Sites for Sore Eyes

High-end custom design and construction are this company’s specialty

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

vorseBrian Vorse “banged nails” in the summers to support his skiing habit until his construction work became year-round. In 1995, he incorporated his high-end custom home and renovation business, Vorse Construction & Design, in Colchester.

You ready for this?” asks Brian Vorse with a laugh when he’s asked what his college major was. “Music. The part I haven’t told you yet is that I had a ski racing career. There’s a connection there.”

The connection, he explains, is that ski racing got him recruited to the St. Lawrence University ski team, and the music major was suggested by the admissions department. It was a natural choice: Vorse’s father had played drums in college, and Vorse had been playing trumpet since third grade.

Vorse is the founder and president of Vorse Construction & Design in Colchester, a company that has built high-end custom homes and renovations and light commercial projects since 1983. The skiing career paved the way.

He grew up in Massachusetts — “mostly South Hadley,” he says. His father was a superintendent of schools there, and his mother was a homemaker. When he was in seventh grade, his father took a position as a professor at Potsdam State University in New York, and his mother was hired as a college librarian there.

Vorse had started ski racing for the Mount Sunapee Ski Club in New Hampshire when he was 8 years old. He continued racing, on the team at Holderness, a college prep school near Plymouth, N.H., until he was recruited by St. Lawrence.

The trumpet focus didn’t last long, he says. “Guitar seemed like the thing to do when I went to college, which was right after Woodstock. Every guy on my hallway played guitar. I picked that up, and by the time I was halfway through college, I was in a rock band, and I still am: The Rhythm Rockets.”

Out of college, Vorse moved to Vermont and skied “a couple of years” on a professional circuit called the Peugeot Grand Prix Pro Tour before being hired by Smugglers’ Notch Ski Club as coach and, eventually, head coach and program director. He worked there for six years “and banged nails in the summer.”

He landed his first construction job through contacts, he says. “I was probably 24 when I got the first job on a job site. I did what they asked me, but I paid attention. I only worked summers for other people as a carpenter, then immediately started my own thing with a partner.”

Eventually, construction business was coming in year-round. He dropped his winter job, launched Vorse Construction, and incorporated Vorse Construction & Design in 1995.

Vorse has “about five” permanent employees. He keeps his staff lean, preferring to use subcontractors — “guys I’ve worked with for years” — when the workload increases. “Otherwise, you’ve gotta have 10 to 15 guys on the payroll and chase work. I’m not going there again. I had 15 guys on about 20 years ago. You build up your operation and you need larger jobs to feed your operation.

“I’ve chosen to stay nimble. That’s how you keep your prices reasonable and still put out high-end work. So if I get a couple of large houses, I can still keep a small staff.”

Vorse enjoys the hands-on aspect of being small. His workday often starts as early as 5, “depending on what’s going on. I get my hands in it when I can. Later in, the job ends up being almost all project management.”

This personal involvement is one of the things that drew the appreciation of Fred Spencer, the owner of Interstate Batteries in Williston, when Vorse built his home last year.

“Building houses — there’s more to it than you realize,” Spencer says. “His experience was big, but where he really helped me out was with his design capability — trying to figure out every facet of the house inside, outside. He was always there for me when I needed help deciding how to do certain details. He’s been doing it so long, he really does know the products, materials, finishes.

“The other thing was he doesn’t do it all. He has a good group of professional, talented, experienced people who work as his subs. All the people he brought on board were pretty top-notch and did a good job.”

Vorse’s design work usually focuses on additions. “We did design a couple of houses,” he says “but in general, we work with architects. It goes two ways: Architects call on us, and we call on architects.”

In the last four or five years, says Vorse, he has become more versatile, “because it’s not business as usual any more. There are more people chasing less work than was the case a few years ago. And there is much more competition. So you really need to be able to handle what’s available as opposed to being a one-trick pony where you only build one kind of thing. If that kind of thing is not available, it could be a long winter.”

Vorse Construction worked right through the downturn, he says, but began to “fill in the holes” with a little more variety. This opened him up to considering light commercial projects such as the job he did for the Village Cup in Jericho.

“We’re looking to make inroads to that type of work. It’s not building a skyscraper. Then we’ve done more substantial renovation work than we have in the past. That’s what you start with when you enter the business and are an up-and-comer. I didn’t start out to build high-end houses; it ended up coming my way, and then that’s what we became known for.”

Vorse still puts his music education to good use, playing with The Rhythm Rockets. *We play about a dozen times a year in places like On Tap at the Lincoln Inn and outdoor summer concerts like those up at Snow Farm Vineyard. We will be playing one of the Williston Green ones this year, and have played the Shelburne Town Concert series finale the last eight to 10 years.”

Boating, running, and biking have joined skiing as his passions. “I’m an avid cyclist. It’s very important to me to be and stay fit. It keeps the mind and body sharp.”

One of his cycling buddies is Andy Bishop, who was a professional cyclist for 13 years “in a different lifetime ago,” says Bishop. He and his wife, Daria, run Daria Bishop Photographers in Williston. He built Vorse’s website and shot all of the photos seen there.

“Brian built our house 19 years ago,” says Bishop. “We’ve known each other ever since we met when we were researching builders and found our favorite dream builder.

“One of the reasons we chose him was because he was really straightforward. He didn’t seem like a slick builder. One of the things that impressed me the most was that he would treat my wife, Daria, as an equal. A lot of the other builders we interviewed, even though we told them she would be the one to oversee the whole process, they would still address me.

“One particular aspect about Brian’s houses: He’s not the least expensive builder out there. But when I compare ours to other houses in our neighborhood whose owners chose less expensive builders, they’ve had numerous issues.”

Vorse places high value on communication as a path to good work. “When a client comes in with just enough knowledge but only the big picture,” he says, “you have to help them finish their education so you’re all on the same page.”

He points to the company logo, which says, “Trust Learn Build.” “That’s not something I made up,” he says. We changed our corporate look, probably seven or eight years ago now. A friend of mine whose house I built many years ago said, ‘You’ve gotta change your look.’”

The friend referred him to a consultant. “We met for a cup of coffee, and she sat down for an hour, asked me question after question. It’s not like she came in with a drawing tablet. She grilled me: ‘How did you start?’ I told her about the whole business. ‘Where does your work come from? Your clients?’

“She came back and had things to show me — maybe a dozen different objects — and this was the one that caught my eye. She’s the one who came up with the Trust Learn Build. And that’s it. Right on the money. Exactly what it’s about.” •