We’re proud to present an interview series that highlights talented Bay Area contractors, designers, and architecture and arts professionals. We couldn’t have asked for a better inaugural interviewee than Jeff King, General Contractor and founder of Jeff King & Company, whose craftsmanship and philosophy we’ve long admired. Always working from a fundamental commitment to exceptional client service, Jeff King & Company builds beautifully detailed, smart, sustainable homes. Keep reading to discover how Jeff, originally a fine artist, successfully combines his passion for design and problem solving skills daily, his thoughts on great building, and how he’s grown his firm.
You founded your current company in 1999–congratulations on 15 years in business! What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in that time about building a project?
I would say the most important thing I have learned in my years as a builder is that, in the residential sector, we are really a service industry. Building a beautiful product is what’s expected of us, delivering it with exceptional service is what creates happy clients. To do this we have to manage the client’s expectations. We do this through communication at every step of the project. If we err on the side of providing our client with all the information, and providing that information at the appropriate times then we find that the project tends to go very smoothly and we have a very happy client at the end of what can be a very difficult process. The process needs to be easier than our client’s expected it would be.
And, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned over the years about growing a successful business?
In order to grow one has to have great employees. I have fantastic people working for me in every aspect of the business. Without them I would never be able to free myself to focus on the parts of the business that are necessary for growth. But the hard part is hiring the right people. My best employees are the ones I have invested in over a long period of time and they have invested themselves into their roles and into the company itself. A lot of time and training is required to develop the best employees, and a lot of patience on everyone’s part. As I have developed a more sophisticated organization of people I have found that my role in the company has narrowed and this has been healthy for the growth of the company.
You’ve worked on a number of remodels of San Francisco homes. What’s your approach to using new materials and new technologies in existing buildings?
Before I jump into offering new materials and technologies to my clients I am very careful to get to know them and their needs. Radiant heat for example, while not a new technology, gets a lot of press for being the most efficient heat source. This is only true if the client’s lifestyle matches the ‘style’ of radiant heat. If it doesn’t it can become one of the most inefficient heat sources.
Some of my clients are very tuned-in to technology and want the latest in total control of their home systems (i.e. lighting, audio and alarm), and others are very happy with the analog controls. What I am interested in when it comes to new materials and technologies is how they can potentially advance the health, comfort, resource efficiency, and durability for the occupant and the home.
We’ve been thinking about winter a lot lately. Are there any winterizing solutions that you consider musts in homes you build, and if so, could you explain why?
Whenever we do a whole house remodel we take the opportunity to upgrade the infrastructure of the home to as close to new built standards as we can get. This includes new windows, excellent house wrap and insulation and air sealing throughout. The easiest of these is adding insulation. It is relatively inexpensive and the return in comfort alone is worth the investment. Whenever possible insulate beyond the typical standards for R-value. For example if you have the space in your attic to insulate beyond the recommended R-30 and can go to R-38 then do. It will improve the performance of the home and cost very little extra.
You were an early adopter of green building. What drew you to sustainable solutions early on and how has this part of your work evolved?
An old employee of mine got me thinking about green building. I was really excited by the idea because it gave added purpose to the work we do. I dove in head first and made green building a big part of our identity. Along the way green building and everything else green got a lot of attention in the media. Unfortunately some of this attention resulted in confusion due to green washing. Our tag line has been ‘Building Better, Building Green’ which I still believe in. However, now I try to avoid even using the word green because it just confuses people and what is really important tends to get lost. Now I focus on what I call the four tenets of great building – health, comfort, resource efficiency and durability. All four are the essentials to green and sustainable building – but let’s not shout it out, let’s just do it.
We’ve heard that you’re working on your first LEED project. Have you approached any materials or features differently with certification in mind?
We have definitely had to approach the project differently in order to qualify for certain points offered. For example the salvage and disposal of the demolished parts of the building had to be done very carefully as we were trying to meet the very high standard of 90% recycled or reused, and only 10% going to landfill. Sourcing certain sustainable materials has presented challenges as well, particularly items that require chain of custody documentation. Getting permits for some less-than-common features in the home, for example a gray water collection system was particularly challenging, but we got it done. Our blog details some of the pros and cons of a LEED project here: http://www.jeffkingandco.com/remodeling-san-francisco-leed-platinum-construction-classic-victorian/
Where do you see the green building industry headed in the future?
You know I’m not sure, but I am very intrigued by the passive house movement. Building to passive house standards feels like the best extreme possible. It can even be done with a whole house remodel.
Two places that need a lot of thought and attention are water conservation and electricity use. We are definitely not paying the real cost of the water we use – if we did people would be much more keen on methods for conservation. And I am concerned that with all of our technology and gadgetry our electricity use will quickly outpace our resources. Both of these problems present big opportunities for the building industry.
You’ve had quite a rich education and work history, starting out as a teacher of art history, and moving on to fine arts sculpture and furniture design before becoming a general contractor. Could you talk about how your experience with the history and practice of art informs your building skills?
More than anything it has given me a huge love of design and architecture and a real appreciation for what the design team brings to each of the projects we build. It has also, of course, tuned me to details, proportions, stylistic traits, etc. that we are working with everyday. This in turn has made me a pretty good problem solver when needed.
Relatedly, entrepreneurship is its own act of creation. Did your arts training help you in any way when you were starting your business?
Only in that it was the excuse for the means – which ultimately became the business. I never set out to have a business or to be a businessperson. I really backed my way into it out of a necessity to support my interest in the arts. I will say that artists tend to be pretty curious people and I think curiosity is an excellent trait in all areas of life. Being curious has served me particularly well as a business owner. It has lead me to ask a lot of questions that have resulted in a lot of very compelling answers.
Going back to your art history days, is there any one building that has stuck with you over the years in a way that still informs your work today?
Gosh there are so many buildings that I find exciting and inspirational. Some are houses, and civic structures but most are religious structures. I am not a religious person but I am constantly looking for those moments of transcendence that we all experience as humans and I have often found these in great architecture like Hagia Sophia, or Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame, but I’ve also found those moments in simple architecture like some of the California Missions. I can’t say that any of these buildings directly inform my work, but they do still leave me in awe.
You’re committed to cultivating excellence from your team. Marci Nava, your Vice President of Operations, heads a focused professional development program for your employees. Would you mind sharing your thoughts about a couple of successful parts of that program and how they’ve helped your firm?
Honestly, I wouldn’t say we have a fully developed program in place as this is something we are still working on, but we do place high value on our employees and on helping them to develop their careers and personal goals. One of the four parts of our mission statement is to ‘Pursue Continual Improvement’ and we do this by setting company goals at the beginning of each year and by setting individual goals twice a year. The individual goals are supported by our structured bonus program. Amongst other items that define the bonus, each employee is asked to set two goals – one must be work related and the other can be purely personal, but both have to stretch the individual a bit. In addition we offer an education stipend to all employees that can be used to support their bonus goals or for other work related education. For the employees that fully engage these have been very successful benefits.
Thanks so much for your time, Jeff!