Building Efficiency

Brad Carter and Tim Duff of Kessel/Duff Corp. combine architectural and contracting services in one firm

by Julia Lynam

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Kessel/Duff Corp.’s staff recently moved into new offices on Kimball Avenue in South Burlington and the place is slowly but surely beginning to look like home. Pictures are going up and a row of saucepans adorns the door of the well-equipped kitchen.

It was important for them have a good kitchen, so company controller Maryann Pittala could continue to make the traditional Friday morning muffins. Pittala, who joined the company in 1982, is just one of the Kessel/Duff employees who’ve been with this company for many years.

What do kitchens, muffins and long-time employees have to do with the successful running of a construction company with an annual income of approximately $15 million? Kessel/Duff president Brad Carter and executive vice president Tim Duff have no doubt that a friendly and supportive working atmosphere helps retain staff; long-serving staff build up invaluable experience over the years, contributing to the company’s effectiveness in understanding and delivering what clients want.

Brad Carter & Tim Duff

Brad Carter (left) and Tim Duff lead Kessel/Duff, which recently moved to new headquarters on Kimball Avenue, South Burlington. The design/build firm was founded by Duff’s father, Bill, and Bob Kessel.

The company was founded by Tim’s father, Bill Duff, and his partner, Bob Kessel, in 1976. The two met when working for their respective employers on projects including the Canal Bank Plaza in Portland, Maine. They decided to pool their talents in what was then a relatively new idea: “design/build,” in which a single company provides architectural and contracting services as a seamless whole. “The primary focus was to build in more success,” Carter explains, “to make for an easier flow of information in the construction process and to defuse any potential conflicts between designer and contractor.”

In an amicable split, Kessel moved to Florida in 1981 to set up a new company, while Bill Duff continued to run Kessel/Duff. Bill’s son, Tim, graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Virginia and spent a year working for Ikemire Architects Inc. of Dallas, Texas, before returning to Vermont to join the family firm in 1984. He became a Vermont registered architect in 1987.

Brad Carter came to the firm the following year when Kessel/Duff acquired Northshore Construction Management, a local construction company headed by Carter. This set the scene for Bill Duff in turn to succumb to the lure of Florida and retire, leaving Tim and Carter to run the company.

A native of Ossining, N.Y. (“it’s where Sing Sing Prison is” he confides), Carter is a civil engineer graduate who worked on large commercial projects in New York City until he “became tired of the hustle and bustle” and took a job with S.G. Phillips Corp. in Waitsfield in 1982. There he worked on a number of projects for IBM in Essex Junction, and on condominium development at Mount Ascutney Resort.

Moving to Northshore Development in 1985 as president of its affiliate Northshore Construction Management, Carter was responsible for several major projects, including the 20,000-square-foot Allenbrook office building in Williston, and the Howe Meadows and Northshore housing developments in Burlington.

He lives in Northfield with his wife, Lise, who is controller for Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “Northfield’s a good halfway point,” he offers. “We set out each morning in different directions!”

He’s a keen electric guitar and bass player and has found many other musicians in the building fraternity to play with. “He’s occasionally played with our band the Retro Rockets,” says architect Bill Gardner of Burlington firm Freeman French Freeman Inc. (see page 2), who also finds that music and architecture go together well. A man of many interests, Carter is also a keen photographer and president of the Vermont Trap Shooting Association.

Tim Duff lives in South Burlington with his wife, Sheri, and their three children, William, 11; Jennifer, 10; and Emily, 7. They ski, sail and camp; and Duff is an active volunteer and former board member of the Multiple Sclerosis Society in Vermont. He also serves on the A.C.E. committee, a state level association of architects, contractors and engineers working to promote consensus-building and resolution of construction industry issues.

Carter and Duff have kept the company focused on the design/build option: “In the 20th century it’s the way construction has developed,” says Duff. “It’s gained popularity and is now in vogue. It brings more certainty; we work directly with clients or owners so we can come in on budget.”

Coming in on budget; incurring no additional costs; encountering no unpleasant surprises: Those are recurring themes when you speak to people about Kessel/Duff. Shelly Russo, administration manager for IDX Systems Corp. in South Burlington, recalls: “When we were planning our first building in 1988 they approached our CEO and said, ‘We can do this for you on time and to budget.’ And they did!”

“With Kessel/Duff we’ve never had problems with change orders,” says Bill Meckert, CEO of EuroWest Properties Inc., developer of the Essex Outlet Fair.

“It’s nice to be able to work with a contractor who knows what’s going on and can get the best possible work done for the construction dollars,” said Gardner. Freeman French Freeman and Kessel/Duff have worked together on several projects.

David Beane & Tim Prouty

Kessel/Duff’s rapid expansion in the ’80s led to some loss of control. “In the early ’90s we cut back to the core,” says Brad Carter, “and we found then that Tim and I could get more involved.” From left: David Beane and Tim Prouty.

As well as cost savings, Carter maintains, the other great advantage of design/build is the smoothness of the process and the elimination of potential arguments. Meckert agrees: “One thing that’s nice when dealing with design/build is that you don’t get into the situation where the architect and the builder point at each other and say, ‘It’s their fault.’ From the developer’s standpoint it’s very beneficial not to be dealing with three different people all blaming one another.”

