STYLISH SOLUTION. To compete against more affordable homes, Schell Brothers' Heritage Creek community in Delaware features unusual house designs.

Photos: Schell Brothers

STYLISH SOLUTION. To compete against more affordable homes, Schell Brothers' Heritage Creek community in Delaware features unusual house designs.

Ever wonder why certain builders seem more adept at winning industry “best” accolades for everything from their communities to their websites?

Chris Schell thinks winning has a lot to do with the corporate culture that a builder creates to encourage creativity and esprit d’corps. Schell should know. His company, Rehoboth Beach, Del.-based Schell Brothers, took home nearly half of the 65 awards handed out by the Home Builders Association of Delaware at its annual gala earlier this month.

The 30 awards Schell Brothers and its family of companies—Echelon Custom Homes, Echelon Interiors, Zero Energy, and Renew-Energy Smart Renovations—received recognize their achievements in website design, model merchandising, project management, and selections coordination. Three of the builder’s communities were grand finale winners.

Schell, who runs the company with his twin brother Preston, tells BUILDER that the team effort behind winning those awards “is probably the most newsworthy aspect of our company.” A former hedge fund manager, Schell shut down that business and made a clean break from the financial world to “pursue happiness.” With that goal in mind, he started Schell Brothers in 2003, and runs it, he says, like a family. “We’ve discovered that the way to make us happy is to make our customers happy.” Once a week, he conducts “rah-rah meetings” on the beach, where employees recount how they’ve satisfied home buyers or owners.

Cliched or not, whatever Schell Brothers is doing seems to be working. It remained profitable during the housing downturn and is currently on track to build and sell between 120 and 130 homes this year. And the three communities honored by the HBA answered specific needs or resolved competitive challenges. Its active-adult community, Independence at Millboro, where homes sell from $200,000 to the high $300s, is distinguished by its 25,000-square-foot clubhouse, “which we put in first,” says Schell, to give buyers reassurance that Schell Brothers would deliver amenities as promised. That clubhouse has become the gathering place for the community’s residents. “They all know each other.”

Heritage Creek at Milton—which also recently won the NAHB’s National Gold Award for best single-family detached home—is next door to a community where Ryan Homes builds. “So we knew we wouldn’t be able to compete on price.” So Schell Brothers came up with a new set of designs for this neighborhood, which features 40-foot-wide homes with rear-entry garages. It also spruced up the community, which a liberal sprinkling of hanging irrigated flower baskets throughout the neighborhood. “It works, and people were willing to pay $60,000 to $70,000 more for the homes there,” says Schell.

Its success at Heritage Creek also opened the company’s eyes about the importance of curb appeal, even for buyers of more affordable homes. “So we’ve embraced this strategy for all our communities.”

The third award winner, Breakwater in Lewes, “was the result of its location,” says Schell. This community is in the heart of a high-end area of Lewes, a beach town. Schell Brothers’ houses there are priced between $200,000 and $250,000 below their competition, which are primarily custom homes. And the community’s “unique amenity,” says Schell, is its fully equipped fitness center with an outdoor pool, hot tub, and outdoor kitchen. “Not everyone uses it, but everyone thinks they will when they buy a house there.” Schell Brothers had 34 buyers before it released this project.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.