By Helen Susan Edelman
Thirty years is a long time. For Witt Construction, Inc., it’s been a trek through hills and valleys, but today, President John Witt looks out toward a clear horizon. With his three-decade anniversary this month, Witt declares, “I enjoy my work more each day.”
As a U.S. Ski Team champion in his 20s, Witt traveled the world. He was fascinated by the architecture in distant countries, and when the ski career wound down, that fascination translated into a creative urge to design and build homes. A Saratogian since his family moved to the city from Syracuse, when he was a first-grader, Witt couldn’t think of anywhere he’d rather live, so he put down stakes in the area and got busy making people’s dreams come true.
The first house Witt built for a client was on Wagman’s Ridge Road in the Town of Saratoga. It was a saltbox, carefully sited so that trees would grow in to frame it. “Other than the house I had built for myself a year before, I had no track record and they trusted me,” he recalls.
Landscaping is always a consideration in Witt’s portfolio of hundreds of homes. “People like views, and I look for great properties to develop in Saratoga Springs, Schuylerville, Malta, Stillwater, Wilton, Greenfield and Clifton Park, and even beyond that,” he says. “You have to decide which trees to cut and which to keep so that the house overlooks something beautiful, but is also private, if that’s what the owners are looking for.”
Witt has had significant success with neighborhoods like Cherry Hills off Old Schuylerville Rd, Park Alley, near Skidmore College, Lakeside at Riley’s, in Saratoga Springs, and Excelsior Park, near Northway exit 15. He is also building seven single-family condominiums around a courtyard on Jumel Place, in Saratoga Springs’ east side, and has under construction right now 18 townhomes at Excelsior Park. He’s even built a 13,000-square-foot, off-the-grid home in Pennsylvania and a five-box modular in Killington, Vt., where he heads many winter weekends
“Our goal is: ‘You walk in, you feel good’,” Witt says. Every custom and classic Witt home is designed with specific clients in mind and Witt meets every one of them to talk about how they see themselves living there.
“This is going to be their personal space and we don’t want them to compromise,” he says. “We look at their needs and their lifestyles when we design a home, ranging from whether they’re downsizing to whether they need accessible bathrooms or wider staircases.”
Signature Witt homes are known for features such as meticulous built-ins, open floorplans, spacious master suites and state-of-the-art kitchens.
One reason Witt homes meet the highest standards of quality is that he’s no stranger to getting his hands dirty, knows every nuance of the design-build industry and doesn’t hold back on warrantying his work. “I designed and built my own first house on Monument Drive in Schuylerville and I am self-taught,” he says. “I’ve worn all the hats. I rented a bulldozer, did siding and roofing and built the stairs and I ended up with a really need property. It inspired me to build great homes and I read and studied everything I could to make it happen. I wasn’t even in business yet; I did it to learn.”
In the beginning, he took every job he could get “just to stay alive. We were in a recession,” he remembers. “But I found it rewarding to take a raw piece of property and design a home for it and see people super happy with the outcome. I see them years later, and they’re still happy.”
When Witt first founded his company he had one employee, “and he’s still with me,” Witt reports. It can be hard, though. At one point, he went from 48 employees to 12. “Thirty years ago, there wasn’t much of a market,” he explains, “but, I was determined.” (His favorite employee these days is his daughter, Aspen.) “I started with just me, then slowly hired trades. I had my own framing crew, mason and laborers, in the beginning.” Witt also emphasizes that there are good jobs in construction that pay well, and encourages people to consider them when they’re looking at post-high school options.
As the economy improved and demand for Saratoga Springs-area housing increased, so did Witt Construction’s list of clients, many of them influenced by positive word-of-mouth reports passed on by thrilled homeowners. One of his specialties now is in-fills, building new residences on city lots that have had structures on them knocked down.
“The approval process is brutal,” says Witt. “Just because you design a house, doesn’t mean you can build it.”
He says that zoning in the city core hasn’t changed much since he started his business and that makes it expensive to live downtown. That’s one of the reasons he is developing spaces like Excelsior Park, where prices can be more affordable, but maintain the superior quality and appearance he is known for.
His work is Witt’s main focus by day, but he loves Saratoga and has dedicated himself to enhancing it. He has committed hundreds of acres to green space, was president of the Saratoga Builders Association and founded the regional Showcase of Homes, which raises money for Habitat and Saratoga Rebuild, an organization that helps people in need of housing, while it spotlights local builders’ current projects.
“I like to keep money local,” he says. “People who tour Showcase properties aren’t necessarily looking for a home, they just like to see cool, new stuff.”
He also currently serves on the board of the National Museum of Dance , Double H Ranch and served on the Saratoga Preservation Foundation board.
“I am most proud of my work for Double H Hole in the Woods Ranch in Lake Luzerne, specialized programs and year-round support for children and their families dealing with life-threatening illness,” he says.
His formula for corporate and personal success is working. His team members have longevity, some 20 or 25 years, and, he declares, “We have a great future in the best place in the world to live. Saratoga has four seasons, great cultural opportunities, excellent schools, a high quality of life and we’re near Montreal, New York City and Boston. Under Mayor Meg Kelly, the momentum is positive, the momentum is forward, and I want to make it possible for people to live a great life at different price points in beautiful, creative housing. It’s all good.”