163: Build Your Dreams Into Your Home with Christopher Brement

Christopher Brement is the Founder and President of Bramante Homes, an employee-run custom builder that has been building quality, premium, and luxury homes since the 1980s. We discuss the secret source to building luxury homes, why people chose to customize their homes, and the cost of a fiduciary custom home builder.

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Build Your Dreams Into Your Home with Christopher Brement

Our guest is Christopher Brement, the owner and president of Bramante Homes that has been building quality premium and luxury custom homes in Albemarle and Augusta counties in Virginia since the 1980s. Christopher, welcome to the show.

Steve, thanks for having me.

It’s great to have you here. Christopher, let’s start this conversation by describing your journey. How did you end up running this company? This business was founded in the 1980s by your father, but you took over. What was this journey like as the son of the founder and taking charge of the rain?

Great question. Well, yeah, I was a much younger man in the 1980s and it’s definitely been a bit of a ladder climb. My first job at Vermont Day Homes was picking up trash. I was 12 years old. Later I was handed a shovel and later yet I was toting lumber and eventually swinging a hammer. I kind of glazed through the middle, but there are very few jobs that I haven’t done here. After studying economics at the University of Virginia and broadening my exposure to construction in the commercial world in Northern Virginia, I rejoined the family business in 2003, acted in a bit of a project manager capacity while gaining a little bit more leadership responsibilities with my father. This is a two-generation custom home building business, and we had a lot of fun. In my father’s later career, he acted more as the project manager, and I enjoyed tasks more akin to selling, managing selections, and designing the homes. My father retired about five years ago and we’ve settled into a slightly more niche custom home building market and have put a lot of effort into growing into that space. And the community has. Then and the community has been kind and how they’ve received us.

You’re definitely an established part of this community here and very well known. So tell me a little bit about the experience of coming up in a family business. It can be really a fruit with challenges. The way I see many family businesses struggle to make the transition. The founder often are not able to really the father is not able to to handle where the reins they kind of linger and they suppress their off springs, not allowing them to really come into their own. And it can be very intimidating, especially when you have a successful father to feel that it’s going to be twice as hard for you to live up to the expectations. So what was your experience with that?

You know, I think the biggest praise that in multiple areas that I can give to my father is that he instilled in myself and my brother a great work ethic. And as as I was a bigger part of the company. In the second half of my journey with Vermont Holmes, after rejoining joining it in 2003, he was great at establishing expectations and following through with them. So he mapped out a path to retirement. We worked together on what that would look like, an ownership structure for me, and how he would kind of back away. And it was great to conceive and plan in that regard. And then also for him to kind of stick with the plan and follow through on that. In terms of a fit working together, we didn’t overlap a lot. He loved being the craftsman and the client facing project manager more than he did being the financial and business part of it. So we were you know, we didn’t we didn’t compete in terms of what we wanted to do. And he established a plan or we wrote a plan together and he stuck with it.

That sounds like you had a good complimentary role and matching in the business, which is really fortunate. So switching gears here a little bit, I mean, the theme of this podcast, as you know, is managing blueprints. I’m always looking for mental models, some kind of frameworks that people, as they come up in the business and they look at the business from their own perspectives, they can recognize some different ways of looking at the business, simplifying certain things, creating maybe their unique way of dealing with a certain problem. So do you have something that you kind of discovered in the business that makes you understand, helps you understand the business better and be more productive in what you do?

I love that, admittedly, maybe even a leading question, Steve. But shortly after my father retired a little over five years ago, I found myself doing all the same things that we did as a partnership, but with a different perspective because I didn’t have a partner anymore. And so I began to ask myself, instead of, is this the right endeavor for a partnership with my father? And then I began asking myself, is this the right endeavor for myself as a proprietor by myself? And I realized there were things about the business model that I didn’t love. We decided that we no longer wanted to build spec homes or pre-sold homes on the lots that we owned, because we found ourselves forgoing opportunities to build the really fun and unique custom homes that are more one-offs on our client’s land. And so we wanted to trim roughly half of our business model from our offering, embrace the true custom, but also grow. So that meant we had a lot to learn and a lot to do. And though I have an undergraduate degree, I don’t have that MBA yet. And I realized I would need some help.

