Sitting Tight

Each of this builder’s new-construction projects has been Five Star energy-rated or better

Bryan Ducharme and Kelley DesLauriersWhen Bryan Ducharme returned to his native Vermont in 2001, first one, and then a second contractor had to back away from completing the remodeling of his lakeside cottage to a permanent residence. He quit his job, sold his company, built the house, and started True North Construction in Colchester. His wife, Kelley DesLauriers, works with him as bookkeeper and marketing assistant.

by Keith Morrill

Bryan Ducharme feels a little guilty about the full-sized pickup parked outside his Colchester office. “Unfortunately, I need it for the business,” he concedes. He takes comfort, though, from the fact that since April 2005, his company, True North Construction, has built exceptionally detailed and environmentally-friendly homes throughout northern Vermont. Each of the nearly 40 homes his company has built or remodeled has subsequently earned at least a Five Star rating from Efficiency Vermont or, in the case of remodels, was built to Five Star standards.

Ducharme expresses pride in his part in the construction industry’s transition to environmentally-friendly practices, although he points out that building green has always been an organic part of a True North project. “LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — a green building rating system] has a 30-point durability checklist,” he says. “The first time I looked at it, 29 out of the 30 were already a routine part of our practice.”

Even though the green movement doesn’t ultimately change the way True North puts together a house, it is beneficial in that it provides third-party verification of the company’s services. “Early on we weren’t sure how to explain to people that, ‘Yeah, we may come in 5 percent higher than this other guy, but we’re doing all these details that he’s skipping,’” he says. “But you’ll definitely notice it in years five to 10, when you’ve got water in your basement or your heating bill has been ridiculously high because somebody missed a couple of key insulating points.”

LEED ratings and those by Efficiency Vermont provide an immediately tangible way for home builders to understand those differences. “For us,” Ducharme says, “the certified green movement has been more of a marketing change than anything.”

Part of that marketing effort is clearing up lingering confusion about environmentally friendly building. “A lot of misconceptions stem from the notion that green is somehow exotic or expensive,” says Ducharme. “It doesn’t have to be. Green construction doesn’t mean you need to have a roof full of solar panels, and walls a foot thick. It doesn’t mean you have to live in a tiny house built into a hillside or made out of straw bales. A lot of the houses we’ve built don’t look a lot different from any other house, though they might use a third to half the energy.”

Mark Bonser and Cory KaysMark Bonser (right), co-owner and vice president of operations, was a 25-year veteran of the construction industry when Ducharme brought him on in 2006. Cory Kays is a carpenter.

He lays out the difference, saying, “It’s really about building a quality house that’s durable; that’s going to need less maintenance over time.” This is a principle on which True North Construction has always prided itself, he continues.

Ducharme has, of course, used the same standards in building his own homes — something he’s done four times including his current Colchester residence, where he lives with his wife, Kelley DesLauriers, and their three sons, Grayson, 10; Jake, 12; and Tanner, 13. The home fronts on Lake Champlain and allows Ducharme to pursue his favorite pastimes: boating, scuba diving, and spending time on the beach if possible.

Ducharme grew up in Winooski and earned his bachelor’s degree in business with a minor in computer science from the University of Vermont in 1986. From there, he lived in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. He co-founded the Kodiak Group, a business consulting company, where he served as chief financial officer and vice president of operations. In ’98, it was sold to AppNet, and Ducharme served as division president until May 2000, when he left to break ground on a new house, the third he’d ever built.

In late 2001, he made a few forays into commercial real estate development and residential construction in Charlottesville, Va., but, as he tells it, the right deals never materialized. He bought back his old company and moved home to Vermont. The plan was to transform his small lakeside cottage from a summer home into a permanent residence big enough for his family.

He hit a few snags along the way. His first builder was called to Iraq, and his second experienced health issues that forced him to back out. “I finally decided that I had to build the house myself,” says Ducharme. For him, though, it was more than just building another house; it was a sign. “I quit the job in 2004 and ultimately sold the company again; and I built this house and started planning for True North Construction.”

In May 2006, Ducharme took on Mark Bonser. Now co-owner and vice president of operations, Bonser was a 25-year veteran of the construction industry. Having worked in western Michigan and Colorado for years doing nearly every aspect of residential and commercial construction, he proved invaluable in getting the company rolling.

Bonser earned his bachelor’s degree in business from the College of Saint Rose in Albany in 1987 and finished his studies in civil engineering in ’89. At True North, he is the man who makes things happen on-site. “I handle the construction side of the business, from initial conception to coordinating subs and our own team through to delivery of the project,” says Bonser. “I establish timelines, and then manage to see to the budget, based on resources that we’re involving in the project.

“I spend a good deal of time researching products,” he continues, “as does Bryan, looking at different supplies out there, different ways of doing things, being able to bring more cutting-edge technology or materials. That often lets you give somebody more by using appropriate materials that can cut costs without cutting quality or limiting their design flexibility.” Ducharme adds that this also allows them to assist buyers in making choices that are both economically and ecologically sound.

Mark Plude, Ray Fontaine and Doug YantzTrue North takes a hands-on approach to every project. Mark Plude (left) and Ray Fontaine (right) are carpenters; Doug Yantz is lead carpenter.

“Our mission is high quality, high value, and we do place a very high priority on maintaining schedules,” says Bonser. “One of the things I’ve unfortunately run into over the years is too many professionals out there do not stick to budgets, stick to schedule, and what have you. So that’s kind of been the hallmark of my career — to really hold tight to those issues of quality, budget, and time. Whether it’s a remodel or a new construction, you’re really turning your life upside down to undertake a project, but the more predictability we can provide for a client, the better an experience it is for them.” That also works, he says, for the benefit of subcontractors who can rely on Bonser’s timetables to know that they can show up as scheduled and get their work done without hassle.

To make this all happen, True North relies on the skills and expertise of six employees, including DesLauriers, who serves at the company’s bookkeeper and marketing assistant ... “and office manager and chief cook and bottle washer — everything,” Ducharme adds.

The rewards of the company’s diligence and dedication are worth it, Ducharme explains. “You can really have a profound impact on somebody’s life by helping them build their dream home, whether their dream home is a 1,200-square-foot home or a 5,000-square-foot show home.”

As an example, he mentions one of the company’s most recent jobs — not a new construction, but a remodel for client David Nestor, who made dramatic changes to his Burlington home. Before True North Construction became involved, Nestor says, he had heard horror stories from acquaintances about their own remodeling or construction experiences. “Consequently, we went into it with some trepidation about what we were getting into,” says Nestor.

After interviewing a number of contractors, he found True North’s communication and attention to the details of its projects exceptional, and chose the company. He says that excellence continued throughout the six-month project. “They provided clarity about the work that had been completed, clarity about what still had to happen, clarity about what decisions we needed to make in order to keep this project moving along. In terms of workmanship, management, and customer service, True North was exceptional. We had a really terrific experience.”

True North appears to be passing largely unscathed through the ailing economy. “At this point, our sales pipeline looks better than it has in our entire history,” says Ducharme, adding that the company has made some adjustments to operations. “We are doing more small projects to fill in the gaps between the big projects.”

Ducharme and Bonser are looking to grow the company to a manageable size that won’t sacrifice the hands-on approach they take in every project.

“Someday, I’m going to add up all of the barrels of oil saved by the energy-efficiency measures we put into homes,” he says. “You start adding that up, and the way it accumulates year after year as the number of houses grows, and it’s the equivalent of taking hundreds of cars off the road forever.” •