The Builders

The Islanders who put up our houses up share how they got here, and what they love about their jobs.

Jason Forend — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Jeff Wass of Rosbeck Builders

I followed my heart to the Island. I remember visiting for the first time, at 7 years old with my parents, for the Derby, and I came for many years just to fish. From that time on, the Vineyard has held a special place for me. But it wasn’t until a love interest of mine came here that I made the leap. I had been a custom builder in New England, beginning on the crew then working my way up. I then had the opportunity to do a spec house here, which led to many other housing contracts, and a decision to stay and build on-Island full-time. I still work on-site and do everything and anything that needs to be done, from framing to fitting to running the crew.

We are busy all the time, there’s no off-season for us, and I still do everything from framing to craftwork to managing the guys.

The bizarre thing was many years later, I found a Vineyard connection existed in my family long before I stepped ashore. Turns out, my family was among the original settling families here, in the 17th century. After living here for some years, they left and went to Maine to begin a whole new colony. They were adventurers for sure … they even sailed from here to Palestine, bringing people with them, and Mark Twain wrote of their journeying! So, somehow without knowing it, I followed in their footsteps to live and work here.

Because I worked on the mainland as well, I can honestly say that this Island is an incredible place to build. This is one of the key areas in the country, with so many interesting clients, drawing international people with diverse styles — from the stately captain’s homes to very contemporary design with glass and metal. It’s a great opportunity to learn from project to project. And because of this, I can tell you the craftsmanship is of a higher caliber than so many other places.

I love what I do because you truly become part of the family when you work with architects, other craftsman, and the clientele. I had actually built homes for the Rosbecks off-Island years ago. Through those projects we became more than business colleagues, like family, and when I came over with a small crew to work here, I was already well connected with Peter Rosbeck.

We are busy all the time, there’s no off-season for us, and I still do everything from framing to craftwork to managing the guys. Clients all want to enjoy their homes in the springtime, so there’s always a push to move forward faster than humanly possible. Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to be this busy, but I’d rather better to be busy than bored! There is so much responsibility in bringing these projects to realization –– in working hand and hand with the owners, craftsman, subcontractors and the entire crew … there are a million details to manage. But the people who work here really care about what they do. We have such an open, smooth dialogue during the whole process that it creates great work.

You really know when the job you’ve completed is good when the client comes in at the end. You’re making their dream come true, building this home. From a sketch on a bar napkin, to tears when they walk through the doors. It’s really a privilege.

Max Guimarães of Holmes Hole Builders
This winter was a dark one. Battling the extreme weather to keep a project moving ahead in this cold is the hardest part. From framing to finishing, we were outside, the whole time exposed. To keep dry and warm, I put on three layers of clothes, two or three pairs of socks, and very good boots. But the change is coming, and all we felt so grateful about this week of dry weather to push forward on a house we are framing out in Katama. Spring is coming, and this is a very good thing!

I am from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and I still have family there. My father first came to the Vineyard to work as a painter and landscaper.

I am from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and I still have family there. My father first came to the Vineyard to work as a painter and landscaper. My brother, mother, and I followed him 13 years ago. My brother began working as a carpenter for Gary Maynard at Holmes Hole. I saw he had steady work and good pay, and more than that, the job interested me very much. I wanted to build; painting and landscape work, like my father did, just wasn’t for me. I began as a journeyman, and after a few years I began learning from the other crew members … I have these skills because of the great crew members sharing their knowledge.
My life is here now; some people might not understand that completely, and if you ask another Brazilian they may say they miss certain things, but honestly, I feel I belong here more than in Brazil now. I do go back to visit some family, but after 13 years you start to develop roots in this community. My wife works at the walk-in clinic in Vineyard Haven, and my daughter was born here and is in school … this is the place we call our home.

Long hours and long work weeks are just part of the job. I try to balance the work with time for my family; taking my daughter or brother-in-law out on the kayak to fish is something I enjoy doing on my off-time. But I love what I do, day to day. Building is being able to say that what you are doing is adding something special to the Island.

There’s a lot of pride when the job is finished and you can turn around and say, wow, I did that. Then the homeowners come, and for many, this is their vacation home. You are building the place they come to relax and enjoy with their families — that is a very special thing. You can see it in their eyes when they come into the place you built. They are happy, and you feel happy for seeing it through.

Jason Forend of Gary BenDavid Builders
Personally, I absolutely love what I do. You start with nothing on the ground, just the bare materials, and when it’s finished, when you stand in the road and there’s this massive structure in front of you, that you built together as a team … it’s incredible.

We often spend more time together over the year than with our home families, there is a real brotherhood here, complete with little spats and fights, but we all know we have each other’s back.

That feeling hasn’t changed much from when I started down this path as a freshman at Plymouth South Technical High School. My love for carpentry began by being able to take raw wood and be creative, transforming it into something new — there’s a certain freedom in that. I never looked back.