And then I began asking myself, is this the right endeavor for myself as a proprietor by myself? And I realized there were things about the business model that I didn't love. Click To Tweet

I had begun participating in a few different conferences. I was I began working with some coaches that I think were very instrumental in early growth. Shout out to Paul and Ed and contractor staffing source if you don’t mind Steve. But later I was introduced to the concept of the entrepreneurial operating system also through a peer group and ultimately I met you and you helped my growing leadership team on the premise of EOS with the book Traction, we began consuming other great books from prolific authors like Patrick Linceoni and Gino Wichman and more recently Cameron Harreld. And we found the value in using coaches as part of our journey. And EOS, we understand, has gone through some changes of late, and we had, at that point, chosen our implementer more so than the operating platform itself. And so we were happy to make a jump to Pinnacle, embracing the concept that you can never climb too high, and there are always new tools for us. And really, and I know that you’ve got a great new book out and that we’re excited about understanding it with you, but I would just have to say that a blueprint was achieved by embracing these principles of these books and the strategic use and addition of a coach or an implementer like yourself.

Okay, well, thank you for sharing that. We don’t really speak a lot about my books on this podcast, but thanks for bringing this up. And I really believe in this idea that none of those 1.7 million small to medium sized companies, 10 to 250 employee companies would ever have to go out of business if they had a good approach to execution, visioning, strategy, and because then they could solve all their problems, they could iterate, they could find solutions around challenges. So I deeply believe that with a good coach and with good processes and good tools that help conceptualize difficult ideas for the whole leadership team to align them around helps businesses. So let’s move on. It was really interesting that you mentioned the shift of the business from essentially trying to be all things to all people, building different, building spec houses and maybe production-type homes as well, as well as custom homes. And tell me the difference between a custom home builder, a semi custom home builder and a production builder, because this lots of these terms are flying around all the time. What is the real difference between these approaches?

Great question. And appropriate, given the time that we’re recording this podcast as resale inventory of existing homes is hard to find. A pre-sale home is something that you could purchase from a builder who specializes in consuming lots from developers and selling what may just be a multiple choice or a specified package and fit and finish with limited to no opportunity to customize it. That, I think, is the epitome of a production builder. I believe there may be few production builders that want to give the impression that you can’t customize anything. So they’ll give like a short list of multiple choice options, so to speak. Any builder that’s in that marketplace could then easily just decide how much they want to collaborate with their clients and in turn, make their project managers have to react to different fit and finish packages.

So a semi-custom builder is just gonna stretch the list of things that can be customized, but usually still done in a multiple choice format. They will often have their own design centers where you can pick out your cabinet door profile and colors and countertop finishes, maybe a short list of tile options, but they’re gonna stop short of letting you customize to the nth degree. And the same is true for the floor plans that they build. They typically have a large book of floor plan options and they’ll have different facade elevations, likewise in a multiple choice offering. And so you can get pretty far with a semi-custom builder. But again, you’re also building a pre-sale with them. And one key differentiator from both a production builder, lumping production and semi-custom in the one bucket and then true custom in the other bucket, is that the builder is building their own home on their own lot to the client’s customization specifications and then selling it to the client upon completion.

Contractually, I’ll jump into contractual difference for custom home building and then architecturally and fit and finish wise as well. So all of our clients have their own land or are looking for their own land and we’ll help them find that. We’ll identify the characteristics of the land that might serve them best for the home that they want to build on it, but they purchase it, they own it. We educate them on how that’s different from a pre-sale or any experience they may have had before so that they can gain confidence that they’re in good hands. Once they understand the process and what we offer, the different agreements, we’ll manage the pre-construction process of their home through our pre-construction consultation agreement. If they want to design with Bramante Homes and we are a design-build custom home builder, that’s another way to differentiate custom versus design-build custom versus an architect-designed custom home. So, you’ve got lot ownership is different, the client owns the land.

You’ve got how the design is done, whether that’s a third-party architect or an in-house design-build firm, that’s how we do it. And then, yes, we sometimes, our clients will bring a plan to us that they like and we’ll modify from there. Sometimes the clients will choose a plan in our inventory that we built before and we’ll modify it from there. But more often than not, an ideal client to build a custom home with Brumante Homes wants such a level of customization that really just starts with a conversation. We ask a lot of questions, we listen really well to the answers, and the design really is a reflection of our clients’ wants, needs, and preferences and who they are. 

So how often do you have clients that have a really good grasp of what they want and how it should look like and and compared to the situation where someone has an idea, they want a custom home, they want to make sure that it’s going to be completely reflecting their personalities and their lifestyle needs, but they really don’t have a clue of how to get there and what is required. 

Now there’s a good mix of that. I would say that even the most informed and experienced client. We probably represents 25 to 30% of our clients, you know, and even them, they still want and need more guidance. Perhaps there’s, well, at the level of customization that we offer, it’s hard to have experienced that before or repeat it for any of our clients. Alas, there are some that do it, that understand it and know at least in part what they’re getting into. More often than not, our clients haven’t built a custom home before. Some of them haven’t built any homes before. And really the way that we define success there is someone finding us and fully understanding the process that we’ve created, placing a lot of confidence in our process and going with the process, really embracing it and trusting it. Because that’s the secret sauce for success in conceiving, designing, permitting, and constructing a home from thin air. It’s just an idea. It takes a lot of conversations, a lot of budgeting, and design, and an exhaustive amount of communication to pick an idea out of thin air and turn it into a client’s forever home.

