Midcoast Maine is home to a lot of good builders. But for well-heeled clients—especially those with out-of-state architects seeking a rock-solid local partner—Cold Mountain Builders has long been in a class by itself. Jay Fischer, who founded the company in 1973, cut his teeth restoring 19th-century buildings, and the old buildings remain his touchstone for integrity of materials and design. But he and his crews have gathered the skills to build virtually anything, from Shingle-style arks to glass-walled modernist art pieces. Since the late 1980s, the signature Cold Mountain job has been a premium house by a first-rank architect on a knockout coastal site.
With its sterling reputation and upmarket contacts, Cold Mountain has weathered the current downturn essentially intact, maintaining both its 30-person staff and its roughly $6 million annual volume, but not without some hustle from Fischer. “Clients are looking at their numbers differently; they're on their toes,” he notes. Until last year, for example, “No one had ever asked me, ‘How do you define labor burden?'”
A current project signals what may be a deeper shift. An island vacation house begun after the 2008 crash, it was designed on the model of its pre-crash neighbors. But before construction, the owners began to reassess their plan. At the last minute, Fischer says, “They completely cleared the books of that [project] and decided to build a little camp, which was totally appropriate.” And which Cold Mountain will build. “Fortunately, that kind of clientele has the luxury of following their wishes. But now it's in a different way,” he explains.
Amid the flux, Fischer remains unperturbed. “Three times in the last 15 years we've bid on something—all in the last couple of years,” he says. “And we ended up winning all those bids.” More to the point, quality projects of modest size inspire him as much as the blockbusters ever did. He lights up describing another recent job. “It was an 1860 house that had never been improved,” he says. “No electricity, no running water, no nothing.” The work included a photovoltaic system, “but everything was done with the spareness of the original building.” Like Cold Mountain's body of work, the project connects the 19th century and the 21st with an unbroken thread of aesthetic sensibility. “That kind of diversity,” Fischer says, “is probably the greatest pleasure I have in all this.”
Cold Mountain Builders, Belfast, Maine
Type of business: Custom builder
Years in business: 36
2009 volume: $6 million
2009 starts: 5