Coming to the Vineyard to work for Gary has been a dream for me. My father lived here, so I would visit, but it was through a family marriage connection that I met Gary and he offered me a job. I feel so fortunate that I took the opportunity 14 years ago (almost to the day), and have been able to grow and learn so much over the years.

Our sole group of guys has been together for nearly a decade; this longevity is a huge asset to the company. We have become a family … because we often spend more time together over the year than with our home families, there is a real brotherhood here, complete with little spats and fights, but we all know we have each other’s back. We know each other’s next step. With clients as well, Gary makes such a comfortable and open working environment, there’s a real sense of community between all of us.

Here on the Island, where it’s such a seasonal place and everyone wants to be in their house for the summertime, to brave the winter weather, two feet of New England snow, ice, and rain, can push everything back. There are limited resources, and with limited time to get it done, there are only so many insulators and plumbers, and all the crews need them at the same time. In our business the weather poses the greatest challenge; for sure this winter we’ve seen how hard it can be.

We have a caretaking arm to the company, so we stay very close with the owners and often return to build an addition or do a renovation. The bonds that Gary creates are very strong, and so it’s never goodbye, and I love to return to the houses I’ve worked on, to continue to be involved over the years.

At the end of the day, when we come together as a group of guys, and we deliver the house to the client’s complete satisfaction, it always makes me proud. But after all these years, our eyes aren’t very impressed by our own work anymore, so when you do that first walk-through with the clients, it’s fresh, and makes you realize what’s been accomplished. All I can say is it’s a wonderful trade, and I feel very fortunate to be working with Gary and our team, and in this beautiful place, Martha’s Vineyard.

Matt Gongola of Squash Meadow Construction

I remember working on site, always seeing the project manager driving in and out in his truck and busy on his cell phone, and I would think, ‘Wow, what’s it like to be that guy?’ Now I’m that guy, and I think, ‘Wow, wasn’t it great to be working out there, with the crew, one project at a time?’

My grandfather was a carpenter, and as a little boy, I always looked up to him and knew I wanted to be a carpenter as well.

When you’re in the field, whether it’s framing out a house or installing a kitchen, you can see what you’ve accomplished over the course of a day. But in the office, you won’t have much to gauge your progress by, except a stack of papers or your dying cell phone battery.

Of course, it’s a natural progression to move through these various levels of tradesman to management, and one day I hope to own my own business. In many ways the feeling of pride for what I do has grown as I’ve learned and been exposed to the qualities that make a good manager. As a carpenter you have a chance to hone your skills, whether it’s driving a nail or installing a window. A project manager requires honing of people skills, and at Squash Meadow, I’ve been given a great opportunity by Bill Potter to build a team, lead, and think in new ways.

My grandfather was a carpenter, and as a little boy, I always looked up to him and knew I wanted to be a carpenter as well. I went right into New Bedford Vocational & Technical High School, and I graduated at the top of my class. A friend called me up one Sunday night and told me he had a job lined up for me on the Vineyard. That night I packed up all the tools I had in my truck, and in the morning I headed out to the Cape, following Steamship Authority signs. I had no idea how to get to Woods Hole, let alone knowing that different ships went to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. But I made it. That was 10 years ago.

There was a day I was framing part of a roof, I installed a girder and posted it down far too late, I knew the only way to fix it was take everything apart, and start all over again. It was a gut-wrenching feeling, to have to take it all apart and be set back. When Bill came out and saw I was working on the same thing for two days, I had to tell him: Look, I made an honest mistake and I’m doing this on my own time, because we get paid to do it right the first time. Since that day I think Bill really trusted me, and our genuine friendship began.

A couple years later, we did a renovation for a client whom we had worked for over the years. We had already done his kitchen, bed, and master bath, when he decided to move to the Island full-time and do a lot more work. It included taking off the rooftop. He was a really hands-on client, he worked with us every day, and at first that was a little scary, having the client over your shoulder the whole time, but he was fantastic. He worked side by side with us through a really hard winter. When it was finished he knew, firsthand, everything that had gone into his home, how hard it had been, all the details. We became close friends through the experience, and every time I go back to his place, we reminisce about every detail. There’s a real shared pride which comes from knowing what an accomplishment it was.

You know the old saying: A carpenter’s house is never finished. In my free time I love to work with my hands and put on my tool belt. I bought a house in Oak Bluffs a few years back, and I’ve been working on it ever since. It’s relaxing, but it’s also important to do the work. When you come up with a group of guys in the trade, all starting at the same time, and you end up managing their work, there can sometimes be feelings of resentment, questioning whether you still remember how to do the job. So it keeps my skills sharp.

