The current, seemingly endless construction slowdown has done more than just slow things down. Many custom builders, having distinguished themselves by placing superior quality and service ahead of price, are finding it’s also turned a successful business model upside down. For more than 25 years, Tom Blalock and Phillip Knight ran their custom building/remodeling/historic restoration company on the principle that clients would recognize quality and professionalism—and pay for it. “We always had better success with older clients who had some experience at this; who’d had, frankly, some failures,” says Knight.

The company always sought to realize the client’s vision, he explains, “not something that was close. People saw value in that. Now it’s changed 180 degrees.” Cautious clients remain on the sidelines, while those bold enough to get in the game are looking for a bargain. Competitors—and there are more than ever—cut supervision hours from their bids, figuring they’ll fix the inevitable construction errors later. “We just bid a project that I whittled down to the bone to try to get,” says Blalock, who lost the project to a builder who included $50,000 to $60,000 less in supervision. The product of this approach, Blalock says, ruefully, “isn’t as good as it would have been, but it’s cheaper.“ Competing in a bottom-line-obsessed environment is no fun when you’ve built your professional ethos on care in construction, but without forfeiting the company’s good name, he says, “I don’t know a whole lot we can do about it.”

Phillip Knight of Blalock Construction
Credit: Courtesy Blalock Construction Phillip Knight of Blalock Construction

The firm’s pipeline of work has changed, too, both upstream and downstream. As the Atlanta-area residential market has shrunk, architecture firms, once a dependable source of leads, “have downsized radically or shifted to commercial work,” Blalock says. “A lot of builders have gone to design/build; architects have just ceded that ground.” Meanwhile, Knight adds, the company’s trade-contractor community has suffered casualties, “especially one- and two-man specialty operations,” such as the iron workers, glaziers, and other craftspeople who supported the company’s historic restoration work. “A lot of them had to take ‘real’ jobs.” Many of those who remain have downsized, he continues, “so you have to wait for a place in their schedule. A lot of the mills that make windows and doors have shut shifts down, so what used to be a three- or four-week lead time is now six.” With so many capable tradespeople going without work, Knight points out, the paradox of having to wait longer for work is striking, but he and his partner have more important things to do than complain. “Here in Atlanta,” he observes, “if a construction company is still in business, they’re scrambling to stay that way.”

Tom Blalock of Blalock Construction
Credit: Courtesy Blalock Construction Tom Blalock of Blalock Construction

Surviving in this embattled business climate takes perseverance—having employed as many as five superintendents and projects managers in years past, Knight says, “We’re back to Tom and me running things now”—but the company’s diversification also has proved essential. Blalock founded the business in 1984 (Knight hired on in 1987 and became a partner six years later), focusing first on renovations in Atlanta’s pre-WWII neighborhoods and working steadily up the scale in project size and complexity. “We were mostly working on older homes, houses built from 1910–1930,” Blalock explains. “It wasn’t a big jump from that to historic restoration.” Eventually, the company’s ability to handle complex, technically challenging jobs opened the door to high-degree-of-difficulty projects at the opposite end of the style spectrum. The company built its first modern house in 2003, and the combination of historic and contemporary work proved a perfect match. “We like them both because they both involve detail and quality,” Blalock says. “We compete better at that.” If anything, modern houses are even more demanding than their historic counterparts. “We’ve seen quite a few projects that the contractor couldn’t complete; he was in over his head,” Knight says. “On these modern structures, if you make a mistake early on, you can’t cover it up, and you can’t recover.” The company’s twin niches bookend a local market more devoted to the architectural least common denominator. “For so long, the thing here in Atlanta was to tear down an old house and put up a McMansion,” Knight says. “It still is.” But the city boasts a stock of fine older buildings that also have their devotees. And while new-house clients lean heavily toward traditional architecture, tastes among younger Atlantans have begun to shift. “You’re seeing these little modern jewels pop up in the most unlikely places,” Knight notes. Scoring a modern project in the current climate is still a battle, he says, but “We’re continuing to bid new modern houses. Some are being built and some aren’t. It’s encouraging; at least the plans are being drawn. People are still interested.”

In the meantime, Knight reports, “We’re doing quite a bit of historic restoration jobs.” One especially worth noting is a top-to-bottom restoration of a 1931 house by prominent Atlanta architect Philip Shutze. “We’re taking it back to March 31, 1931,” Knight says. “Everything is stripped back to original material.” The project will take as long as four years to complete and will give the company some welcome breathing room. Once under way, it also may take more supervision than the partners can handle on their own, but that’s anything but a problem. “Hopefully we’re going to hire back a person or two when we start this project,” Blalock says. “Most of the people we would hire back haven’t found work. They’re doing jobs on their own, and they would love to come back.”

One of the company’s higher-profile historic projects was the exterior restoration of the Wren’s Nest, once the home of Joel Chandler Harris, the adaptor and publisher of the Uncle Remus folktales.

Blalock Construction has proved its ability to execute technically demanding modern projects like this custom home by Atlanta architectural firm Dencity.