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The Custom Home Building Process Made Easy: An Interview with Chris Donatelli of Donatelli Builders, Inc.

By Chris Donatelli

Tell us a little bit about your company and the services you offer.

Donatelli Builders, Inc. is a design/build remodeling and new home builder that collaborates with hand-picked design professionals (local architects, interior designers, kitchen designers and home automation specialists, etc.), which enables us to deliver a predictable, streamlined experience. Our client projects range in size from one-room makeovers, home expansions and additions, façade and whole-house renovations to total custom homes. Because what we do is custom, we place a very high emphasis on a consultative team approach to ensure that our clients are well informed through the entire process.

Is there a common misconception that people have about building a custom home?

A custom home is not for everyone and should be considered when the available housing stock does not provide a desirable option. Sometimes clients are confused with what a custom home is. A custom home is a home that has never been built before; a unique home from the ground up that allows the owner to be a part of every design decision and selection. A semi-custom home or production home is usually a product built over and over again with limited options.

A custom home does not always have to be large, but should focus primarily on style and function. Some of our clients simply have practical reasons for building a custom home, even if it is smaller in scale. For example, if a family member has limited mobility or is in a wheelchair, a home meeting ADA standards with an elevator may be the unique requirement.

Because of the planning and time involvement for everyone involved, a truly custom home will usually cost more than homes that are currently on the market. A custom home is about having what you want, and this means that the costs may exceed what the short-term return will be if it needs to be sold.

Can you briefly describe the basic steps in the home building process?

The first critical point to understand is that the process should be complete, and ideally have a team but also a single source of accountability. A segmented (incomplete) process where everyone involved acts as independent agents with separate agendas is not really a cohesive process. If done properly, design/build should be all about a linear, cohesive process instead of one burdened with voids or conflicts in responsibility, inefficiencies or overlap in responsibilities.

A good building process will always be focused on the end goal and will require an extensive communication platform to make sure every participant has updates in real time so the focus is always current. An over-simplified process may look like this:
Comprehensive needs analysis and creation of project goals
Site procurement and feasibility
Team assembly (architect, kitchen and bath designer, interior designer, landscape architect)
Preliminary design and baseline budget approval
Plan development and continuous feedback from select vendors for value engineering
Product education and selections
Procurement of specialty trades and scheduling
Preparation of detailed request for quotes for all work involved
Start of construction

A good process needs to incorporate good project management skills and must place heavy emphasis on timing, synergy (multiple things happening simultaneously) and the ability to re-direct efficiently based on changes related to budget, design, etc.

What is one of the most important things for future homeowners to consider before construction starts?

To the degree possible, the design should be completed before construction starts, including cabinet design and product selections. Many homeowners do not realize that the installation of framing and mechanical work (HVAC, plumbing and electrical) are heavily dependent on things like the cabinet plans and fixtures.

Here are a few examples of why this is important:

Our process includes plumbing fixture selection as one of the very first selection items. Why do we do this? It is essential to know what will ultimately be installed down the road so the proper piping can be priced and installed. Making the decision to install extensive shower features after you've already installed the plumbing pipe will result in extra charges from the plumber and we try to eliminate this with good planning.

Addressing the cabinet design too late in the process can mean moving windows, doors or walls to get the ideal space and amenities desired in a kitchen, bath or laundry room. These rooms must ultimately function well and the fact that we remodel these spaces all the time (even on newer homes) suggests that the important functionality was not there to begin with. Don't allow a builder to be lazy here; don't hire someone who will not accept the responsibility of working with you to make sure that these areas are given the proper attention during the pre-construction phase.

A building process is like a short-term marriage: values must align for it to work. Ask the right questions and do not overemphasize cost before there is enough information to reasonably determine what a realistic cost will be. You would not choose a doctor for your eye surgery by taking bids because the experience of the surgery and end result are much too important. The cost of the surgery is ultimately important, but selecting a doctor based on a lower price in the beginning would never offset the reality of a botched surgery that left you with bad eyesight. Most people understand this so they ask questions like, "how many of your patients have my exact condition"; "what do you do to make sure that it will be corrected by surgery" and "what will you do to make sure that I am not in excruciating pain during and after the surgery." For some reason, in the building business, people make risky decisions based on not asking the right questions.

I have been in business for 25 years and I've seen my share of "botched" remodeling and new home projects. After learning about the situation, I usually find that the warning signs were there all along, but they were ignored because the client wanted to believe that the low-bid contractor had some magical way of producing the quality and service they were looking for at a substantially lower price.

How do you balance what your clients want with what's possible?

This is really a function of good communication. Our role as a design/build company is to be a good facilitator for information and present the facts. From there, our clients make educated decisions about what is possible for them based on priorities, budget, etc.

Do you have any tips to help make the home building process more enjoyable for people?

Realize and understand that this is an arena where you will get very different answers to your questions based on who you talk to. It is critical to align your overall values and project goals with a firm who values and delivers the things that are most important to you.

Today, good companies understand that it is all about the right fit between a building firm and a client. To communicate values and processes, the building firm should provide this information on an informative Web site and even through a blog, videos, etc. so you can take your time to see what they are about before you reach out to them. If they can show you that your needs will be addressed, they may be a good fit and it may be worth it to reach out to them to discuss next steps.

Require that a building firm explain their process and show you their project management capabilities including the specific way they communicate. For example, our firm utilizes a robust project portal to share information with the homeowners and entire project team. This creates accountability and sets the expectations early on in the process as to how the channels of communication flow. If a building/remodeling firm can't show this or relies on standard email and text messages, prepare yourself for an uphill battle in terms of communication if you decide to hire them.

Understand and embrace the planning (the pre-construction phase) that goes into a project and do as much of this as possible prior to starting construction. It is during this time that you can make decisions without being rushed. Try to avoid allowances where possible for selectable mechanical and interior and exterior finishes.

What's the best way for people to contact you and your company?

They can feel free to call or email me directly. I also encourage people to visit our Web site and to read the 40+ blogs we have posted so far. They are really educational and informative and will spark ideas and prompt more questions. Remember: smart people ask the right questions!

Chris Donatelli, President
Donatelli Builders, Inc.

Phone: 630-289-9981
Web site:

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