Needless to say, I’m getting a lot more done in my house now as a project manager than I did as a carpenter. I also volunteer as a firefighter, which I really enjoy, and most of the guys who volunteer in the department are in the trade: plumbers, carpenters, journeymen. So there’s a tight community here, and you work all day together and then see them later at the station — these friendships extend beyond the job site.

Gary Maynard of Holmes Hole Builders
I’ve been building things with my hands all my life. I worked for 12 years as a boat carpenter, restoring wooden boats and ships, including the schooner Alabama. The interesting thing for me is that by bringing together the two things I’ve been passionate about all my life, craftsmanship and sailing, the most important building I’ve ever done has been the building of a team and a company, to create true masterpieces, major projects on the Island, which I could never have done alone.

By bringing together the two things I’ve been passionate about all my life, craftsmanship and sailing, the most important building I’ve ever done has been the building of a team and a company.

I came to the Vineyard 28 years ago, and started doing some repair work on someone’s boat; that turned into more jobs restoring boats, and of course, more time to sail. But when I decided to create a building company, I began as my own foreman, running the crew, interfacing with clientele, working with the architects, and working on-site. The demands on management increased, and we grew so now we have several building projects at once, and the complexity of managing all the details is exponential.

What fires me up now is not just fitting woodwork together, but fitting the crew, engineers, architects, and subcontractors together — to work as a cohesive whole, under demanding pressures. I still am very hands-on, and get out to the site daily, but now, rather than swinging the hammer, I am building the crew to help realize the vision of the architect and clients.

Island development issues are fraught with tension, and I understand. I have a lot of nostalgia for the Island as it was when I first came here in the late ’70s, and I think it’s a serious issue that all builders face. The hard work that the town boards have done to maintain the character of the Island is so valuable, and we work to respect not just the regulations but the spirit of those sentiments … yet I have to walk the very fine line of respecting that, realizing the vision of the client for their home, making a living, and being a member of this community.

I have always had a passion for craftsmanship, and on this Island we truly get to build on the cutting edge of residential architecture, going from shingle style to colonial reproduction to contemporary. This world-class craftsmanship happens every day here, and the projects are so dynamic.

Personally, there’s nothing more satisfying than walking away from a successful project, where everyone is happy: The dream is realized for the architect and the client, and all the team members feel satisfied and proud and can earn a living to raise their families here. At that point, we’ve all pulled something off together, and accomplished something rather extraordinary.

Bill Potter of Squash Meadow Construction

A couple years ago I had the opportunity to build two houses on Cape Cod, and it’s night and day over there, in terms of the way the building business is run. On the Vineyard, in general, amongst all of us in the trade, we use simple life principles to run our business: responsibility and loyalty.

We, the Islanders, along with the various boards like Island Housing, the Land Bank, the select committees of all the towns, and the conservation groups, we’ve all made sure our home has not turned into Cancún.

Out of all the possible roads the Vineyard could have taken in terms of development and change over time, I think we can all feel very proud. It has been a collaboration of thought and planning — we, the Islanders, along with the various boards like Island Housing, the Land Bank, the select committees of all the towns, and the conservation groups, we’ve all made sure our home has not turned into Cancún. And looking at it in that sense, of what could have been, I think we’ve done a darn good job. I make sure that my business stays dedicated to sustainable building — we are the role models for our kids.
I have a deep love for the Island. I spent every summer of my life here; even though I grew up in Hong Kong, I would return to my mother’s house for the summer months. I started out as a house painter on the island in the ’80s to save money for college. I went to Trinity College and graduated with a degree in East Asian studies. I got a job wearing a suit and tie in Hartford, but three months later I was back on the Vineyard painting houses. I just missed it way too much.
The painting turned into carpentry, and carpentry turned into construction. Working, running my crews, learning everything on-site, and building companies along the way. Squash Meadow has been around for the past 15 years. Unfortunately it’s probably been about 10 years since I stopped wearing a tool belt everyday, and certainly, I miss working outdoors, being creative with my hands, and the camaraderie with the guys. Of course, the rewards now come in different areas: Instead of creating with wood, I’m creating on a different level, and there is great satisfaction in that as well.
We are all very familiar with the spring stress that poses a challenge to building here. Everything has to be done by June, because that’s the big arrival for all our clients. The timeline begins in the fall when the rush for resources, building permits, hiring subcontractors, and pouring the foundation before it gets cold sets up the whole season. This winter will deliver a hard spring for us because of all the weather we’ve had. Yet time with my family is very important to me. I fish in the Derby every year, and we love to travel, so we go away when my daughter has school off; I have to take that time. It’s a priority.
The success of a project coming in on time and on budget, with the client happy, is of course important. But I actually focus on a triple bottom line that goes beyond that single product. True success comes from supplying local jobs, supplying local housing, and using healthy materials to build sustainable homes. Contributing to creating a sustainable community is just priceless for me.