Construction As Orchestration
by Aaron Kampfe
An Artist Sees Art Differently.
A Musician Hears Music Differently.
A Carpenter Feels Lumber Differently.
A Builder Experiences a Structure Differently.
A casual viewer of a painting will usually identify the piece’s subject matter, perhaps appreciate the color palette, and ponder its meaning. A trained artist sees beyond all of that to the work’s many layers, analyzing paint application techniques, observing subtleties and nuances in color gradation, contemplating its social, historic, and political context, and even emotionally empathizing with the artist’s vision.
Talented musicians, as well as many music afficionados, possess the combination of a natural gift and formal training. As listeners and performers, their experience in the concert hall, rock venue, jazz club, or at home with stereo speakers has a depth and many layers that are different from those of the casual music listener.
Carpenters, like artists and musicians in training, learn through seeing, doing, and repetition. Natural abilities like hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, spatial awareness, and physical strength lay a foundation, but also fundamental are mathematical skills involving algebra and geometry. Experience leads to proficiency with tool use, from the classic hammer to power saws, planes, and drills. Over time, a master carpenter develops an intuitive ability to select the right materials, assemble them, and create a finely crafted product.
When Jon Evans, President of North Fork Builders, approaches and enters one of the company’s construction sites, his experience with the build environment involves many layers. He sees through the walls to the structural supports and electrical grid. As he walks across the flooring, he thinks about the millworkers finishing the planks, contractors pouring the foundation, the HVAC crew assembling the duct work, and carpenters wielding hammers and drills. From the project’s inception and conception to its planning and re-planning and finally to its execution and completion, Evans has orchestrated a complicated process involving section leaders and players at all stages.
Like a symphony conductor, Jon Evans is keenly aware of the audience behind him, the patrons (clients) who support his effort, but he faces the performers who are in front of him, each one making an individual contribution. Herein lies Jon’s greatest appreciation for the process of construction orchestration—the men and women who play such essential roles in the process. He experiences a building differently; he sees through a structure to the people who built it.
A Bozeman-based custom residential and commercial construction company, North Fork Builders’ projects range in location from southwest Montana to central Utah to the north woods of Wisconsin. Some of their public buildings in Montana have become regional icons, such as the Lark Hotel and Rialto entertainment venue in downtown Bozeman and the Sage Lodge in Paradise Valley. Their residential works range from traditional lakeshore lodges to ranch compounds to contemporary ski chalets.
With a diverse portfolio in terms of locations, construction methods, and architectural styles, North Fork has experience in pivoting, improvising, re-tooling, and re-configuring. Jon says, “Our agility can be contributed to the skills, dedication, and flexibility of our crews. No two projects are the same. No two days on the job are the same. We have a team on the ground embracing that challenge and looking forward to the next set of skills to learn and the next problems to solve.”
Unlike other professions, the construction trades often lack formalized training programs and vocational education. While learning on the job remains standard practice at North Fork, the company has also created more formalized opportunities for growth and professional development. Throughout the year, North Fork offers trainings, information sharing, and workshops. Many crew members begin as laborers and, through both on-the-job experience and in-house apprenticeships, advance to journeymen. Foremen have opportunities to become superintendents. Positions such as field engineers, project engineers, and project managers connect the office with the job site.
Technology is changing the building industry and North Fork is staying current. Architectural drawings are often both in 2D and 3D and available to those involved in the project connecting the architect’s studio to the North Fork office, and, most importantly, to the job site. In real time, information stays current and relevant so that team members can access it. The result is an efficiency among all parties. A structural engineering decision may affect the interior design. A project management change may affect Human Resources. A component change by the electrician may affect the finance department’s budget.
Jon Evans says, “Our goal is not just to offer jobs, but careers. Because of the shortage of tradespeople and the boom in the building industry, recruiting talented team members is a challenge. Competitive wages and benefits alone are not what attract folks to North Fork. We offer professional development at all levels, leadership opportunities, and a career pipeline.”
