Working with some of the best architects in the world, spending time creatively solving problems for clients and building a home from the ground up are just a few of the things that make a day at the office so fulfilling for Danny Bernardini of Upscale Construction. As a native San Franciscan, Bernardini has been hooked on building since he was a child. To this day, we see the child inside of him is still very much alive with his infectious curiosity, good will and an inherent ability to keep the creative process of home building a win-win process for all involved. CaenLucier had a moment to catch up with Danny between appointments at a favorite watering hole near his Union Street offices.
CaenLucier: What was it that led you to becoming a general contractor in San Francisco? How and when was Upscale Construction formed?
Danny Bernardini: I loved building as a child. When my father hired a contractor to do any work around the house, I sat there and looked and tried to help anywhere I could. As I grew older, I wanted to get into development, so I worked for a general contractor in Marin, then got my license and started Upscale Construction in 1995. I saved enough money to start doing some home flipping, but then got my first break on high end home remodeling via a VC who saw one of the homes I flipped. Soon after that, the word got out and Upscale Construction grew to where we are today based on client/architect/ real estate agent references.
CL: The city is a competitive market for high-end building firms. What sets Upscale apart for the competition?
DB: I truly believe our core values set us apart. We try to instill in our team what got us to where we are today, which is a company based on mutual respect, creativity, and customer service.
Mutual Respect – Treat all members on the project team, whether it is the laborer, sub-contractor, project manager, client, or architect with the mutual respect you would want. You want everyone on site and involved in the project to have a positive attitude towards working in the client's best interest. If everyone is well respected, you will get that positive attitude reflected in their work.
Creativity – Custom building comes with challenges behind every door. We found that our creativity to problem solving was one of the reasons many of our clients liked working with us. We empower our team to think out of the box to solve problems and to be proactive in doing so. No idea is a dumb one.
Customer Service – The design/build industry is based on customer service. After all, we are building the homes people quite often live in for the balance of their lives. Without customer service, you can’t gain a complete understanding of what the client wants out of their home. If you don’t understand that facet, how can you really build their dream home?
CL: What is your favorite part of the design/build process?
DB: I personally love seeing what gets accomplished on the site. When I was a laborer/carpenter, and even now, I found myself losing what we call “valuable time” at the end of the day walking through the job site looking at what got accomplished. There is nothing better than knowing you built something from scratch! This is why I don’t see this time as time lost. I actually value this time. On that note, I miss swinging the hammer, so I do a lot of that at my own home. I am enjoying teaching my son to do so!
CL: What are the challenges that are presented when working with an existing home in town?
DB: One of the bigger challenges is trying to keep the neighbors happy. Let’s face it, there is construction occurring on every other house these days. The neighbors are constantly faced with double parked cars, noise, debris, etc. We try to make it as easy as possible on the neighborhood and we try to set up a relationship with the neighbors so they know they can come to us with any issues. We have heard some people say "at least Upscale Construction will be the builder." If a neighbor has to deal with a job site, most feel at ease knowing it is us managing the construction.
Another big challenge is communication. I feel we are great builders, but to be honest, I think there are a ton of great builders. I believe our communication style reduces the challenge of the actual build out for the clients and architects we work with.
CL: Are there any particular architects that your enjoy working with?
DB: We are really blessed in San Francisco to have some of the best architects in the world! I enjoy working most with architects that are good collaborators and involve us in the early budgeting phase. Just take a look at our signs around town and you will see many of the talented architects with whom we work.
CL: With San Francisco as a tech hub, what new technology has come into play in your profession?
DB: Home automation is more and more prevalent in the homes we are building. Savant home control systems seem to be one of the more popular choices out there. Also, 90% of the homes are installing radiant heat throughout. The day of the forced air systems seems to be going away.
CL: What would your dream project look like?
DB: Something with a Bat Cave, unlimited budget, unlimited schedule, pleasant neighbors, and at a site with unlimited parking...wouldn’t that be nice! We recently completed a Mid-Century home in Sea Cliff where the design was true to the original design, but modernized for how peole live today. The client happened to be the architect. For him to build his dream home in the vernacular I most enjoy was a treat!!
CL: How would you advise people looking to do a large scale renovation or “ground up” project to best interview builders?
DB: Interview your general contractors to best understand how they work. Be collaborative with them and the design team to achieve your budget. Share your budget. Share your goals. If you can find the team that is your advocate (team being the right architect, engineers, and general contractor) then you have made a great start. I would not put several general contractors up against each other. There is a fallacy that people think they will get the best price by doing this. The problem there is you have too many sub contractors bidding on the project and the sub selection might be based on price only versus right fit. The subs will also only give so much effort to bidding it and they will miss scope. They have little motivation to bid it if they know they have little odds of getting the job. I could go on and on, but it is key to find the team members you truly believe have got your back, then make sure they are capable of the build, capable of managing the build, and capable of open, effective communication and transparency.
"Find the team members you truly believe have got your back, then make sure they are capable of the build, capable of managing the build, and capable of open, effective communication and transparency."
CL: What are the common mistakes that clients make during the construction part of a new home?
DB: They change their minds too much!! I am not sure about the exact psychology behind it all, but it seems a lot of client’s want something but hold back until construction starts to add it. For example, we do a lot of pre-construction analysis with clients and commonly the "off the cuff" cost is too high. So we then work with the design team and client to cut the cost to something they are happy with. Then we start...mid-stream they add most of the items we discussed (and cut) back into the project. The big problem then becomes the changes cost more than originally budgeted. There is a sequence we try to keep in construction. Disrupting it costs time and time is money. I understand there are many variables in making decisions, but if a client knows for sure that they are going to do something tell us early so we can do it for the best price and in the proper sequence.
CL: What architectural style do you most gravitate towards?
DB: Contemporary and Mid-Century Modern.
CL: What would you do if not building San Francisco’s finest residences?
DB: I would sell produce. It was my first job on Union Street as a kid and I loved it!
CL: What is your favorite SF restaurant?
DB: Tony’s Pizza in North Beach. I grew up hanging out in North Beach and I love pizza!!
CL: What do you like to do in your time off?
DB: I enjoy working on construction projects around my house, golf (which I never have time to do), and tennis with my family. Most of all, I love spending time with my wife and kids. I am a workaholic so the time I do spend with them is precious.
CaenLucier would like to thank Danny Bernardini for his time with LOFTY HEIGHTS!