Patrick O’Brien of The Salamander Company LLC. has been helping people build their dream homes for more than 20 years. In doing so, O’Brien and former partner Robert Ivy have earned a reputation as craftsmen, collaborative partners, and innovative solution-seekers.
When asked about the essence of Salamander Company’s approach, O’Brien says “We always strive to be creative in our problem-solving and use that as an approach to the whole project.” He explains that each person on the crew and the subcontractor companies form a whole team; doing the best they can for the sake of their own work and for the mission, which is completing the house for the client.
Establishing a good relationship with the client for a new home or renovation project is the key first step. “After you meet a new client, you move very quickly into a relationship of high trust that lasts for eight to 10 months,” observes O’Brien. “People are asked to commit a lot of money to the project. We try to maintain the initial level of trust all the way through the project and well into the future.”
As a longtime Taos resident, O’Brien strives to do the best job possible and to make sure all communications are honest and transparent. He explains at the beginning of the process exactly what the company charges and why. That honesty has been particularly important over the past year, as the pandemic has increased prices dramatically and lengthened the time frame for construction projects.
The arrival of COVID-19 last spring introduced a host of new challenges for projects already underway. “There are inevitably surprises with any project,” says O’Brien. “This past year has been full of them with supply chain issues and price increases.”
When the pandemic hit last March, the company shut down for eight weeks. O’Brien was able to get a PPP loan that allowed him to continue to pay his crew. In the midst of two renovations, he had to work with his clients to explain that the timeline for their projects would be extended.
It’s always a challenge to keep a construction project moving on its original timeline, but with COVID restrictions, those issues were compounded. “Usually, you can load up crews on the site, with different subs working in the same room,” O’Brien explains. “Now, we need to keep personnel on the job site to a minimum, staggering the subcontractors, which adds challenges to scheduling a project and affects the timeline.”
Among other problems to solve has been the skyrocketing costs of building materials. Salamander Company always builds in a 5 percent allowance for rising prices, but the pandemic increases have been 30-70 percent.
Plywood, truss packages, and metal fasteners are among the materials that have increased. It becomes a matter of communication between the client and contractor, identifying trends and the increased costs based on those trends.
“ In talking to managers at local hardware stores, increased prices are coming from the distributors, everything has ramped up,” says O’Brien. “I expect the prices to come down a certain degree, but not to pre-pandemic levels. I think we are looking at a new normal.”
And what might the new normal be? In the past, construction costs to build might vary between $250 and $280 a square foot. Now, O’Brien uses $280 - $300 as a place to start pricing, hoping that it won’t cost that much for the finished project.
New construction projects
Currently, Salamander Company is building a new house near Arroyo Seco for a local who has lived here a long time.
“This is her retirement dream house,” explains O’Brien. “It is a modest-sized house with 1,200 square feet inside and a similar amount of outdoor space, including a carport and portal. Outdoor space is important because for so many months of the year it is easy to maintain indoor/outdoor living.”
Although the house is small, O’Brien describes it as handsome. The house has a stucco exterior and extensive rich wood details inside and out.
It also has some features that are more hidden. It is being built with super tight construction, part of a series of developing practices representing a current trend in building.
The trend towards the passive house
A passive house is super-insulated, from the foundation up to the finishes and almost airtight, making the heating systems relatively inexpensive and requiring very little energy to heat.
All-electric homes are being supplemented with solar panels, in some cases producing a net zero energy house that produces as much energy as it uses. As is the case with the Arroyo Seco home, there is propane for radiant floor heat with a wood stove as back up. “The passive house is super energy efficient and airtight so there is less need less for propane to keep the house comfortable and warm. I’d like to take the company into the passive home direction, learning from locals who are working in the field and from the reading I am doing. It makes so much sense.”
An important part of the approach is triple pane windows, which cost more but reduce the price of the mechanical systems and energy over time. “If you have less house to heat and an easier house to heat those two things go hand-in-hand,” says O’Brien.
With renovations, the emphasis tends to be on stylistic changes, but there may still be some possibility of adapting the passive home approach through retrofitting older homes, although it is more of a challenge. O’Brien would like to develop a simple energy modeling tool to look at savings from improvements like changing out windows or adding insulation. Such a model could show initial costs for improvements and then estimate the energy savings over a period of years. While the monetary payback might take a number of years, there is an immediate benefit in increased comfort.
Looking back and forward
Part of the success of Salamander Company is its reliance on local expertise. The crew is all local and the subcontractors are long-standing companies like Valverde Energy and Maes Electrical. Maintaining these relationships ensures collaborative problem-solving and competitive pricing, based on the desire to continue to work together in the future. Local designers are also important to high quality results; EDGE and Henry Architects are frequent partners.
Recently there was a change at Salamander Company. O’Brien is now the sole proprietor, but he had a partner who retired at the beginning of the year. Robert Ivy was O’Brien’s partner for 20 years. O’Brien says, “A lot of success that the company has had is based on the reputation that he and I built together.”
That reputation has translated into consistent projects with repeat business and new clients coming through word of mouth and more recently a few internet ads. And the demand is increasing. “I’ve had more calls in the last six months than in a typical two-to three-year period. It’s like the dam broke. Since the pandemic began, more people are working remotely and looking at communities like Taos,” O’Brien explains. “A young couple has been traveling around the country in their RV for the last three to four years. They’ve finally decided to make Taos their home. They have a modest-sized house planned for a beautiful property in Arroyo Hondo. It is their dream and I’m happy to be involved. They are super excited and that makes me feel excited, too.”
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