Behind the Build: Thomas Young of Thomas Building Group
Behind the Build: Thomas Young of Thomas Building Group, San Francisco, California
How long have you been working as a general contractor, and what drew you to the field?
Thomas Young: I started my business about five years ago. Before that, I had been doing graphics and design work but got tired of the office-job thing. So I took all the design knowledge I’d picked up behind the computer and started to incorporate that into hands-on work through building. People I worked with along the way had been encouraging me to do this and saying how good I would be at it.
Have you always been handy?
TY: Yes, always. Right out of high school I thought I was going to be a mechanic. I’ve always loved taking stuff apart, fixing things and rebuilding things. Then my attention shifted from cars to computers, which I found fascinating, especially once I figured out ways to play with colors and graphics and drawing. I always had a good eye for design and color but wasn’t that great at hand drawing, and the computer made that part possible for me.
So being a builder draws upon both your visual and mechanical strengths.
TY: Yes. I find I work really well with designers because I do share that eye for design as well as a natural sense for proportions. Sometimes, once I’m working in a space, I realize that what was put on paper isn’t necessarily the best solution. I often end up saying, “What if we move this over six inches, or move this valve or niche in the bathroom?” Those what-ifs are part of why I always end up with great results. I was just working with a designer on a bathroom where the large medicine-cabinet door swung out into the room. It was fine that way, but I thought, as a guy, often you want to shave in the shower but there’s no mirror in there–what if we install the cabinet door so it swings the other way, so you can have this mirror right in front of you in the shower? She thought it was a great idea, so I took the door apart and re-hinged it and made it more practical. Those are the kind of little things I’m always thinking about when I’m on a site.
What type of construction do you specialize in?
TY: I specialize in kitchen and bathroom remodels and in maintaining the feel of San Francisco’s old homes while modernizing them. My eye doesn’t gravitate toward old-school, heavy-heavy trim and intricate molding details. I like nice crisp, clean lines and things that are centered and balanced. So for me, it’s usually about keeping just enough of the original look to maintain its character while making the space feel more modern.
What are your personal favorite types of projects to work on?
TY: I love to cook, so kitchen remodels are always fun for me. I really understand how things need to flow in the space. You know, like why don’t we make that backsplash a little higher, or raise the range hood so it doesn’t hit you in the forehead when you lean over the stove? As I build different kitchens, when there’s something that works really well or doesn’t, I take note of that and often bring it into a future project or share it with the next designer I work with.
Any favorite building trends at the moment—or least-favorite?
TY: There’s one really trendy thing that’s both love and hate: patterned concrete tiles. They’re everywhere and they’re beautiful but they have their downsides. They’re not nearly as hard or durable as porcelain, and they’re thicker with edges that are a little more ragged, so they require more prep work. They’re also more porous, meaning they stain more easily and require more maintenance than standard floor tiles, which designers and homeowners don’t all understand yet because they’re a newer material. So we tell them, “You know, this particular tile is going to require you to seal and clean the floor at least twice a year now if you really want to keep this nice look,” some of them are disappointed, like “Oh, I thought concrete tile was carefree.”
What kinds of marketing have helped you grow your business?
TY: I am the worst at marketing, honestly, but I stay busy through word-of-mouth and referrals, and over the past few years, I’ve actually gotten a lot of work through designers who use Ivy who are looking for someone in the San Francisco area. Having a professional website really helps. I used to build websites for a living, so I have a good eye for that, but honestly for a while I didn’t even have a website for my business, and I didn’t do social media. I had someone helping me with that for a while, but even now I’m not on top of it as I’d like to be. I do believe having an online presence helps. It gives clients more confidence that you are established and professional. But honestly, and it took me a long time to accept this: I’m just more of a people person. All that stuff is really helpful when you want to get a foot in the door, but I’m best at making connections in person—I meet with someone, I get a good feeling from them, they get a good feeling from me. I’m definitely a people person and that’s how my name gets out there.
Do you have any tips for designers on how to improve their working relationship with builders? And vice versa?
TY: It’s OK for designers to lean on us and ask questions if they don’t have a lot of experience in a certain area, as opposed to just thinking something can be done a certain way. Just ask, “Would this be possible? And would this be possible within our budget?” If you don’t have a ton of experience, work with your contractor before you pitch too much to the homeowner to make sure it’s a feasible concept or idea. For contractors, sometimes we have a lot of ego and can be impatient and think things should be done a certain way, but it’s important to stay open to new ideas. Sometimes there’s another way of doing things. Spend a few minutes thinking about it before you assume your way is the only way.
Can you share any other secrets to your success?
TY: A big part of it is just that I’m known for being very friendly, patient and easy to get along with. I’m also very hands-on. On all my projects, no matter how big they are, I still put on my tool belt and work, and I make sure anyone working for me knows how I want things done and let them know the standards that they have to meet to continue working with me. There are times I’ve been in a client’s house at two or three in the morning down on my hands and knees cleaning every last little smidge off the floor so I know when they walk in the next morning they will get that “Wow, this is amazing!” look on their face. I’m very, very, very client oriented. I like to leave a project knowing that it couldn’t have done any better. That’s always my goal.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
TY: Right now in San Francisco it’s the logistics—the limited parking and the high costs of doing business. It’s a challenge keeping pricing down and managing the logistics of getting materials in and out of sites. We have a project now where they want to put a new back sliding door in, but because the houses are so close together, you literally have to hire a crane to get that door into the back of the house, which costs way more than the slider itself. Those are the kinds of logistics we are constantly juggling.
What’s the best part of your job?
TY: I enjoy working with designers, and I enjoy making things happen and solving problems. It’s all part of the fun. If every single kitchen remodel was the same, I think I’d get bored and not want to do this anymore. Working out different ideas and figuring out the challenges along the way is what I excel in and enjoy. The most rewarding part of my job is putting the finishing touches on and standing back looking at it and thinking “Oh wow, this is beautiful and it’s going to last a long time.” I can drive by places with my kids and they’ll say “Wow Dad, you built that house.” That is so rewarding—to be able to take pride in my work and to know that it’s done right and it’s going to be there for a long time.
Lead Image: Build by Thomas Building Group, Photo by Lauren Pressey Photography, Design by Rebecca Foster Design