Separating the two parts of the process can, says Carter, lead to problems: “If a client works with designers to develop plans, then goes out to bid, when the bids come in there can often be a mad rush to cut costs. The features that are cut are often those that can be seen and touched, such as carpet, finishes or brick trims.

“If you’re at a time just before construction and want to make changes you can’t do it from the foundation so you change visible things.

“By being there early we can achieve savings as we go, save on things you can’t see and touch like the infrastructure and foundations, rather than the things you’ll see every day.”

Carter and Duff are proud of their track record and of the repeat customers who prove their worth: “We have a file drawer full of contracts that have no adds to them,” says Carter.

“This method gives the owner the opportunity to make choices as they go along — to shape the entire budget. We work as a team, treating the owner as a client. Unfortunately in the other system you can build up a conflict between architect, client and contractor,” says Duff.

“Our business is very competitive,” he continues. “We rarely bid for work and never do public or publicly funded work because we come in on day one to guarantee that we can build for the dollars — then the evolution of the design starts; we incorporate ideas as they come up, but we check against the budget all the way.”

They’ve been involved in several projects for IDX, South Burlington’s rapidly expanding medical software company. “It started with my father,” says Duff. “We had the opportunity to help develop a project for IDX and to help them through the permitting process, which can be daunting and uncertain.

“Actually building the building sometimes seems like an afterthought in the state of Vermont,” he adds wryly.

Carter has also been closely involved with the IDX projects: “It’s been a great relationship,” he says. “In 1986 when we were first getting ready to start construction, IDX was in a building at 1500 Shelburne Road. (CEO) Rich Tarrant’s office was down the hall and you could just call him in to a meeting if you needed him.

“He reminded me that there were plenty of people in town that he could have brought in on this project but he chose us because of the confidence he had in Bill Duff.”

Maryann Pittala & Pat Gardner

“The people make it a good place to work,” says controller Maryann Pittala (right). “It’s very much an open-door place, and everyone is very company-oriented.” Also pictured: Pat Gardner

Tim Duff takes up the story: “Even though during that process it was put on hold for an entire year because of a permit appeal, we understood and took our lumps and we were there when it was time to get going again.”

Kessel/Duff has designed and built two major projects for IDX and undertaken a number of smaller retrofit projects. They are working on three other IDX projects, including the total replacement of the original building at 1500 Shelburne Road and the design and construction of a three-story parking garage for employees at the back of the Shelburne Road site.

“We chose Kessel/Duff for these projects because we had a long-standing relationship with them,” says Russo. “They are very good at what they do; they respond beautifully; they listen to the company; they are as honest as the day is long and they put in wonderful people to work for us. They have an excellent grasp of the permitting process — and it can get very complicated. They walk us through that.”

EuroWest is another client for whom Kessel/Duff has undertaken a number of projects, including the Essex Way Center; the major renovation that created the Essex Outlet Fair out of the former Lang Farm development; and the Manor on the Green hospitality building at the Inn at Essex. They are involved with an expansion of the Essex Outlet Fair. Meckert says he originally went to Kessel/Duff on the recommendation of local construction company owner Doug Griswold, and he’s continued to go back.

In its early years, Kessel/Duff grew rapidly, peaking at an annual income of about $25 million in the late 1980s. “It forced us to hire a lot of people and we lost some of the control over projects,” says Carter. “With the downturn in the economy in the early ’90s we cut back to the core and we found then that Tim and I could get more involved. We now know that having six to 10 projects on the go at any one time is fairly comfortable, and this means that in any project the client can be in touch with one of the company’s principals.”

Sales should exceed $15 million this year. The company’s strategy calls for gradual growth rather than the rapid expansion of the early years.

“Growth or staff expansion in the future will be very controlled and we’ll be very selective as to who we have working here so that we can maintain the quality of what we’re selling in the marketplace,” says Carter.

“Right now the market we focus on, private industry, is pretty healthy but fragile,” he continues. “It doesn’t take much to make an impact on the construction industry in a state like Vermont.”

Bryan Robie & Janet Stambolian

Bryan Robie and Janet Stambolian

To cushion this risk, Kessel/Duff has increasingly moved out into the wider region and the company is working on projects in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been flexible enough to move with the market: Although Kessel/Duff has built more than 2,000 housing units in the Burlington area, it is not involved in residential developments now: “Multi-family development has slowed in the ’90s with banks’ requiring a high proportion of pre-sales, rather than financing speculative building,” Carter explains, “so the individual phases of developments tend to be much smaller and not economical for us to be involved with.”

Kessel/Duff employs 30 staff members. Seven work at the new offices on Kimball Avenue in South Burlington, and the rest are experienced field supervisors and craftspeople, mainly carpenters.

“Among both office and field staff we have many people who have been here 20 years or more,” says Duff. “We provide respect and a fair work environment, and we work together as a team. There’s not a lot of top down stuff here.

“Since my father retired he’s done a wonderful job of being there when he’s needed. He’s a great source of counsel but he’s never been one to look over our shoulders.”

“The people make it a good place to work,” says Pittala. “It’s very much an open-door place, and everyone is very company-oriented.”

The muffins probably help, too!

Julia Lynam is a free-lance writer living in Burlington. Her work has appeared in business publications in the United States and England since 1982.