Office Manager Maelin Gawor adds, “We truly enjoy working with each other. We hike, mountain bike, ski, fish, and BBQ with each other on weekends. Throughout the year, we’ll have company events, which are affectionately called ‘The three Fs—Forced. Family. Fun.’”
“We have a team on the ground embracing that challenge and looking forward to the next set of skills to learn and the next problems to solve.”
–Jon Evans, President, North Fork Builders
“What I like about North Fork is that every project is different. The work is dynamic and requires analysis and problem-solving.”
–Codey McDonald, Project Engineer
Codey McDonald, Project Engineer
As the son of a Great Falls builder, Codey was involved in construction at a young age. While pursuing a degree in Construction Engineering Technology at Montana State University, he became interested in high-end, custom building and realized that many of these projects were here in Montana. He became acquainted with North Fork at the MSU career fair and took an internship. After graduating a year later, he joined the company full-time.
As part of the internship, Codey was in the field mostly with “bags on” on a project in the Yellowstone Club. After spending time on construction sites, he started to take on more project management responsibilities—coordinating subcontractors, estimating costs, and organizing complicated supply chains and work flows.
This year, Codey is managing his own project, a 5,000-square-foot home in the Bridgers. He says, “What I like about North Fork is that every project is different. The work is dynamic and requires analysis and problem-solving. Sometimes we begin a project and the drawings are not yet fully rendered. So, we have to be flexible and adaptive. Every day is like taking small steps in a marathon, but when the project is completed and the finish line is crossed, we all experience a huge sense of pride. It’s really a gratifying sense of accomplishment.”
Ray Rembold, Superintendent
On his first day on the job with North Fork, Ray and his crewmates were helicoptered 12 miles into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to a remote building site on a private parcel not accessible by roads. The crew would live in a wall tent camp for seven days before being helicoptered out for R&R between extended, multi-day shifts. Ray says, “In a way, my first job was a metaphor for how North Fork works—truly one-of-a-kind projects that require outside-of-the-box solutions.”
Sage Lodge, a 70,000-square-foot luxury resort nestled in the heart of Paradise Valley, was completed by North Fork in 18 months—on schedule and budget. Ray reflects on that accomplishment, saying, “It begins with who we hire. Each crew member has to have attention to detail, view each step of the process like a craftsman, take ownership of the work, and understand the project holistically. We are reliant on each team member to think critically, appreciate quality, and communicate well.”
Seeing through walls—both figuratively and literally—are marks of a valuable craftsman. When working on a residence in the Yellowstone Club, Ray identified the practical need to have access to the LED panels. The question was how to access and replace LED panels and not distract from the architectural intent. They constructed the wine room cabinets, shelves, and framework in a way so that the nine-foot-tall slabs of Onyx stone that adhered to plexiglass could be slid out of place for access to the LED panels. In another part of the house, they engineered and fabricated custom hidden doors in plaster walls for entrance to the mechanical rooms. Ray says, “Every day, we solve problems that the architect or projects engineers didn’t anticipate and North Fork supports our creativity.”
Patrick O’Leary, Foreman
After several years of framing for a production builder, Patrick found the work too mundane. He says, “I got bored doing the same floorplan over and over again. Essentially, it was like an assembly line, factory work. I came on with North Fork to do something different every day. North Fork provides dynamic career opportunities building interesting architecture.”
While time and experience result in automated mind and muscle memory, some materials will always require fresh attentiveness with each application. Patrick says, “We work a lot with reclaimed timbers. From a carpenter’s point of view, ‘rustic’ is not really the best way to describe the material. ‘Rustic’ is an appropriate aesthetic term that the homeowner and interior designer would use to describe them, but to us, it’s simply ‘old timbers’…’old wood.’ This lumber is sometimes over 100 years old and we have decided to recycle and repurpose it. This is often a very difficult material to work with and takes both experience and patience to get a quality final product.”