We define success there is someone finding us and fully understanding the process that we've created, placing a lot of confidence in our process and going with the process, really embracing it and trusting it. Click To Tweet

Yeah, that sounds like an exciting journey to go on. And I’m sure it’s sometimes frustrating when you have clients that are indecisive or maybe don’t change their minds. But I wonder, what is the emotional trigger that makes someone want to have a custom home as opposed to a semi-custom work production? What is this inner desire that speaks to these people? 

They perhaps and likely want something that no one else has. It’s not available. It doesn’t exist. Whether that’s I mean, it’s often the collision of so many different things. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a lot. It’s a lot of characteristics. Is it wooded, is it pasture, is it a mixture? And by the way, all the flat acreage, large acreage parcels are kind of picked over, so we find ourselves reacting to steep lots from time to time. And every one of those considerations rules out buying something that already exists or that a production or semi custom builder is going to offer and.A client that not only wants that really unique, customized feature.

I think it was you were talking about land and the availability of the kind of land you got, the steep land or the small acreage that kind of forces the hand of the customer because they are not able to go to a production builder because that’s the land they got. And no one has a house for that ready, ready made.

If you don’t mind, could you just ask me the question again?

Yes. So what is the emotional? So I was looking for the emotion. I thought that maybe there’s some kind of a mindset. Now, I understand this. The circumstances can force people as well. But is there a mindset sometimes of these people that maybe have an emotional need that they are going to fulfill by having their own custom designed home. And I’m trying to get into this mindset. What is that?

That’s a great question, Steve. Yeah, I think an emotional mindset can be one of several factors that go into a client’s decision to build custom. And quite frankly, it’s probably the best reason that a client would choose to go true custom, have to have a spirit of creating something that no one else has created before. And you have to react to constants that you can’t overcome. Perhaps the land, the view, the water, the topography. There are a lot of factors that cause our clients to choose to go custom. But the right emotional headspace and the adventurous spirit to craft something that is essentially a commissioned piece of art is are the clients that have the most fun with Bramante homes.

So, it’s kind of an artistic endeavor to some extent to build a house like that. Can you give me an example or two where someone had a very special lifestyle that required a special house and how you service that or how you made that work?

We’ve done a lot of really fun stuff with houses. a community that was very well established, and of course there were no more lots available. So we demolished the home first. As part of the planning process, we learned that the client enjoyed having a swimming pool, but they have a swimming pool at their summer home that’s in their yard. So this swimming pool would be used predominantly in the winter, and therefore should be inside their new home. And given the footprint and a variety of other constraints, it was best to place it in the basement of the home. And so, introducing that much water into the basement of a home can be a challenge and be wrought with unforeseen pitfalls.

Luckily enough, we had some consultants at hand, and they were able to prescribe a level of robustness to the building envelope that that prevents rot, it prevents too much moisture from entering the area as it is, it moves the warm and cold layer of walls to the right places so that we don’t have water vapor condensing in the wrong places, and we introduced both a dehumidification and a heating and cooling system to the room such that when the pool is open, it has a cover, but it is a heated pool, and when it’s open, that’s when water vapor enters the air and needs to be mitigated. And so an advanced heating and cooling as well as dehumidification and ventilation system would kick in and get all that out of there.

Let’s see, you know, they’re not always such a custom detail as putting a swimming pool in the basement. Right now I have some clients who are finishing up a home that will be a retreat for their family and extended family as they’re looking to get west from the tidewater into the mountains. They’ve got some great views and the home was conceived around the views. And the home, when they’re not using it, is intended to be a transient rental in a part of central Virginia that has a tourism industry that revolves around weddings and alcohol. We’ve got wineries, we’ve got breweries, we’ve got distilleries. So the whole project was conceived to be a vacation destination. You’ve got, they’ve got three bedrooms in the home that will serve the adults, and they’ve got three bunk rooms in the home that will serve for children and guests. And as I was just talking with my client yesterday and we’re wrapping up their home and considering renting it ourselves, she told us about an events planner that they’re collaborating with so that they could create the terrace levels of their home at a size that worked well for the number of tables necessary for the wedding party and the tent that needed to be used. So we never know all the details that go into the spaces that we’re helping our clients create in a custom capacity.

That’s fascinating. It’s very interesting how many moving pieces there can be. And I mean, whenever I do a DIY project, the biggest challenge I have is to foresee all the obstacles I’m going to face so that I don’t have to disassemble and reassemble things. So the amount of planning that must go into one of your custom houses is mind-boggling to me. But you know.

