SPECIAL SERIES: Building the 2009 HGTV Dream Home

Building High-End Homes

Careful planning, attention to detail and a commitment to fix what’s wrong elevate this custom builder’s homes

Even the best of plans cannot account for the tiniest of surprise details that pop up during construction. Thankfully for HGTV Dream Home builder Bruce Lee, he has a knack for getting even the tiniest of details just right. It’s this attention to detail that allows Lee to succeed as a builder of high-end, handcrafted custom homes.

An example of the handcrafted detail Lee focuses on is the exterior trim on the Victorian-style 2009 HGTV Dream Home. “You can’t go down to a local lumberyard and buy this [trim]. We buy the material and we have it milled, and then we have it molded to fit the style of the home that we’re doing,” Lee says. “If you look at the exterior trim on these [older] homes, they’re really detailed. And we try to build these [newer] homes in a historical fashion, which actually gives you a sense of pride.”

Fabricating the trim to be historically accurate requires plenty of homework, Lee explains. “It’s not like they have the trim sitting around at the store, so we have to fabricate that stuff. You might be able to get a picture of it, but how do you take it from the picture to the house? And that’s where [developer] Steve [Ledson] and I come in and we start putting it together,” he says.

First the trim is mocked up in the workshop to determine how it’s going to work on the house. “So you just don’t say, ‘OK, here are the details, here’s the wood, go for it.’ You have to go [to the jobsite]. You have to see how it’s going to work out, how the top of that water table’s going to come around, and plan around the corner and land on the deck,” Lee explains.

It’s Lee’s commitment to handcrafted details that helps move the high-end homes he builds. When potential clients drive by one of his homes and think, “Those are really nice homes,” they’re not always sure what it is that makes the house look like that, he says. “It’s the detail. Once you get closer and you start seeing the detail you’ll recognize that extra time and effort somebody spent on that house. And that’s what makes us different than most people,” Lee adds.

Quality Control

On the list of attributes that make his firm stand out from the crowd is a talent Lee says is the ability to instantly recognize the slightest inaccuracy or inconsistency in construction. It is this talent that elevates the homes he builds to the high-end category of the market. “I can walk by something and if it doesn’t feel right, I know there’s a reason why. And then I start looking, and I say, ‘Oh, there it is.’ So, I have the ability to see things that other people can’t see. And it could be just small little details. It could be an eighth of an inch or a quarter of an inch. To me that’s huge, and other people, they say, ‘Ah, that’s only an eighth of an inch.’ Well, it’s still an eighth of an inch, and it means something,” he says.

One of Bruce Lee’s laws of construction is to always fix what’s not right. “For instance, this sill right here. We added a sill piece underneath, which you might not be able to see. The projection wasn’t out far enough. When you’re standing out there from the street and you’re looking at it, it didn’t fit right. The choice was either rip it off or add another piece to it. We chose to add another piece to it, which actually worked out really well because it created another detail.

It cost more money because we had the labor and material costs. But, it’s not the amount of money you spend; it’s how well you do something that overrides the cost,” Lee says.
Sacrificing the look of a house for cost is not an option. Cost isn’t as important as achieving a good look. When somebody says, “Hey, that’s OK,” it’s not necessarily good, especially when building a house of this style, he explains. “OK is not good enough. It has to be done right. So, yes, it cost more money to add this sill because of the material and the labor, but that [is secondary to] the quality of the house. The quality of the house is more important than the cost.”

Lee sees his job as quality control manager, and to make sure the crew does its job the proper way. “They’re good carpenters and technicians and they do great work, but they might miss something. So if they miss something, it’s up to me to look at it, see if it’s not quite right, [and tell them] we’re going to fix it. We’re going to rip it off, and we’re going to redo it, but we’re going to fix it.”

Planning Makes Perfect

A career as a high-end custom home builder is not suited for everyone. Clients are a little more demanding, attention to detail is expected, and finishing on time and within budget can be a challenge when clients change their minds as often as custom home clients do. So when Bruce Lee agreed to build the 2009 HGTV Dream Home — and accept the pressure of meeting a television show production schedule — he knew this project would require more preparation and planning to deliver the high-end home everyone expected.

