Interview by Jim
The expanse of windows in this elegant new home by Boardwalk
Builders relies on a steel moment frame embedded in the framing to
handle lateral wind loads.Patty McDaniel and her crew
(below) pose at a job site near Rehoboth Beach.
Patty McDaniel founded Boardwalk Builders in Rehoboth Beach, Del.,
almost two decades after building a custom home for her father on
the Delaware Shore. Since then, the MIT graduate has watched her
remodeling business evolve from a small partnership to an
award-winning enterprise with $2.8 million in sales in 2004 and 17
regular employees. With this broad range of experience on her
toolbelt, McDaniel discusses her observations on how the industry
has changed, building-code revisions she's keeping on her radar
screen, and the importance of the occasional "dope slap" for
contractors who want to take their businesses to the next
What is the market like in Rehoboth
We do most of our work concentrated right on the town of Rehoboth,
with the communities of Dewey Beach, Henlopen Acres, and North
Shores that are attached. That's a fairly small geographic area.
Last year in the city of Rehoboth, which is about six blocks by
twenty blocks, we were working on twenty houses. Most of our
clients are working on their second home or a retirement home. That
implies a fairly privileged class of people. They're here to relax
and enjoy the beach.
What distinguishes Rehoboth Beach from other
We're mostly working with old housing stock. Maybe one job every
year, or every couple of years, we build a new house, but the last
two years have been all remodeling.
In this market, some builders don't want to do remodeling. New
construction is very straightforward and clean cut, and you know
what you're getting into. Remodeling is messier, with more
Is it safe to say that you prefer remodeling
to new construction?
That's like asking me if I like apples or oranges; I like both. I
would say that we have a competitive advantage because we're just
smarter about remodeling. Also, just the fact that you're willing
to do remodeling gives you a competitive advantage.
You started at MIT?
I got my undergraduate degree at MIT. I was in the School of
Architecture and Planning. I have a BS in urban planning.
How did you advance from MIT to contracting in
I grew up in Wilmington. I had spent some summers at the beach when
I was really small. I ended up back in Rehoboth because my dad
lured me home. I told him that if he ever wanted to build a house
at the beach, I'd come home. I had graduated, and was doing the
Bohemian thing in Cambridge. I ended up coming to Rehoboth and
Sounds like a great offer!
It was a cool thing to do. And it was very clever of my dad. I
thought I was going to outplay that hand, but I was wrong. We built
that house, and then we built another house and sold it. Then I
started the business with a partner in 1986, and I bought him out
after nine years.
This new house in the ocean block of Rehoboth Beach was
designed in tribute to the existing cottage. The property has been
owned by the same family for decades.
On your web site, you describe the benefits of
working with Boardwalk Builders. Which ones are the most important,
in your opinion?
Knowledge and integrity. Everything else builds on them. If you do
a bad job communicating, you can always come back from that if you
know what you're doing. But you can't come back from not knowing
what you're doing without the integrity to fix it. Those are the
baselines: You can communicate all you want, but if you're not
trustworthy, it's not going to get you anywhere. To me, a coastal
market has always been a second-home market. So a lot of your
clients aren't present. There's a bigger emphasis on trust.
How do you communicate with homeowners who
There are a lot of remodelers across the country who use "message
centers" when they're working in someone's house. They'll establish
a central place to post notes for homeowners and for the crew. Our
clients aren't here, so we use e-mail as our message center. We
only started using it two years ago. Before that, we were calling
people all the time.
How do you format the e-mail?
There are four basic parts to it: What we did last week, what we'd
like to do in the coming week, any questions we have, and the
outstanding issues. An "outstanding issue" might be that they're
waiting on us to price a change order. A "question" might be about
a selection. Our e-mail system has become routine now, and our
clients love it.
Have you noticed any change in coastal
construction codes since you've been in the business?
When we first started, there really wasn't any enforced building
code. We built a lot of homes on pilings in our early years, always
with engineer plans. The wind standard, SSTD 10-99, came into being
after Hurricane Andrew in Florida, and it has evolved over the
years. [See "Structural Integrity 101," page 42.] In the '90s, it
got real intense with bolt downs, shear walls, and all sorts of
things. Now the International Building Code incorporates wind
standards and impact-resistant glass. That's the big change. So far
we haven't done any projects with impact-resistant glass. Most of
our piling homes have had storm shutters, but the little houses in
town haven't. You can comply by using impact-resistant glass, storm
shutters, or designing the home as an unenclosed structure. The
codes have specified that as long as you have plywood over the
windows, you're fine — that counts as shutters. But I'm not
sure that's going to last.
Is cost the issue?
Cost and the availability of the product. It also complicates the
installation because the connection between the window and the wall
becomes that much more important. Today, if the wind blows hard
enough, the glass is going to shatter. But if the glass can't
shatter, and it has the same connection between the window and the
wall, then the force transfers to the connection, and the effect
could be that the entire unit blows out of the opening.
Where should coastal builders focus their
attention for the future?
What I see happening in my marketplace involves fairly old housing
stock, rapidly escalating real-estate prices, and a very tight
labor market. The escalation of the real-estate prices drives
people's willingness to remodel. Today's market will bring $1.8
million for a crummy little beach cottage. If the owners have had
the house for any period of time, they've tripled or quadrupled
their money. The tight labor market means that if you're going to
pay a lot for your labor and resources, then you're going to
deliver them efficiently, with a high level of service, because
you're going to charge a lot for your labor and resources.
How does that affect the
If you're paying 50¢ for a cup of coffee, you don't have a
very high expectation for how it's delivered to you. If you're
paying $4 per cup, you want a pretty good cup of coffee and you
want the staff to be friendly, the place to be clean, and the
service to be quick. If I'm at the point where the labor charge to
the carpenter someday gets to be $50 to $60 per hour, the need for
him to be quick, clean, and good at what he's doing becomes much
more important. You're not going to send slackers and charge top
rates, but you're going to need to charge top rates to stay in
business. You need to deliver a highly trained, customer-friendly
staff, or people aren't going to be willing to pay you. That's the
trend in the remodeling industry, and that's going to drive the
business toward bigger companies. It's already hard to make it in
the construction industry as a single person working, selling, and
doing it all yourself. Our grandfathers could do it. Our fathers
could do it. And there are people my age who might just barely
retire before they have to quit doing it, but they're scratching
out a living.
A substantial remodel transformed this 1940s Rehoboth Beach
ranch home into a modern cottage that combines the original
elements with Nantucket cottage styling.
What has been most important for you in
I would say that a tremendous amount of educating of "me" has gone
on in the last eight, ten, nineteen years. I just didn't wake up
one day and start a company and know everything I needed to know.
The things that have been really important to me have been the JLC
LIVE residential construction conferences and then moving on from
the conferences to the peer groups — where other people help
make you smarter. There are a couple of organizations out there
that host peer groups. The National Association of Home Builders
puts together groups of similar businesses that are geographically
diverse. Remodelers Advantage and Business Networks have been at
JLC LIVE conferences for a long time.
Why peer groups?
There isn't anybody in a small company to tell you you're not
seeing things clearly. If you get into a peer group, then you're
able to talk to other people who have similar issues. They're able
to give you the "dope slap" when you need it. If you and I are
sitting down, and you're thinking, "God, Patty's got a stupid
idea," you may not say it to me, for all sorts of reasons; and even
if you do, you're liable to brush it off. But if I'm sitting in a
room with 15 to 20 people, and they're all looking at me saying
it's a stupid idea, and they're not worried about losing my
friendship or their jobs or my business, then they're more likely
to tell me I have a stupid idea. That's really, really important if
you're ready to take it to the next level.~