That experience has proved crucial. “How do you dimension a house like this?” Price asks. “There's no grid. It's forced us to go to a whole different mode of work, so it's been much more collaborative with them.” Critical number-crunching that would ordinarily happen in the architect's office gets done by Thoughtforms out on the site. “We send them a lot of CAD files. They wind up using triangulation a lot to find the location of a column or something. They set their own benchmarks. When we designed this, we never conceived of it as a design/build project, but it turns out that's really the only way.” And while Thoughtforms is not the only builder capable of putting this house together, Price says, “they were the best possible choice we could have had for a project like this. Because they do all these crazy houses, they have an idea of how to proceed on these things.”
Gustin agrees. “We do so many commercial applications with residential tolerances.” This may be the most difficult house Thoughtforms has yet built, but the difference between this and any number of other company projects is in degree, not in kind. And the strengths Thoughtforms' people bring to bear on the project—the highest level of technical expertise, the ability to collaborate seamlessly with architects, and the commitment to a thinking role for the builder—have roots in the company that go decades deep.
Architect Michael Rosenfeld founded Thoughtforms in 1972 to produce some design/build projects for his firm, but by 1980 the company was essentially dormant. It was that year that Rosenfeld recruited Goldstein, a college friend, to help market the architecture firm. Despite scant construction experience, Goldstein, a writer and former tennis pro, agreed. Then, apparently, things started to happen quickly. With Goldstein's help, the firm won a competition to design and build a local school. The builder who had partnered on the bid estimated the project at $300,000, Goldstein remembers. “But the day after the competition, he said he wanted $360,000.” And the day after that, Thoughtforms was back in the construction business.
To run the job, Rosenfeld called on Barry, a skilled young builder and a student of Rosenfeld's at the Boston Architectural Center. “He's the one who really knew construction,” says Goldstein. Barry's construction skill and understanding of the architectural process gave the new company the wherewithal to build the school, and a string of residential and commercial projects that followed. Building only Rosenfeld's designs, Goldstein and Barry also built a staff, systems, and, soon, a reputation. After five years, Goldstein says, “I said to Michael, ‘We have this good product. Why don't we offer it to other architects?'” To avoid conflicts of interest, the construction and architecture firms split (Rosenfeld retains part ownership of the former subsidiary, but he is not involved in its day-to-day operations), and Thoughtforms really started to cook.
The Boston suburbs had other top-quality custom builders. But at what Barry terms “the art-and-craft end of the trade,” there was room for a company with a more professional and customer-friendly approach. Some of the new company's competitors seemed to view skilled craftsmanship as a license to ignore the niceties of businesslike service, Barry says. He characterizes the attitude as, “You'll know what it costs when I'm done, and you'll know that I'm done when I'm no longer in your house.” Thoughtforms would take the opposite approach.
“The difference,” Goldstein says, “was we were offering management of the process, trying to get good pricing, managing the schedule. There was a real vacuum for that.” The initial goal was to focus on highly crafted houses at a modest scale. “Kind of a Volkswagen thing,” he says, “a small, inexpensive, high-quality kind of jewel of a thing.” But the market had other ideas. Thoughtforms became an independent company in the mid-1980s, when custom homes were growing steadily in size. Soon, the trend line took a steep pitch upward. “That really started around 12 to 14 years ago,” Goldstein remembers. “Up until then, the largest house we had done was 5,000 square feet.” Then, in a period of three weeks, he sold jobs at 8,000, 14,000, and 25,000 square feet. “That was the beginning of the boom.”
Many's the builder who has lived to regret such good fortune, as a spike in volume or project size overwhelms his fragile management systems. “We had built some school buildings, so we were already comfortable with the bigger buildings,” says Goldstein. Still, Thoughtforms' ability to make the step up—and to make the new super-luxury market its home for the past decade and a half—says a lot about Goldstein, Barry, and the unique partnership they have created.
As the head of the company's field operations, Barry gets credit for establishing and maintaining the standard of craftsmanship the company is known for. “Charles is an incredible carpenter,” says Graham Grallert, who heads Thought-forms' three-man millwork shop. Grallert is in a position to know. In a company that specializes in the most difficult custom homes, he handles the items that are too specialized to be bought and too difficult to build on site: a small run of custom windows, a curved stair rail, a furniture-quality paneled library. Grallert has never worked on a crew with Barry, but he's met his boss's work in person, and he remains impressed. “It's nice to go back to a job that Charles was a carpenter on. He's out of the race, but he's paid his dues.”