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Ren Chandler on Building High-End Homes and Houseboats

The general contractor talks about starting out building restaurants for his uncle and growing his firm to 75 employees

Erin Carlyle

General contractor Ren Chandler fell in to work as a general contractor, but a love of the outdoors and working with his hands, plus an interest in business and environmental studies, made it the perfect fit for a long-term career. Here he shares his two-decade-long work story, including how in addition to high-end residential work he became the go-to houseboat builder in his area and also opened a metal-fabrication shop.

Firm at a Glance
Name: Ren Chandler of Dyna Contracting
Location: Seattle
Type of Business: General contractor
Style: Loves many
Years in business: 20
Number of projects per year: 20

Tell us about your business.

I started Dyna in 1999. We do high-end residential work. We’re doing 18 projects right now: four houseboats, two condos, four tear-downs and eight major remodels.Our average project is $800,000 to $900,000, though we have $4 million, $400,000 and everything in between.

We have 75 employees, including three interior designers and two architects. We’ve got project managers, site superintendents, administrative staff, guys in the field: carpenters, journeyman and laborers. We have guys in the metal shop.

You have architects and designers on staff, but you don’t consider yourself a design-build firm?

We’re not exclusively a design-build firm. Of the 18 projects we’ve got going right now, maybe three we’re doing all the architecture for. You know why? I like doing design-build. I just also like working with the amazing architects we have in this city. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself.

Our clients do work with architects. Sometimes we help them find the architect, sometimes they come to us with an architect, and sometimes the architects come to us with a project.

The majority of our projects have an interior designer involved. Some work with our team and some have their own designers.

What’s your role in all of this?

I’m pretty much doing all of the new business: meeting with clients, putting initial budgets together. I figure out the project timeline. I hand the project off to the project manager, who confirms all the numbers that I’ve done in the initial round. Then he’s going to take it to the next level.

Lake Union lll HouseboatDyna Contracting

And you also work on houseboats?

In 2010 we completed our first houseboat. Now we lease 120 feet of waterfront directly across from our office to do them. We’ve got four that are going now and when we complete these four we will have done 15. They’re super high-end little jewel boxes. They’re quite fun to do.

Also, it’s not a boat; it’s a float. There’s a distinction. These don’t have engines.The majority have concrete floats that weigh anywhere between 130 and 200 tons. That’s just the float. Think of it like a swimming pool without the water.That’s what you need for the displacement of water.

We build the concrete float, put the float in the water, and build the house on top of it. The houses are 60 to 80 tons depending on the size. So in total, these weigh 190 to 280 tons.

Once we’re done building, someone tugs the houseboat away to its permanent location.

How’d you get your start in construction?

I grew up on a Massachusetts farm and went to a high school with a big outdoor influence (Holderness in New Hampshire). I was also a competitive sailor, and through college my summer job was working on race boats. When stuff broke I had to make sure the boat was ready again by the weekend races. I had to be very self-sufficient both on the farm and working with boats.

I graduated from college with a double major in environmental studies and economics and a music minor. After that I moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, to help my uncle build a restaurant. I had no practical construction experience other than the fact that I grew up on a farm — you had to be able to fix anything.

I moved to Boise, Idaho, to help my uncle open another restaurant. I acted as the general contractor on that one. That was a jump in the deep end.

Then I moved to Seattle to open up another restaurant, which ended up not opening, but I realized I wanted to live in Seattle. One of the architects that had been working on the restaurant hired me. And a contractor that had bid doing the work on the restaurant hired me. About six months later a friend called me up and wanted me to work on his house. By then I had a partner, and the two of us had a pickup truck and a dog, and we muddled our way through that project.

I just started and figured it out as I went along.I had a bit of understanding of business and economics. What my uncle told me is, ‘You’ll be fine in construction. Just use common sense, manage your time well, and be good with people.’ I’ve lived by that method for years and it seems to work.

I started the company in 1999; in 2003 my partner and I split. He wanted to stay fairly small, and I wanted to scale the business. We’re still friends — our kids ski race together. Anyway, I hired my first project manager, who I was paying more than myself, and grew from there.

I learned a lot early on from my competitive sailing experience, actually, about managing people, managing time, how to solve problems. And how not to freak out. That’s really helped me a lot over the years. Not only with my own level of stress but in my ability to lead the people that I work with. It is a stressful job.

Problems happen on every project no matter how good you are. Being the general contractor you’re not just the builder. You have to know a lot about a lot of things. You basically have to take the responsibility for everybody.

What’s else do you want to tell us about how you work?

My whole goal with this industry is I want to make this as easy for the client as possible. It’s a daunting experience. There’s so much money involved and there’s so much time commitment. It’s scary.

I think where builders can fall off is where they don’t communicate well with the clients. Having been in business for 20 years, I have no interest in telling a client what they want to hear. I want to be sure they get on a realistic path early on to make it a successful project.

What have your years of experience added to the skills you bring to projects as a professional?

I have a really strong design sense, I think.I also bring a lot of how a house gets used and how people live in a house to a project. I care a lot about how people live in a house.

I have two boys, ages 12 and 14 now, and my wife and I built our first house before we had kids. We built our second house while we had kids. I’m now in my fourth house since having kids and at each stage my needs have changed.

So when I talk to clients who are about to have a baby, I can say ‘OK, great, these are what you think your needs are going to be now.’ And I can also bring up how things change when the kid is almost the same size as you and playing every sport, so where’s your mudroom and what are you going to do about laundry?

You also specialize in green building. What does that look like?

As an environmental studies major, I care a lot about it. I have clients that have unlimited funds who will spend money on geothermal heat and rainwater collection and solar. I have others that don’t and want to be smart about how they’re using money.

We typically say ‘If you’re going to spend any money, spend it on the envelope of your house, and the HVAC system.’ I generally think that houses that are really well-built and well-designed will stand the test of time. There is nothing worse for the environment than tearing down a house and building it again after 10 years.

One of my project managers is Passive House-certified. We’ve built two of them. I’m not necessarily pushing people to do passive homes, but we do take the knowledge we’ve learned building passive homes to build normal homes.

We’re trying to do our best to not only future-proof as far as design and aesthetics go, but also with technology.

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