When he launched ThinkMakeBuild in Washington, D.C., in 2010, Darren Kornas made two decisions that now seem prescient. One was that architects, rather than homeowners, were the clients to chase—a smart, long-range move in a high-wealth region that was on the cusp of a building boom. The second was to use technology to decentralize operations, which allowed them eventually to follow business opportunities far from their base. Indeed, in the last decade the company has expanded from D.C. and Easton, Maryland, to Richmond, Virginia, Atlanta, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Eerily resonant, this nimble approach has resulted in minimal disruptions during a prolonged pandemic whose end is still uncertain.
ThinkMakeBuild was born in the bleak period following the 2008 housing crash. Darren had been working for a developer of single-family homes and townhouses when work dried up almost overnight. Living in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood without a job, no one hiring, and a first child on the way, he jumped at some stray requests from homeowners looking for remodels. “I formed an LLC, got licensed, and called the company Capital Carpentry,” Darren says. “It was me and two carpenters with tool bags on, cranking out a couple of remodels without the intention of starting a business.”
Darren’s is a classic story of following the threads, perhaps blindly at first. Until several years after college, he had never considered making a living in construction. Graduating with a political science degree, he looked at law school but soon realized it wasn’t his passion. During those angsty years he fell back on what he knew, and that was building. His father was in commercial construction, and Darren’s teenage summers had been spent on jobsites outside Philadelphia, in his home state of New Jersey. Buying time to figure out his future, at age 23 he took a superintendent position at Toll Brothers. “Working for a production company like that teaches you how to manage the construction process as efficiently as possible and overcome obstacles when things go awry,” he says. “It didn’t teach me how to build the highest level of detail, but I learned to manage schedules, budgets, and the client-facing part of the industry.”
A desire for more hands-on experience led to his next job as lead carpenter and project manager for the fledging design/build firm Commonwealth Home Design in Vienna, Virginia. “It was a nice experience because design/build firms are uber client-facing,” he says. “They had a nice system down for managing client communications and expectations. I got into building science, and I loved the hands-on aspect and got to hone the craft in the way I thought things should be built.” Next came the stint with the development company and, a few years in, the housing collapse.
By the time he formed the LLC in 2008, Darren knew he wanted to do high-caliber work with architects, but it wasn’t until late 2010, when he landed his first big-budget project, in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, that he decided to make a serious go of it. “I needed to stop acting like a carpenter and start acting like a business owner,” he says. “We needed to rebrand—we were no longer two carpenters building a deck.” Working with a local branding firm, Design Army, Darren defined his company’s identity, goals, and target audience. “We made the solid decision that we would go after architecturally significant projects driven by architects, interior designers, and landscape architects who appreciate a high level of quality, customer service, and design,” he says. “We won’t do a project where there’s not an architect involved from start to finish.”
It was the Design Army consultants who suggested the name ThinkMake Construction, but Darren liked ThinkMakeBuild—a preference validated in focus groups. “People tell me that make and build are the same thing, but you want to make relationships, drawings, preparations, and then build and execute the final portion,” he says.
Launching at the height of the recession spurred his decision to embrace technology. He couldn’t afford to turn projects away, even if they were spread apart geographically. “We realized technology was our friend: How could we manage the information without having to spend five hours a day driving to jobsites?” he says. “Everything was converted to electronic format so everyone in the company can access everything they need from a phone or laptop—there are no binders.”
A few years later, Darren and his wife moved to Easton, Maryland, and he opened an Eastern Shore branch. The computerized systems he had in place simplified the move and have evolved with the use of Procore for project management and job financials, and Smartsheet for scheduling. Also in the toolbox is the Concur app that tracks expenses on employee credit cards and imports them to the accounting software. Every project is equipped with a MacBook and Zoom. “As long as we have a superintendent on site, we can put on a project anywhere,” he says. “Our superintendents are spread out all over. An hour and a half drive is the limit for what most are willing to put up with.”
While it’s common today for builders in major markets to use sophisticated software, during the startup it helped him stand apart from competitors. It still does in many mid-sized cities, including Richmond, just two hours away. One of his project managers was already coming from there, which led Darren to scout local work. ThinkMakeBuild’s first Richmond project, a single-family home, was completed earlier this year, another is in design, and a half-dozen more are in the pipeline. In the case of the Steamboat Springs office, a top-notch employee wanted to return to Colorado and offered to launch a satellite there. And operations are just ramping up in Atlanta, the latest branch location.
“Some superintendents are kind of adventuresome,” Darren says. “When we were asked to look at a community in Sun Valley, Idaho, we asked one of our employees if he wanted to go for eight months during ski season, and he said sure. If there is enough market share in that area, we’d look for a new hire to staff the projects.”
Darren oversees 30 employees ranging from carpenters to superintendents, project managers, a business development and estimating manager, a production manager, and an office manager, all of whom have worked remotely since Day One. A CFO consultant handles company financials. “Employees appreciate that kind of freedom,” Darren says. “We don’t micromanage their time sheet. There’s no hard and fast expectation of working from 7:00 to 3:00, as long as clients and architects are happy, work is getting done when it’s supposed to, and the jobs are making money.”
