Jake Talbot got his big break when architect Donald Powers took a chance on him. Powers needed a builder for a custom home he was designing in Westport, Mass., and though Talbot had never built a project of that scope, the architect knew he could handle it. “The clients perceived that he would be flexible and cheerful, and I think that matters a lot in a custom home,” Powers says. Several years later, Little Compton, R.I.–based Jacob Talbot Fine Homebuilders has established a specialty in high-end, custom residential projects.
Talbot started out in the building business working for his father, designer/builder Dennis Talbot, at Talbot Construction in Little Compton. His father’s company sometimes builds for outside architects, and Jake Talbot found those were the projects he liked the most. “I enjoyed learning new details,” he recalls. He went out on his own in 1999, mostly doing smaller projects at first. Once he did that first project with Powers, he realized that architecture-driven, highly demanding custom homes were what he really wanted to build.
Another formative event was a rebranding talk he attended in 2008 at the regional trade show Build Boston. One of the speakers was marketing expert Chris Joy, and a point she made particularly struck him. “She said you have to think about who your ideal client is,” he says. “It made us think. We realized we weren’t going to be everything to everyone.” Talbot started to go after plum jobs with architects he admired, like Estes/Twombly Architects. He’s now built two houses with the Newport, R.I., firm, both of which he regards with pride and admiration. “The way it’s put together is different from a lot of other residential construction,” he says of their clean-lined designs. “But you get a house that doesn’t look like anything else.”
In 2004, Talbot brought his wife, Victoria, on board to handle some of the company’s in-office needs, including scheduling and communications. The couple chose a Web designer to create an attractive, easy-to-use website that appeals to architects and their clients. “The woman who did our website had worked with architects before,” Talbot notes. “She thought a lot about how you flip through the projects. The website has been an advantage; in competitive bidding, if someone can look at your jobs online, it helps.” Victoria Talbot, who has a background in small-business management, posts monthly on the website’s blog about her husband’s latest projects. Having a regularly updated blog “makes your website look fresh and not like something you put up a couple years ago,” he says.
While he’s noticed a slowdown over the past few years, Talbot has still managed to stay fairly busy. On his own, he’s building two vacation homes, one by Dyer Brown SouthCoast Architects and one by Christopher Hall Architect. And he’s working on two more (one by Durkee Brown Viveiros & Werenfels Architects and the other by Dyer Brown SouthCoast) in partnership with his father. He credits his decision to specialize in high-end, architect-led projects with helping to sustain the company. “We had good timing, because by the time the market turned, we had already established ourselves in that niche,” he says. “Here in Rhode Island, there are still some architect-driven jobs. We were just lucky that we had geared ourselves that way.”
His local market has picked up a bit lately, according to Talbot, but “not hugely.” Like his peers across the country, he’s seen bidding grow much more competitive. “It can be a good experience—maybe you reach out to some new subs,” he says. “But we want to make sure that if you’re getting a better price, you’re still getting better quality.” The goal is to stay relatively small, so that he can keep a close watch on his projects. “The big thing in the custom market is that there’s so much more communication,” he says. “Making sure people’s experience is a pleasant one, making sure they know what decisions are expected ahead of time. You can’t do that well when you’ve got too much work.”
Another change in the past few years has been the increase of new products in a custom home. Talbot spends a lot of time keeping up with new introductions to the market. “There are some great products, and you have to know how these systems interface with the rest of the house,” he says. He’s especially diligent about staying up on the latest green building-related items, such as geothermal systems and photovoltaics.
Having held his own through the toughest housing market in many years, Talbot feels more certain than ever about the importance of knowing his goals and sticking to his principles. He notes: “What I’ve come to the last few years is that you really have to define what you want to be.”
Custom homes built by Jake Talbot and his crew include a shingle-and-stone residence in Bristol, R.I., by Estes/Twombly Architects, and a riverside house in Westport, Mass., by Donald Powers Architects.