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Dec 14, 2012 BY mark

Building on Orcas Island and the San Juan

The San Juan Islands in Washington State are a very unique place for building. Location, employees, resources, competition and transportation play key roles in how the flow and costs of a project go. All of these influences come into play and are far more of an influence on the islands than they are on the mainland. As a contractor and custom home builder I have learned to navigate the unique dynamics of the islands.

Whether you are taking the ferry to Lopez, Shaw, Orcas or San Juan Island or if you have alternative transportation such as your own plane to the fly in community on Blakely, taking your boat to Decatur or have your own private island, all of the San Juan Islands require extra effort and time to get to. Because of this we are surrounded by unparalleled beauty and once there have the opportunity to connect with peace and stillness that is hard to come by in this day and age.

Many of us have come to the islands to getaway, to escape and enjoy nature. This is not surprising, but what often is, is the realty that we have to work to get by on the islands. I have encountered many people looking for work that are still in many ways “on vacation”, people who genuinely need to work but at heart, and are not there. Finding and keeping good employees is critical to our success as we have a limited pool to choose from and competition from other contractors and industries on the islands.

On the flip side of this many successful carpenters have gone into business as contractors on the island due to high demand in peak times of development. Often not having much experience in operating a business, employees are not managed, and jobs run over budget. This has happened more than necessary and as a result the labor pool is underpaid. Combine this with very high food and housing costs and keeping good employees or attracting new ones can be a challenge.

This also holds true with sub contractors. I remember when I first moved to the island, getting a hold of a sub and actually talking to them was nearly impossible, not to mention getting them out to a job-site. Now that the economy has slowed down the competition is much stronger and even the best of the best are fairly easy to get a hold of. I consider this a very important time in forging solid relationships with these subs as that will greatly benefit our customers down the road.

Uniquely many of the Sub Contractors are from the island and have only been trained by others from the island. This is not necessarily a bad thing but can be limiting to new and different ideas that area available.

We also have a huge amount of talent and local resources on the island, from highly skilled tradesmen and carpenters to local saw mills, blacksmiths and cabinet makers the islands offer some amazing opportunities for old world craftsmanship that is hard to come by in today’s world of McMansions.

Sourcing and getting products to the islands is especially difficult. There is little or no on island competition and often pricing can be very unrealistic. The slow economy has helped with this as getting competitive bids from lumber companies and sub contractors who not only want business, but NEED it, brings materials and workers to the job that are just as competitive in terms of cost as they would be off the islands.

With training, management of both the work being done and the employees or subs, having clear budget driven performance contracts in place, these obstacles can be easily avoided. They do take some time and effort to make sure that they are navigated but this extra energy, often will benefit a project in many ways.

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