While 75 percent of their work is remodels, new homes account for 50 percent of revenues because the budgets are bigger—to date as high as $11 million. “We still do projects down to $200,000 as long as the client has an eye toward high design, quality, and customer service,” Darren says. “Some firms turn their nose up at projects that small, but I think clients that are willing to spend substantial money on a tiny project will eventually spend even more on a larger project.”
Means and Methods
The steady progression of high-end work has honed the company’s building techniques and problem-solving abilities. One recently completed project included an indoor volleyball court, which raised questions of how to scale the room and prepare the court surfaces. “Half the battle of being able to pull off [something new] successfully is knowing where to go to find the information and not being afraid to seek out people who know more than you do,” Darren says. “We pulled in a sports company that does commercial flooring for school gyms and a lighting designer who does sports arenas to make sure we’re putting in the proper lighting.”
In another project, AutoHaus [RD Volume 5, 2019] in D.C., the architect’s design called for a wall of glass between the garage and the living space behind it. “The entire glass façade had to be fire rated, and with modern houses you are leaning on a lot of commercial means and methods,” Darren says. “We found a commercial glazier and worked with them on how to implement it so the architect could work on drawings.”
Darren is quick to attribute the company’s successes to his employees. In hiring, he looks for people who fit into the company culture. “We can teach best practices for materials we like to use and how things are assembled, but we can’t teach people how to have a sense of urgency or be empathetic and a good listener.” Instilling a welcoming, non-adversarial work environment eliminates the microaggressions that tempt some superintendents. “No topic is taboo in terms of [the homeowner] wanting to change things or take something out that’s been installed,” Darren says. “Our staff has learned to stop asking whether they should change something a client has asked for; they know what the answer will be. Yes, it’s a pain, but they’re paying us to do it, and our job is to make that stuff happen at the end of the day. It’s important that everyone’s tugging on the same rope.”
Almost from the beginning, Darren has worked with a business consultant, who recently started a recruiting arm. In a tight labor market, it takes longer to hire the right people, but they are out there, he says. In addition to talent procurement, he reviews estimates and does high-level marketing, identifying the architects he wants to work with.
Darren likes bringing projects to architects, and one challenge for this youngish company is how to get more repeat clients. “We have tons of repeat architect clients, but we’d like to figure out how to get more repeat homeowner clients,” Darren says. “The builders we compete against have been in business longer and have a bigger client base. We just had our first repeat client who is renovating a house in Florida. As the company ages and owners move from one house to the next, we’ll start to see repeat clients.” He adds, “One of the best gifts is bringing in a job that the architect doesn’t have to sell. When a homeowner does contact us directly, seldom do they have the budget to afford an architecturally significant home.”
That reality prompted a soon-to-launch design/build arm in the metro D.C. and Eastern Shore markets called Shelter. “Two architects told me that they turn away clients all the time who want a design/build model.” These folks usually aren’t hiring an architecture firm, he says, but as the appeal grows for a distinctive modern aesthetic, people are increasingly appreciative of good design. Shelter has taken on a part-time architect and is gearing up for the more meeting-intensive approach that will inevitably be required.
Another diversification strategy is the maintenance and concierge services ThinkMakeBuild offers to past clients on the Eastern Shore, where many have second homes. It launched in 2019 and is expanding to D.C. Eleven years in, these are logical next steps for a company on the move. “We’re at a happy place in terms of staff; we have some of the best people the company has ever worked with,” Darren says. “My goal is to realize more opportunities so they can be successful and grow.”
Spa Creek House
Designed by GriD Architects
Across a creek from historic Annapolis, the Spa Creek House by GriD architects makes the most of its narrow, deep, waterfront lot. A tandem garage preserves green space at the front, and a façade of steel and wood demarks public and private spaces. Photos: Brycen Fischer Photography
Designed by Thomson & Cooke Architects
Designed by Thomson & Cooke Architects for Darren and his wife, this house in Easton, Maryland, evokes area farmhouses but with a modern twist. Photos: Studio HDP
Classic Stucco Residence
Designed by Thomson & Cooke
Thomson & Cooke also spearheaded this ThinkMakeBuild remodel of a Chevy Chase, D.C., house. The Classic Stucco Residence received all new millwork, lighting, and wide plank flooring. Photos: Studio HDP
St. Michaels Residence
Designed by Robert M. Gurney, FAIA Architect
This house in St. Michaels, Maryland, designed by Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, is built on the elevated foundation of a failed 1980s Dutch Colonial inside a waterfront buffer no longer zoned for new houses. Photos: Studio HDP
Byrd Park Residence
Designed by ARCHITECTUREFIRM
The company’s Richmond office built the Byrd Park Residence by ARCHITECTUREFIRM. The neo-Mediterranean moderates the budget with EIFS stucco and synthetic slate roofing. Photo: Anson Olson