The Client Counselor

Steve Crowdus, president of Crowdus Custom Homes & Remodeling, Ballwin, Mo., often is told by his clients that he’d make a great counselor. Crowdus considers this the ultimate compliment because he focuses on building strong relationships. “I utilize a relational management and selling style that places full attention on the customer. I listen well and respond well; in responding, I reflect the customer’s wants, needs and desires,” he says. “Any successful business makes every effort to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, but we take this to every imaginable level. No detail is left unaddressed. No question is left unanswered.”

Crowdus’ relationship-centric style may explain why he has worked with many of the same subcontractors for 14 of the 17 years his company has been in business. It also may be the reason he tends to garner exceptional referrals. One of his referrals became the Gold winner in the Finished Basement category of the 2010 Master Design Awards. The 10-year-old home built in Kirkwood, Mo., an affluent suburb of St. Louis, spares few details on the first and second floors, but the basement obviously was an afterthought. “The basement entrance was a common drywall stairwell opening to a white-box finish with exposed painted steel columns with a dropped ceiling,” Crowdus remembers. “It was a beautiful home with a less than desirable basement finish.”

Crowdus set to work getting to know his new clients to determine how they envisioned their finished basement. The result is a 1,460-square-foot entertainment area, featuring a bar that replicates the homeowners’ favorite local tavern, a gaming area for their kids, billiards space and gym with a dry-steam sauna. The basement resembles the homeowners’ beloved Telluride, Colo., condominium, down to the stone fireplace and wood trim. This remarkable transformation, however, couldn’t have been accomplished if the homeowners hadn’t put complete trust in Crowdus and his team.

The Marriage Model

“With me, the design/build process is a journey of discovery,” Crowdus explains. “The process requires some patience as I get to know the client. I really want their project to reflect who they are, and the only way we’re going to get there is if I really get to know them. I actually use the model of a good marriage to create a good relationship with them, resulting in trust and a great building experience.”

Crowdus intimately gets to know his customers, from the books they read, the entertainment they enjoy and the kinds of food they like. He begins building the relationship like any remodeler would—by interviewing his clients about the primary use of their space. However, Crowdus’ line of questioning often leads him into other aspects of his clients’ lives. “Sometimes people will squint at me and ask why something matters, but it does matter because it’s all about them,” he says.

The Kirkwood clients wanted to use their basement to entertain a large network of friends and family. “I asked how much of their entertaining involves food and drink,” Crowdus explains. “This couple typically entertains with refreshments. Then the next significant question is how to manage refreshments. Would they prefer a walk-up or walk-behind bar? Is their entertaining generally in large or small group settings? Are sight and sound, like watching movies or sports, a significant part of a gathering?”

By asking lots of questions, Crowdus uncovered the Kirkwood couple liked the idea of sitting at a bar, and they have a favorite tavern in their neighborhood. To determine what attracts the couple to this particular tavern, Crowdus visited it. “I interviewed the owner. I wanted to hear about the personality of the bar and learn about the patrons. The bar owner thought I was nuts, but it’s all about understanding who my client is. If getting to know the clients requires me to go where they go and visit what they visit, that’s what I do.”

Building Trust

After Crowdus understood the Kirkwood homeowners’ desires and motivations, he assembled his design team, which included Broughton Engineering, Wentzville, Mo., and New Trend Design, St. Charles, Mo. Because the basement was an overlooked aspect of the home, the builder placed steel and columns wherever necessary to support the weight of the home. Crowdus’ idea included removal of the columns to create a grand public area, approximately 22-feet wide by 40-feet long.

Lance Broughton, owner of Broughton Engineering, had worked with Crowdus before and relates to Crowdus’ relationship-centric style. “You have architects, engineers, plumbers, electricians, general contractors, and each group is an expert in their field,” Broughton says. “Everybody must understand that each person has a role to play and if everyone listens, they can actually learn something that can help them in their own profession.”

With that in mind, the men walked the basement, conferring about how to use creative engineering and structured design to achieve the objective. “I reviewed the existing support structure and based on measurements I had taken and my conversation with Steve about where they wanted the open spaces to be, I went back to the office and did the math to determine the load path down to the foundation,” Broughton remembers. “Then I sized beams, footings and columns accordingly.”

As part of the process, practically all the original steel support system was removed from under the house, pulling the load away from the bearing points that were in place. Temporary shoring was built throughout the basement, which created a maze of metal and lumber.

As would be expected, the homeowners were concerned about their house during this process. Broughton reassured them: “Actual loads are usually less than code-reinforced loads. A code may say you have to design for 40-pounds-per-square-foot live load across the whole area, but when you’re temporarily shoring up, you may not have that high of loads during remodel but you have to design for those loads to hit that final point. For example, we have a floor that was designed for 10-pounds dead load and 40-pounds live load but when you’re actually shoring up the structure you would shore it up for dead load plus any anticipated live load. In construction, the loads may be considerably less than they are in the final stage of design. You may not have to anticipate an earthquake, 90-mph wind or 20 pounds of snow on the roof as you must in the final stage of design.”

An Intuitive Layout

After he won the customers’ confidence regarding structural redesign, Crowdus began laying out the space. “Naturally, you are restricted to the footprint of the house and the location of fixed structures, such as stairs, foundation walls and existing windows,” he says. “Beyond that, I design space using a priority assessment of customer importance. The highest priority items get the greatest amount of design and placement consideration.”

In this case, the stairs entered the basement within 10 feet of the front foundation wall of the home. The crew removed the drywall on both sides of the stairs and the door at the landing. Then, they installed iron balusters and wood handrails, opening the staircase to the children’s gaming area to the left and adult seating area to the right. The billiards area and bar are just beyond the seating area, and the gym is tucked in back for private use.

Crowdus was careful not to absorb space into hallways. Instead he transitioned the basement rooms by placing structures between them. “There’s about 10 feet from the bar to a wall separating finished from unfinished space, and that allows for a traffic passageway to get to the gym, as well as provides standing room in the bar area,” he explains.

Bathroom placement proved challenging. “You don’t want to put it in a place that would make using that space intimidating for a guest,” he says. Because it could not be connected to the gym without opening the door into the bar area, the bathroom was tucked away in the children’s gaming area. “The dry sauna is part of the gym, which made sense to me. If I had a little more room, I would’ve preferred to have another bathroom associated directly with the gym or have the bathroom accessible from the gym and public area,” Crowdus admits.

Delighted Customers

Crowdus believes the basement project was a success because he remained focused on the primary vision of an entertainment space and learned what is significant to the homeowners’ lives to personalize it. “Everything about the basement expresses who they are,” he says. “Focusing on building a relationship based on trust and confidence is the single most important key to a successful outcome. I always want my clients to say, ‘The finished product reflects who we are and how we live.’”