I think that’s a great point. And it’s one where, you know, we create processes and protocols, but they’re simply a mechanism to respond to clients’ requests or preferences or desires. And so it’s really about having the conversations to learn how to manifest all the wants. And so whether it’s a 36-inch Wolf range or a three-generational multi-dwelling unit home, each detail is just a customization of a client’s unique wants. And that’s what we really get excited about as a unique true custom home builder.

Now, before we wrap this up, just a final question. Have you had a client who had no budget constraints whatsoever and you could build everything that they dreamed about? 

If they didn’t have a budget, they didn’t want me to know it. And I think that’s just a good business acumen on the client’s behalf, but we definitely have clients that have, they’ve given us their budget, they’ve told us their hip pocket spending money and then they’ve defined their, we’re definitely not gonna spend more than this number, but it’s their prerogative and if they ask for more and ask for more and ask for more, first we’ll budget it for them and present an option to them. And if they want to build it, we will certainly build them as much as they want. And we have some clients will exceed their base contract a lot more than others.

Yeah, I can imagine. As you say that eating fosters the appetite. Sometimes you think that you start with 500,000 and then you end up with 800. One of my former clients who was a production builder, he told me that normally the ticket price in the Richmond, Virginia area is about 600,000, but they expect most houses to sell for 850, because when people see all the options that they can offer them, they won’t be able to resist taking many of those and end up…

Well, you know, Steve, sometimes change order is conceived to be, you know, a bad word in our industry, but we see it as a mechanism to help the client put more into the home after they’ve signed a contract to build it. And you never know why or when a client might decide to go add more to their home. We’re about halfway through the construction of a home right now where for budget constraints the client decided that they couldn’t finish the basement as part of the original build. But in a market where building lumber prices have been coming down and we use an allowance for lumber right now, because we can think of no better way to share that risk than as an allowance. We help them understand that they were between 20 and $30,000 under budget for their lumber package. And when they found out that news, they said, well, we were committed to investing this amount of money in the house anyway, so we’d like to go spend that on finishing the basement now. So you never know what reason might cause the client to choose to add something else to the scope of work. But one of the biggest contributors that helps a client decide to do more work with a client is trusting the builder and trusting their process.

Yes, and you talked about the fiduciary, the customer fiduciary custom home builder. What does that mean exactly? How does a fiduciary builder think and act?

Well, I definitely remember that we collaborated in that capacity and though that hasn’t made it into our client facing marketing materials, it’s something I think about really often. As I mentioned previously, we’re a design build firm. We’ll react to our clients’ architects if they have them and we play nice in that capacity. However, we believe that a key differentiator in the design-build firm and certainly the way that we do it is that we can better react to a hard line in the sand for a budget. So if someone comes to us with a, let’s say an $800,000 build budget, before we start designing the house, we write the most rough order of magnitude budget that we can, it’s still a five-page document. If we, again, we ask questions and we listen to the answers, we create a program summary of room sizes, we add them all up, we integrate the circulation needed for hallways and whatnot, and we arrive at a total square footage.

We have a conversation with the client whether they believe that that really does sound like the right size for them. And once we have that confirmation, we extrapolate all the information into the target budget. Within a week, the client has a five-page document that can inform an informed decision to move forward. And then we have a roadmap that we execute on for the design. So we’ll follow the square footages as prescribed in the target budget. We’ll follow the fit and finish as prescribed in the target budget. So that when we get to the contract price, we’ve been intentional in respecting the client’s budget. So yes, this idea of fiduciary is really rooted in two concepts, one is trust and one is price. And we can think of no better way to guide our clients to their budget than talking about budget early and often and revisiting it at every time that we’re drafting the home so that we’re respecting the limits of the budget.

Okay, so if I think of a fiduciary wealth advisor, I think of someone who is thinking of my interest first rather than some investment company or insurance company that they may get a commission from, and I pay them and they serve my interests. And that’s how I think of a builder as well, that they want to make sure that I get the home that I want to live in and they are going to represent me and I’m going to pay them a fee to do that, but they are going to keep my interest first and foremost, not some other suppliers that they might have a relationship with. Christopher, very interesting. You know, this conversation really helped me understand, even though we have been working together for several years, I think it gave me another layer of understanding of how, what the mindset of someone who builds a custom home and what are some of the challenges and some of the artistic requirements for being a good, successful builder. So thank you for sharing your knowledge and your experience with our listeners. And those of you listening, if you like this conversation, then stay tuned because every week I bring another exciting entrepreneur and they will share their management blueprint and their business wisdom with you. Thank you for coming, Christopher.

It’s been a pleasure, Steve. Thanks for having me.


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