Through working with reclaimed lumber for many years, Patrick has developed a knack and intuitive sense of how to get the best of out of it. This sense has been honed over time by seeing, feeling, cutting, and installing countless structural supports, trim pieces, components, and paneling. As the foreman of a North Fork crew, Patrick remains engaged, leads a team, passes on his experience, and continues to gain insight, sometimes one reclaimed timber at a time.
Bill Johnsen, Superintendent
During a typical day on the job, Bill Johnsen handles a slew of emails, texts, conversations, and calls and makes decisions that affect work flow, subcontractors, supply chains, and task assignments. Even in the middle of the frantic nature of the job site, he does take the time to appreciate the craft and the building’s location. He says, “We built a lookout tower on a piece of property south of Dillon, Montana. The top of this 40-foot tower was like a living room where you could spot for game, relax with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains, and feel as if you were touching the sky. At times, I had to slow myself down, enjoy the experience myself, and, like the owner, take those moments to appreciate the ‘lookout tower experience’ I was helping to create.”
Bill was also on the North Fork team that built the Lark Hotel in downtown Bozeman. Much of the structure’s supporting beams, framing, and panels were pre-fabricated in Europe and shipped to Bozeman for assembly. Like putting together a complicated Lego set, the North Fork crew had to carefully construct the right components in the correct order. Bill reflects, “Here was an opportunity for growth for not just me, but the entire team. This project was different from anything any of us had done before, but it was an exciting and stimulating challenge that we all appreciated the opportunity to be a part of.”
“Often on social media sites I see a home from right here in Montana and, occasionally, I’ll see a home we built. I’ll always be reminded about that client’s vision and how we achieved it, but I’ll also be reminded about who built it. With great pride, I think, ‘Yep, that was the North Fork team.’”
–Jon Evans, President, North Fork Builders
…The Efficiency Of Current Technology
North Fork has many software solutions at its disposal, and is in the process of implementing Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM allows all players who are involved in a project to be in one space where information lives and everyone has access—architects, interior designers, landscape installers, structural engineers, project managers, bookkeeping, HR, and others. Like playing in an orchestra, this technology allows everyone to be connected, working in unison, listening to each other, and adjusting their personal performances for the whole.
…Scavenging For The Old To Make New
Dilapidated barns, fallen-down hand-hewn fence posts, standing dead wood, and weather-worn siding from abandoned mills have become architects’ and builders’ raw materials. Repurposing, recycling, refinishing, and rethinking have transformed materials that were destined for the junk pile to be destined for luxury homes. North Fork crews can be found scavenging through sites to harvest old wood that will become beams, trim, panels, and siding, and even for unique uses like handrails and bunk bed ladders.
…Creative Solutions For Unexpected Issues
When pouring concrete into a foundation for a project near Big Timber got delayed, the entire project risked being set back by months. A North Fork crew member suggested pre-building the framing off-site in a shop. Once the concrete was poured, they then shipped the assembly to the homesite. Once the pre-build components arrived, the walls were erected quickly and the project actually finished ahead of schedule.
…The Cost Of A Nail
A single note in a piece of music may not seem important, but when not executed at the right moment, at the right pitch, with the right accent, the mistake is noticeable and affects both the execution of the piece and the audience’s experience. The cost of a nail is miniscule but the cost of a nail placed in the wrong spot can be thousands of dollars. A North Fork principle is: “Don’t invest in nails. Invest in the folks who pound the nails.”
Scrolling through luxury home feeds on Instagram, you’ll find multi-million-dollar homes in locations all over the world—mansions in high-end enclaves, exclusive beach villas, extravagant urban lofts, and private ski lodges. Jon Evans says, “Often on social media sites I see a home from right here in Montana and, occasionally, I’ll see a home we built. I’ll always be reminded about that client’s vision and how we achieved it, but I’ll also be reminded about who built it. With great pride, I think, ‘Yep, that was the North Fork team.’”