Variety is the spice of life – just ask Philip Hudson, the construction estimator at Witt Construction for the past 20 years. Over the last 20 years, he has been involved with figuring out what it will cost to build about 1,000 Witt homes and one of the reasons he loves his job is because, “every one is different.”
A Schenectady native who went corporate for G.E. and lived for a while in Princeton, N.J., Hudson says he didn’t like not seeing a physical product for his efforts – he handled telecommunications — so he quit and for five years made his living as a carpenter. He relocated back to the area to be near family and found work as a sub-contractor, ultimately drawing the attention of Witt’s president, John Witt, who offered him a full-time job.
“Now, I create the budget, based on the specifics of a house, draw it and prepare it for the CAD (computer assisted design) phase. It’s a small office, so I wear lots of hats,” he explains. “What I can say is that Witt homes are getting bigger and better, with everything from insulation to trim. People have more choices and the quality keeps improving.”
Hudson thinks that TV programs like “This Old House,” which started broadcasting about 25 years ago, and today’s shows about extreme house makeovers “make people more aware of possibilities for their homes and changed the building industry forever.”
“And, people want Witt homes because of their character, such as open floor plans, charming details and mixed siding. Building a house is not a random process. People’s eyes have been opened,” he notes.
He cites Houzz.com, an online magazine, as having been instrumental in helping people decide what they want in their homes. Houzz is a resource that features thousands of home design ideas. “All the clients talk about it,” he says. Witt homes are often spotlighted, in photographs and write-ups, on the site in “best of” articles.
He says Witt has a real talent for designing homes that are both gracious and cozy. “It’s pretty cool,” he says. “They’re not McMansions, they’ve got style and character, and they’re comfortable. You know, it’s easy to build large, but when you build small, there’s no room for error, you have to make every detail work, and John can do that.”
He notes that flat-screen TVs have influenced design in an unexpected way. “People want that luxury,” he says. “Seventeen years ago, we built a center-hall house, where the right and left sides were mirror images of each other. Well, the owner wanted a big television mounted on the way, but in those days, they were very deep, so we actually had to make the room bigger, with a bump-out, to accommodate it. Believe it or not, that meant we had to make both sides of the house bigger and expands the upstairs bedrooms – all for the TV. Now, the TVs are skinny and wonderful.”
Though Hudson is always swamped, he really enjoys the creativity of his work and says that Witt gives him a lot of leeway to help solve design problems and fill in the details. John is the big picture person and we are the detail people.”
Hudson tries to put in a “normal work week with normal working hours,” be he finds himself at his desk some weekends, “especially as Saratoga grows and we get busier and busier.”
Hudson also works with interns who come to Witt to learn about engineering or design. “I try to sneak in information about estimating, but everyone wants to do design, and I will say, it’s more interesting to do estimates on something you’ve helped design.” He keeps track of the interns when they leave Witt and is happy for them when they land on their feet in interesting jobs.
Hudson laughs when he thinks about how Witt started his company in a basement, then moved to a job site in a trailer, then a small office on Franklin Square, then the Blackmer building on Clinton Street, and now occupies a North Broadway home-turned-office.
“Here,” he says, “Everyone really is part of a solution. I have to be realistic, though, and some things have a range. For example, you can spend $50 on a faucet, or $500. I have to work with what the client wants. They’re in control of that, so it can be hard to tell what the budget may be based on those preferences. It’s human nature to gravitate toward the higher-priced item. I am fascinated about what happens when people have many, many choices. You might think that makes it easier to choose, but it actually makes it harder. My goal is always for the client to be happy with the choice.”
“I guess I’ve been with John Witt on every house he’s built,” says Don Sanders Sr., “mainly on outside services, like excavating, installing septic systems or taking emergency calls and warranty work, even on weekends.”
It’s not surprising that Sanders has had his hand in the building of about 1,000 homes, considering he’s been working for Witt Construction for 28 years, first as a sub-contractor, then about 20 years full time.
“The first one was on Monument Drive in Schuylerville,” he recalls. It was John Witt’s own house.
“I like the construction business,” he says, underlining his commitment and pleasure in the job. “The homeowners are nice people, and John treats me really well.”
Too, Sanders is proud to be involved in building homes he thinks are beautiful. “When John designs something, it really stands out,” he notes. “He has vision about details. He knows what he wants and he wants it a certain way. Clients are happy. I come in down the line, I show up at the site and I probably see them after they move in, I take care of requests, even if all they want is to learn how to change the furnace filter or because a breaker tripped. I don’t know what else I could do that would be half as much fun, especially when I help put together a Showcase home.”
He also notes that Witt keeps up with all the “new and improved and latest products.”
Witt first asked Sanders to be part of his team “for 10 years. When the 10 years was up, he asked me to stay for 20,” says Sanders. “I said ‘yes’ because I am happy with my work.”
Adele Grasso retired from Stewart’s in 1999. “I was young,” she says. “I stayed home for six years, but I really enjoy working and I looked for something part time. I found this job in accounting for Witt Construction and it’s been a perfect 10 years since I got here. I started at eight hours per week, now work 30 in payables and billing and as a liaison to our accountants.”
Grasso likes coming to work because of the atmosphere, which, she says, “always has good morale. It’s a rare quality in a work environment. People tell the truth to each other and that starts at the top with John Witt.”
Besides, Grasso is enamored of the homes. “Stone archways between the living room and dining room – gorgeous. And fabulous kitchens, especially,” she says. “I love to cook and once, I got to cook in a Showcase home for 23 people. It was wonderful. I make dinner every Wednesday for my family and friends, but only for a few people, John made it possible for me to invite my whole family!” That house was purchased by a Witt staffer, who has since moved on.
Grasso continues that she wears a pedometer and usually has to take many steps in a kitchen to get things done, but the Witt kitchen is so well designed and the appliances are located so conveniently, that she could prove by her pedometer reading that she had taken fewer steps to get things done. “What a brilliant designer,” she says. “I have never seen a Witt home that I wouldn’t die to live in.”
She has seen many changes over the years, says Grasso. Top on her list is “environments get more and more comfortable, as people building homes share information. Materials have gotten stronger and things go in and out of style, like countertops, which have gone from laminate to granite. John keeps up with it all.”
She adds that the Witt Construction “family” of employees gets the job done because, “Here, all you have to do is ask. People are always very busy, but they get back to you, they’re approachable.”
It shows up, she believes, in the Witt product. “John is a serious talent and he’s got a following of clients, who always call on him for remodeling or new construction. They know whatever he build will be beautiful and efficient. If you give 100 percent, you’ll be treated fairly, the way it should be.”
Grasso isn’t thinking about retiring again any time soon. “My mother is 87 and she still works, plays golf, bowls and plays cards and my aunt worked until she was 90,” she says. “I don’t think about leaving.”