Any anxiety Lee had came from getting things done on time. The preparation had to be done quickly, so plans were drawn and submitted to the city. The permitting process went quickly, so the next step was to make all decisions on finishes, windows, interior trim, cabinetry, lighting, plumbing and other product selections.

The planning proved successful, as Lee and his team soon realized the home was coming together and falling into place. “Actually, we’re moving more quickly than I thought we were going to move,” Lee says. “I even surprised myself how well I could bring things together because of the time constraints. We usually have a little bit more time, but we’re doing fine and we’re not rushing it. We’re not making any sacrifices. We’re doing things the way I like to see things done, and we’re moving forward. It’s really been exciting.”

Solid planning is one of many reasons the project has been running smoothly. But Lee also added a few more carpenters and other crew members to the project. “The preparation is really important because with that amount of workforce, you must have [all materials] there. As soon as [the crew is] done with one phase, they have to go on to the next phase, and the material has to be there waiting for them. And so the planning has to be way ahead of the workers,” Lee explains.

Jobsite Management is Key to Success

A well-organized jobsite promotes safety, timeliness and subcontractor satisfaction

To uninformed observers, a new home-construction site might appear to be chaotic, but nearly every move is strategically orchestrated. Experience and common sense allow Bruce Lee, HGTV Dream Home builder, to know exactly where material deliveries should be placed, when they should arrive, who needs them and how this knowledge contributes to a successful project.

Careful planning dictates where materials should be and when they should be there. “When a material is being delivered, they tell me that the material’s on its way, and then I have a site available for them,” Lee says. “And I always think about how the subcontractor’s going to use that material and what’s best for him, and where we’re going to put it so it’s close to where he’s going to be working. This way he doesn’t have to move it around a lot.”

The list of materials needed for the HGTV Dream Home was created from the plans, Lee says. “I used the plans, and I created the material list, and I ordered all the materials for the whole house. Fortunately, we have a space where we can offload it on-site. And we had, within two days, every piece of lumber for this house, minus the trusses, sitting over there, and it was ready to go when we started.”

A well-run jobsite is the result of more than simply knowing when and where materials will be delivered. Lee likes to keep his jobsites clean and orderly, for many reasons, including pride in his work. “And it shows when somebody shows up on the jobsite, when they can walk around and they’re not tripping over anything. And so it’s really a safety issue, too, but also it shows the workers that we take pride in what we do. And if we keep the jobsite clean, it will reflect in the work that they do,” he explains.

Another benefit of a clean and organized jobsite is knowing where things are. “When you’re moving quickly and you have a lot of materials coming and going, you can keep track of where they are [when you have an organized jobsite]. So we have a staging area where we keep materials so I can keep up with the inventory,” Lee says.

What happens as work progresses and the crew is left with unused material? Lee and his team make it a practice to clean up the site each workday. “We have a dump truck on-site, which really is beneficial because then we can back it up to a pile of debris and load it up. And then when it’s full, we take it to the dump,” Lee says.

Split Decision on Hot Water

Two tankless water heaters divide the load and speed up delivery

Many homes have heating and air-conditioning systems that are divided into multiple zones, so why not zone the plumbing system? Zoning a heating and air-conditioning system allows homeowners to separately control, for example, the upstairs and downstairs temperatures to maximize efficiency. A hot water system also can be divided into multiple zones, but for different reasons.

Two Rinnai tankless water heaters will service the 2009 HGTV Dream Home in Sonoma, Calif. The two water heaters will reside in the attic to service two different sections of the house. Carefully spacing two units minimizes the physical distance hot water must travel to the end user. In other words, the closer the water heater is to the point of use, the faster users get hot water, says Bruce Lee, 2009 HGTV Dream Home builder.

“One’s going to service this end of the house which is the master suite and the kitchen, and the other water heater will service the upper-story bedrooms and downstairs powder room,” Lee says. When someone wants hot water anywhere in the house and opens a faucet, they will have hot water in a few seconds, he explains.

“Another advantage of having the Rinnai on-demand water heater is efficiency. You don’t have a water heater that’s sitting there keeping the water hot all the time. It creates hot water only when there’s a demand for it. It saves water and is more efficient,” he says.