Building the Future

Veteran builder Bryan Traylor, owner of Unlimited Renovations, talks about how the pandemic has affected his work.

Bryan Traylor started his business, Unlimited Renovations, in the late 1990s and has built and renovated over 300 houses, mainly in the downtown Richmond area. The homes he’s renovated have dated from the 1780s to the 1970s.

“My specialty and what I really enjoy are homes from the 1900s to the 1920s,” he says. “I try my best to take design cues from the homes I’ve renovated and apply them to the new homes I build.” Traylor does 95% of the design work for the houses he builds, from foundation finishes and siding colors to cabinet layouts and the type and style of faucets. Traylor and his wife, Nancy Kuehl, a real estate agent, live in an 1850s house in Oregon Hill that he renovated about 15 years ago.

“I’ve lived in Oregon Hill for over 20 years and absolutely love being immersed in history both new and old,” he says. “I lived in Church Hill mid-to-late ’90s.”

In his business, he currently is involved in several single-family projects as well as some larger mixed use, multifamily projects. Style spoke with Traylor about his life in construction and how it’s been going lately.

Style Weekly: How have you been affected by the pandemic?

Bryan Traylor: The pandemic has made us more resilient, patient and better at communicating. We, as a team, have had to really consider how to best adapt and thrive in this new environment where obtaining building materials, permits and inspections in a timely manner has become much more challenging. It is always at the forefront of my mind that I have my family, my employees, subcontractors and my clients relying on me and looking to me for answers. It’s definitely a lot more pressure than I have experienced in the past. I care very much about how I can continue to support all of these people and to make sure that they will be OK from a physical, spiritual and financial standpoint.

I feel the best thing I can do is to continue to be patient. There is some solace in knowing that we are all in it together and in knowing that we are still working towards the common goal of continuing to build beautiful, quality homes with character. I also feel that communication is key in this new environment so that I can continue to work well with my established suppliers, subcontractors, employees and clients. By setting clear expectations and trying to understand the challenges that everyone is facing, I find that, fortunately, we are continuing to thrive.

Early on in the pandemic, we really didn’t know what to expect. I issued travel vouchers for employees, we reached out to our city contacts and we communicated with as many people in the industry as possible to get a sense of what they knew and what they were doing, and we tried to plan accordingly. At the end of the day, I realized that this business of construction is a team sport. Sometimes I’m the quarterback and sometimes I’m the water boy.

Has people working from home affected the layout of new houses?

It really has, people are looking for more flex space that can be used as an office, a classroom or a guest space. Whether it’s a basement or the space above the garage or finishing attic space, people want options now more than ever and we have been doing all of the above and more. We are keeping this in mind when we design and build new homes and we understand that a lot of people will be living and working differently in the future. For that reason, we are still doing a lot of the open floor plan concepts because it allows for the most flexibility. I keep an eye towards the mind of the homeowner: “How would I use this open space if I needed an office, nursery, guest bedroom?” For that reason, I put a lot of thought into the design and planning of the location of the lighting, the outlets and the related hardware in order to give the homeowner the ability to quickly and affordably adapt their space as needed. The idea is that they can potentially install a wall or a simple screen to give them the options they need. If their needs change, it can be easily changed again.   

Houses seem to be selling fast these days, what all do you attribute that to?

The current home-selling climate is very interesting and different than what I have experienced in the past. I feel quick home sales are due in large part to the lower interest rates, the fact that there is a housing shortage and since people all over the country are potentially working from home permanently, many are moving here from other areas because Richmond is a very desirable place to live. Richmond is still considered very affordable compared to many other parts of the country. My wife, Nancy Kuehl, is a Realtor and she has said that, due to the pandemic, people are selling their homes in higher priced areas of the country and moving here with a lot of cash from those sales. That can make it especially challenging for first-time homebuyers to compete, but we are making it work.

What do you see coming in the future in terms of neighborhoods in Richmond –any predictions, etc? What’s the next hot area?

Ah, that’s a good question. I’ve been building in the Church Hill area for the past 15-20 years and it’s still a great developing area with great community involvement. So, I see that remaining very strong and we do anticipate some incredible projects in the near future. The next hot area? I really see the Cowardin Avenue, Semmes to Forest Avenue area heading south to Hull as areas that are really gaining momentum. West 20th Street up to Westover Hills Boulevard is making a great comeback. There is some nice housing stock there and the community, much like Church Hill, is amazing. We have some projects slated for that area and I really look forward to it.

What are the main changes you wish the city of Richmond would make to improve the permitting process?

There are a number of changes. We apply for over 200 permits a year. First [I’d like to see] permit fees I pay remain in the coffers of that department. Currently, I believe the permit fees I pay go to the general fund [UPDATE: “State Building Code fees do not go the general fund, but to the Permitting & Inspection Division,” says Jim Nolan, communications director for Mayor Levar Stoney] … Permit fees could also be used to streamline and improve or update the city’s computer portal – which is how permits, plans are submitted. The folks in these departments are pulled in so many directions that I actually worry about their well-being.

Second, learn from how other municipalities have worked through these challenges and talk to the contractors in the trenches about what the industry or permit center needs overall. And third, the length of time it takes to obtain a building permit can take eight weeks or longer based on the complexity of the project. If you compare that to the counties, you can typically cut that time in half. Basically, improve communication between departments and the customers.

What do you think is working well?

On the bright side, I do believe the people I work with at the city have done a great job by doing their best to keep up with the changes, the overwhelming increase in permit applications as well as handling the pandemic with style and grace. I do applaud them as a whole.  

More generally, how have things changed since you started?

Over the 20 plus years of my career, I have witnessed incredible growth in the city of Richmond in ways I would have never predicted. I have been very fortunate that I have been able to be a part of revitalization of Richmond – and I don’t have to eat as much Ramen noodles as I did when I started!

What keeps you going during tough times?

People keep me going. The best compliment I get is when I build a new home and folks stop and compliment me on how well the renovation looks. They ask, “How old is this home?” I love their reaction when I let them know that it’s only 6 months old.

What humbles me is when neighbors stop by and thank us for improving their block. [People] ask me how do I keep it all together with the pandemic – material and labor shortages, the permitting challenges, quality control – how do you do it?  I simply say, “whatever it takes, however long it takes and whatever I can do to make it happen. It will happen, you have to have faith.”

I also have an incredible wife and staff that keep me straight. These challenging times bring us together, create conversations and at the end of the day we are all Richmond. Being self-employed is the most challenging, difficult, rewarding and sometimes dangerous way to go about earning a living. On Monday, I might install a sewer line and be in a 6-foot deep trench, on Tuesday I might be on top of a three-story building and on Wednesday a neighbor might stop by and thank me for cleaning up the alleyway. … It’s the teamwork that gets me up in the morning. It’s the willingness to accept change and the fortitude of the people I surround myself with that make it, from a human standpoint, worth it in the end.    

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