As a self-proclaimed workaholic, Theo Merrin, founder and CEO of Merrin Construction, admits that he never stops. Starting in the construction industry as a trim carpenter, he gradually became well-versed in all aspects of residential home construction, and he eventually joined as a partner at a highly-regarded construction firm out of Northern Colorado.
"I was lucky enough to find someone who was great. My business partner, Jeff Becker, took me under his wing and taught me how to run a general contractor business — which is significantly different from being in the trades. Working with Jeff as a junior partner meant that I didn't make as much money as before, but I received an exceptional education from him. It was a springboard to where I wanted to be, which was to work on high-end residential buildings as a custom home builder."
Known for being very honest, Theo frequently talks about mentorship. He spends time with his subcontractors to ensure they not only continue to improve their skill sets but also grow as disciplined businesses. He advises younger tradespeople to seek and join construction firms with upward mobility where they can find experienced professionals to learn from.
"Mentorship is critical. We have all these other professions where you must get a robust education before you can do anything — like doctors. There's nothing like that in our trade. You learn the hard way. Yes, sometimes it's best to do something yourself because you learn the most, but the best people eventually understand they need to seek mentors. Mentorship is critical in learning how to be a reliable GC, and how to work with clients, with money, and with your team. Putting a house together is one thing, but you will encounter all these personalities on the job site you need to manage. You must learn how to get the best out of people, or you risk developing a bad reputation as a GC, both with subs and clients. I take contracting very seriously, so I continue to educate myself."
Growing awareness of green building concepts, zero-energy homes, building science, and LEED certification has pushed high-end residential custom builders into a more demanding market.
"The public has become very aware of the climate impact of construction and wants to build high-performance buildings. Today, it is still a more expensive way to build, but you improve your ongoing heating, cooling, and energy costs significantly, and comfort is great. At Merrin Construction, we employ passive house principles — we build our homes tight but don't market ourselves as a passive home builder. Our goal is to build a great home that will perform well and last 100+ years."
Most people go through the process of building their dream house only once in their lifetime, with different degrees of understanding of the building process — some are very educated and want to be involved, others are hands-off. In Theo's experience, educating yourself about the building process through blogs or watching top builders like Matt Risinger from The Build Show makes the process more rewarding for both parties.
"I worked with architects who want to do construction administration, who want to own all interactions with the client and keep the builder separate. For me—personally and professionally—that's wrong. I fight for the relationship with the clients because if they don't know what I stand for and how I care, it can create huge problems later. After all, there is significant money involved. I prefer a client who is genuinely interested in the construction process — they get more out of it and appreciate what went into building their home and what we are trying to achieve."
Dozens of luxury homes and continuous work with cutting-edge residential architecture firms provided critical lessons to Theo's team on the differences between typical residential builds and the precision and execution required for high-end builds.
"A lot of things have to go right — from great architectural drawings to top-notch subs. For me, it starts with inspecting the details of the construction documents. I geek out on the details, and it's a pleasure to work with architects like Studio B, Barrett Studio Architects, or Gettliffe Architecture — their plans are well organized, and they have a strong vision for where they want to go.
Success in high-end construction business forces you to work with subs who care and are well-trained. It also means that there must be enough money for them. I almost curate my subcontractors to the point where we're in alignment with the same set of goals, from dirt work to foundation to framing. If you hire someone cheaper with a 'this is good enough' attitude, you'll make the rest of your team miserable. Trust in each other helps elevate everybody's game. For me, it's important to recognize everyone on the team, down to the person who sweeps the floor."
Honesty—even if unpleasant—helped build the good reputation of Merrin Construction across the Denver metro area and earned recommendations from leading architects Theo now works with. Yet, Theo admits that being on budget and on time is often challenging for custom home builders.
"It's much easier for builders to say 'we'll figure it out as we go along', but it's a recipe for disaster. When I bid on a house, I itemize everything so that clients can understand my thought process behind the construction budget. The budget is usually a complete shock to people. They are upset because their architect gave them one number, or they were expecting a square foot number they saw online. I always sit down with my clients and discuss what certain aspects will cost and what is behind it. After that initial shock passes, people can make educated decisions.
Your house is like a grocery bag — there's only so much you can fit. If you are honest with clients, it's much easier to get them what they want from the house and cut out less important things. But they need to see these options before they can make those decisions.
Having meaningful contingency in the budget is critical — if you don't have enough money halfway through the project, everybody is just unhappy.
Timelines are a moving target, full stop. Failure to communicate with clients gives builders a bad reputation — but as long as you proactively communicate with your client and set realistic expectations, even if you started by saying 'it should take 12 months' and it ends up being 18 months, things typically turn out OK. Most people are reasonable and will understand the delays, but you, as a GC, must be proactive."