thomas, the price doesn't matter so much.
I dropped in by phone to ask Dave how he's grown his business from
a small remodeling firm in the 1970s to become a local authority on
the restoration of North Carolina's architectural history. He
explains how historic preservation work can complicate a project.
But he's learned that the rewards, both in the end product and in
the market, are substantial.
WHO ARE YOUR CLIENTS, AND HOW DO YOU DEFINE
THE TYPE OF WORK YOU DO?
We serve investors, CEOs, engineers, sales executives, and
physicians as well as people who have retired from these fields.
All our clients seem to have one thing in common: they appreciate
and demand quality. In remodeling, it's not enough just to have
quality workmanship by the crew and the subcontractors. There must
also be quality in the communication, in attitude and manners, in
delivery on schedule, in responsiveness to questions and
complaints, and in understanding a client's special needs. In
remodeling, it is especially important to minimize the impact on
the family and to fit in to clients' lives as much as
Face-lift. D.P. Thomas Construction completely
removed the failing EIFS exterior on what was once a modern stucco
home overlooking the water. The transformation involved the
modification of all the exterior woodwork, including columns and
Historical restorations, remodeling, and additions have been our
trademark for success. But we have built five custom homes on or
near the water — three of which look like historic homes,
while the other two are more modern. Currently, we're developing a
plan for another waterfront home.
HOW IS A HISTORIC RESTORATION DIFFERENT THAN A
The equipment, the skill level and creative thinking of carpenters,
and the ability to communicate well are very important and demand
greater attention than is common in most remodeling or new
construction. There must be a great deal of trust developed with
the client, as unknowns are the norm and costs continually
escalate. A versatile engineer is also an important part of the
team. Along with this you must have an eye for the various elements
that make up the home's style.
As you know, the focus on historic work is to keep with a
particular period of traditional, or historic, architecture. But
it's more than just reproducing a period style. Often, the historic
planners want anything new that is added onto a historic home to be
readily discernible, so that architects, historians, and
preservationists trying to document the history of the house will
see fine differences that let them know it wasn't all done at once.
If an existing home has 2x6 window casing on the exterior with a
special back band added on to it, for example, we might take a half
inch off of that casing, or a half inch off of the reveal on the
back band. We'd alter it subtly so it's in keeping with the
building. But a real technician who was evaluating the house would
readily see that this was done at a later time.
HOW DO YOU CERTIFY HISTORIC
The paperwork and number of hoops you need to jump through to
certify historic projects are not to be taken lightly. In our area,
if you do work in the historic district, you have to process that
certificate before you can pull your building permit. It's critical
that we have good rapport with local and state historic
preservation offices. For small things — adding a storm door,
for instance — we might be able to just show a sketch of what
we're doing, and we can get an administrative bypass from the chief
historic planning officer. But if it's a significant exterior
change, then we've got to go before the full board.
The board meets once a month, so at least 60 days ahead of time
it's necessary to send copies of the plans and the scope of work
you propose to the historic planning commission as well as provide
stamped, addressed envelopes for each adjoining neighbor. The
commission will use these envelopes to send out notices to the
neighbors, letting them know that you plan significant changes to a
home and that they can attend a public hearing and voice their
objections. The planning office will then send someone out to
evaluate the project, and they'll make a presentation to the
historic planning commission, which will vote on whether or not to
give you that certificate of appropriateness. So on a local level,
it's critical to have rapport with the office and commission. I've
seen them get quite heated.
The state office is where you file for tax credits. These credits
are so important today for revitalizing our cities. If the property
will be rented out, the owner gets a 30% credit taken directly off
his federal taxes. The owner can use as much of that as he wants
this year and then roll over whatever isn't needed to the next
year. The trick is, you've got to get approval for the project
before you start. You can't come in afterward and say, "I did this.
I want a tax credit."
D.P. Thomas Construction. Top row, left to
right: Dennis Nardulli, Pat Milcendeau, David Thomas, Frosty Tolan.
Second row, left to right: Monty Steed, Dave Wright, Doug
Craighead, Randy Nardulli. Bottom row, left to right: Gary Newman,
Scott Hamm, Windell Long, Jeff Rogers, Tom Gibson.
You need to start early, because it goes first to the state
preservation office, which sends out its own representative. Once
the state approves the proposal, it's sent on to the Department of
the Interior in Washington under the National Parks program. This
agency ratifies the proposal and agrees to extend the tax credit.
The state agency usually acts as the inspector. The state office
can also extend a state's credits if the building's a residence,
which amounts to a 20% credit on an owner's state taxes.
