Beyond Bidding

Bidding often is the bane of contractors’ existence. In the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., a group of residential remodeling professionals has aligned under one roof to provide quality service while remaining separate business entities. Their unique model and design and construction philosophy has practically removed the dreaded bidding process and ultimately generated 30 years of loyal clients who continue to call on this team of professionals for their remodeling services, as well as refer others in the neighborhood to them.

In the Beginning

In the 1880s, Park Slope became one of the richest communities in the U.S., dotted with Victorian mansions and brownstones. Preservationists created a landmark district in the 1970s, and young professionals settled into brownstones restored into single- or two-family homes. Today, Park Slope’s nearly 70,000 residents live in one of the “Greatest Neighborhoods in America,” an honor bestowed by the Chicago-based American Planning Association for its “architectural and historical features and diverse mix of residents and businesses, which are supported and preserved by its involved citizenry.”

Matt Kaplan, founder of Matthew L. Kaplan Architect, can attest to this neighborhood-centricity. He has lived and maintained his business in Park Slope for 40 years. In 1983, Kaplan and his business partner shared office space with Michael Streaman, owner of M.R.S. Inc., a general contractor focused on restoration and renovation of historic homes and townhouses. When Kaplan and his partner cut ties in 1995, Streaman agreed to share rental space with Kaplan in a co-op building in Park Slope. The plumbing and heating contractor the two businesses often relied on, Aladdin Plumbing & Heating, also agreed to share the space.

“Mike and I hit it off pretty well with a first project, and eventually I focused on Mike as my contractor,” Kaplan remembers. “Jobs sometimes went to a different electrician or plumber but eventually coalesced into one team of people who got to know the types of houses and apartments in this neighborhood. Gradually we became a known name to the neighborhood.”

Today, Kaplan, Streaman and Aladdin Plumbing & Heating still occupy the same space and work together on all of Kaplan’s projects. In fact, all the business owners have children who have joined their firms and will continue to collaborate. Although all his preferred subcontractors are not under the same roof, Kaplan works with almost all the same entities on nearly every project. “They each operate independently as firms, even though all my jobs are done by this team,” Kaplan explains.

In fact, after a 2009 appearance on “This Old House,” Streaman’s company has expanded into Manhattan, requiring him to add staff in the Park Slope office. Despite the additional business, Streaman clearly finds benefits in working with Kaplan and makes time to do so. “We usually know when we’ll have a building permit and when people are ready to pull the trigger on a project. It has been a rarity that I’m unable to accommodate,” Streaman says.

Client as Team Member

The team’s business mostly comes from word of mouth and repeat clients. “When you deal out of one neighborhood, it’s literally word of mouth that can keep you busy or kill you,” Kaplan says.

To ensure positive word of mouth, Kaplan, Streaman and crew make the home-owner an integral part of their team from the beginning. Kaplan says when potential clients call the office, he invites them in for an initial meeting at which Streaman is present. Because Kaplan’s preference is to work with Streaman, he wants prospective clients to understand the team concept, as well as get an opportunity to discuss the prospects’ program requirements in general terms. If the prospects like what they hear, Kaplan sends them on a walking tour of completed projects in the neighborhood.

“We never accompany them because we want them to do due diligence on us,” Kaplan remarks. “I want them to see how we solve each homeowner’s program.”

For example, because storage is a top concern of townhouse and apartment owners, Kaplan asks his clients to measure lineal feet of clothing and count their belts and shoes, so he can design and Streaman can build closets that fit the homeowners’ current items and purchases. Not every client is prepared to be this involved, however, and Kaplan and Streaman have declined such jobs. “We don’t just slap together a closet and hope everything fits,” Streaman says. “That’s not the way Matt designs.”

Kaplan adds: “In every aspect the design truly has to reflect the family and the way they’re going to use the home. At the end of a hard workday, they can’t wait to come home. In fact, when we send future clients to past clients’ homes, the homes are as new as the day they were finished—they’re that house-proud.”

Prospects often sign a contract with the team after returning from the house tour. Kaplan then gives them their “homework”; for example, a kitchen remodel requires responses to 10 pages of questions. “In the beginning, we tell our clients don’t hold back on any of your dreams,” Kaplan says. “Forget about the amount of space you have and the budget. There’s going to be plenty of time to compromise. It’s better to move forward with big things and scale back than have to redesign later.”

After Kaplan, Streaman and their team members go to the home to establish a baseline of existing conditions, take photographs and measurements, as well as receive the clients’ “homework,” Kaplan begins designing with Streaman’s input. “A lot of architects are not savvy when it comes to pricing,” Streaman notes. “While Matt’s designing I’m saying ‘do you know what that costs?’ I bring him into reality.”

In addition, Streaman gets the benefit of watching the design progress, so by the time the plans are done, he’s familiar with them. “I’m not looking at brand-new plans with a bunch of questions in my mind. I’m actually looking at a plan I’ve been looking at for years, and a lot of the questions have been answered along the way.”

Kaplan says the foundation of the team’s success comes from this front-end work. “By the end of our survey, we have to feel like we built that house and now we get to rebuild it. The client has to feel like he is exhausted from this program.”

After an approved design and estimate from the team’s group meeting, Kaplan and Streaman work with the homeowners to guide the estimate to one with which the homeowners are comfortable. “We don’t have to waste time bidding; you could lose a month or more of time,” Kaplan notes. “In renovations, time is extremely critical because owners sell, or they’re paying a mortgage and rent.”

Maintain Relationships

Because some people can’t afford to buy a home and do all their desired renovations at once, Kaplan creates a master plan for every project, so homeowners can phase renovations. “You can always keep a permit open,” Streaman says. “Homeowners know where the mechanicals are in the walls, ceilings and floors; photographs and measurements are taken before surfaces are enclosed for easy additions or changes later.” Because of these master plans, clients tend to call on Kaplan to do additional work when their budgets allow.

If homeowners aren’t sure about hiring Kaplan and Streaman, they typically are convinced after hearing the team’s pitch. “When we first called Matt and Mike, we were open to bidding out the job,” explains one of their recent Park Slope clients. “However, after we got to know them and their work/design philosophy, as well as visited their past projects, we were certain we wanted to hire them. We had a number of long meetings about the budget. Eventually, after Matt and Mike came up with various ways to decrease the cost of materials and work so they met our budget, we hired them without bidding the project.”

Another recent client said being part of Kaplan and Streaman’s team was invaluable. “Matt visited the jobsite continually, and he and Mike were in constant contact with us. They understood our budget constraints and were willing to compromise,” she says. “They helped us reach decisions about where to splurge and be conservative.”

Kaplan notes every aspect of what the team does is designed to take the fear out of remodeling and maintain an ongoing relationship with the homeowner. He says: “Custom residential is complicated enough. Dealing with an old building adds a measure of complexity. We want to defuse surprise as much as we can. What has evolved is explaining to a client that if we can work toward a realistic budget, then they’ll have an entire team available to them day one, but they must be able to participate. Whatever success comes of our work is in large measure because of them.”