These credits, while burdensome to implement, are a tremendous
marketing tool for us. When we meet with clients to discuss a
project that might qualify as a historic preservation, we can sell
our experience of getting them through the project and in reaping
Preservation award. Thomas's client received a
National Preservation Award for the restoration of the H.B. Eilers
house (1852), an Italianate home (left) and carriage house (above).
The award is given each year by the National Trust for Historic
Preservation to individuals and organizations whose contributions
demonstrate excellence in historic preservation.
YOU MENTIONED EARLIER THE TRUST BETWEEN YOU
AND THE CLIENT.
Yes. There's an enormous amount of trust involved. There are some
people who right away you know it's not worth getting into a
relationship with. On the outside, I think it starts with
establishing honest communication. For example, at the beginning of
a project, clients might not have much of a plan. They've got some
pictures out of some magazines and they might have a sketch that a
friend of theirs, who took a couple of semesters of drafting, did.
And they'll ask me, "What's the project going to cost?" Well, what
can I say? I always tell people, "I'm giving you a SWAG — the
scientific wild-ass guess." I don't mind giving it straight up.
It's not a promise of anything. It's just honesty in communication,
and the rest is what it is. If we can come up with a complete,
detailed plan of this house, we can give a much better SWAG. But
it's just like a doctor going in to do surgery on a patient. The
doctor might open the patient up and go, "Holy moley! We got to
have three more surgeries." Or he might say, "Hey, this is a piece
of cake. You're going to be fine." And whack, whack, whack, he does
Opening up an older structure is similar. You don't know exactly
what in the world you're going to find. You do know you're going to
make a hell of a mess, and you have an obligation to tell the
client that. You do commit to cleaning up that mess as much as the
client wants to pay for it. I've had clients who have said, "I
don't want to pay you and your crew to pick up all those little
bitty blocks of wood. We can do that when we get home from work."
Those clients saved themselves a few thousand dollars over the
course of a couple of months. On the other hand, I've had clients
insist that we vacuum the yard every afternoon, literally.
Since we work on a cost-plus basis, that level of attention is
going to cost the client. The important thing is to get across up
front that this will cost more. Certainly the clients need to
communicate their expectations, but it is far more important for us
to communicate honestly how we're going to turn their life upside
down. We tell them: "We're going to invade your space and take away
a lot of your privacy. You're going to be stressing out on what
you're going to spend and you'll be stressing out on whether it's
going to look good. You'll be asked to make decisions, some of
which will need to be made quickly. All this is going to increase
the stress in your life and make you miserable."
Queen Anne Victorian. Impeccably maintained by
its owner, a retired nuclear engineer, the Williams Holiday House
(1900) was gutted and completely restored, inside and out, by D.P.
Thomas Construction. Architectural changes to the rear and interior
were designed by Charles Boney Jr. of Boney Architects in
If you get all that stuff out at first, then you can start talking
about how you can deal with the challenges. But if somebody is too
suspicious or too distrustful at this point, I don't want to work
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RED
It's chemistry, and it's subtle. We're looking for people who have
reasonable expectations about the price and schedule, but there's
more than that: when we look in each other's eyes, do we feel good?
I watch the way a man treats his wife, treats his children, treats
his dog, and takes care of his car, his house, and everything else.
You've got to spot the jerks, because I have failed to spot them
and had my ears boxed a couple of times.
HOW DO YOU REACH THE KIND OF CLIENTS YOU WANT
TO WORK FOR?
Nothing beats word of mouth. Most of our work is based on
referrals. Some people see our sign on significant projects, and we
sponsor some community events, which gets our name in front of our
selected audience. But a large number of jobs come from
acquaintances of our past clients. Either they know about us from a
personal contact or they know the work we've done.
I don't keep an ad in the Yellow Pages anymore. I used to, but it
only attracted tire kickers — often people who had had bad
experiences with other contractors, and there was a whole lot of
Occasionally, we'll get a call from an architect, and those
projects are pretty much ours if we want them because they've
already determined that they want us based on our past performance
and their feeling that the project is a good match for our company.
There may be another company equally qualified that is also
approached, and then the chemistry, presentation, and schedule take
on even more importance.
New construction. The new home overlooking
Hewletts Creek (a tidal channel east of the city of Wilmington)
reveals Thomas's penchant for traditional detailing.
SO MUCH DEPENDS ON EXPERIENCE. WHAT ADVICE DO
YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT?
I'd say be straight up from day one. A lot of times you're going to
give up a little something, especially when you're starting out,
because you've got to build that status. People do look at a person
who's 30 years old a whole lot differently than they look at a man
who's 55 years old. What is it about wrinkles and gray hairs and a
potbelly that give you any status in life? I don't feel they
enhance my stature at all. I guess it's a consolation prize we're
given when youth is taken away. Certainly a 20-year track record
also helps. ~