Estate planning for horses

Many horse barn builders started in the agricultural market and entered equine construction as their rural environs were discovered by affluent city dwellers. But Tom Buckingham started by building executive homes and then followed his upscale customers into the country. “When they began to ride horses and think about barns, that’s when I began to build them,” explains the owner of Buckingham Resources Ltd. in Lake Oswego, Ore.02RB0706.jpg

Buckingham’s original journey into the custom homebuilding business started when he was an area manager for a large corporation. “My wife and I built a 1,700-square foot vacation home in Sun River and decided to do it ourselves,” he recalls, “and I loved the work so much that, two years later in 1989, I quit the corporate world and founded my own business.”
Unlike many builders of homes and horse barns, Buckingham says he did not grow up around the construction business. “But I’ve always been artistic,” he explains, “and building custom homes and estates is a very artistic field. You need the ability to conceptualize your clients’ dreams.”

In fact, Buckingham performs no construction with his own employees. “I don’t even have any employees,” he says. “All the actual construction work is subcontracted out. But what I bring to the table is the skill to pull everything together and give my customers the kind of truly distinctive homes they’re looking for.”

Rather than leveraging any past experience as a carpenter or framer, Buckingham instead has transferred to the custom home building business his former skills as a corporate manager.

“Most of my customers are corporate managers themselves,” he points out, “and so they know about and appreciate the value of good project management. That’s why they trust me with their dollars.” Though Buckingham estimates that in 17 years he has spent less than $1,500 on advertising, he is in steady demand to build estates valued from $1.5 million to $15 million.

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Though Buckingham usually has only three projects going at any one time, those jobs can take two years to complete. One of his current commissions, for example, is to manage the construction of a $15 million equestrian estate with a lavish home and grounds, plus four horse barns and a riding arena.

The company’s first equine facility was built in 1996 after Buckingham relocated from rural central Oregon to the Portland metro area. Oregon-based equine architect Linda Royer (Rural Builder, May 2006) was seeking a builder to construct a barn she had designed for a client and soon learned of Buckingham Resources’ reputation for “distinction through excellence.” That was a key consideration, since Royer’s clients owned thoroughbreds that had raced in the Kentucky Derby.

Ten years later, Buckingham and Royer regularly refer clients to each other. “I would say that over the past five years,” Buckingham notes, “my business has evolved so that most of my custom home projects now include equine facilities. And these aren’t two-stall barns. Most of them are so distinctive, you even hesitate to call them “barns.'”

Buckingham readily acknowledges that today’s equine market has broadened to include a vibrant demand for smaller “backyard” horse barns. But he has chosen to focus on the high end, and even then Buckingham Resources mostly builds complete estates in which a custom home and accompanying horse barn are part of the project. “I like to do the whole estate,” he says, “because then I can really leverage my competitive advantage of giving my clients a single source of responsibility. That provides a service my clients want and also keeps them from having to go elsewhere for the barn or other estate buildings.”

Any builder in the executive and estate home business “must listen to his clients’ needs, speak their language, and exceed their expectations,” Buckingham says. “That’s a given. So I’ve got to do even more to differentiate my company. My approach is to go for projects whose scope and logistical complexity demand a higher level of organization than other homebuilders can handle.” For that reason, he has stayed away from spec homes and land development “that would dilute our devotion to and management of our clients’ projects.”04RB0706.jpg

One of Buckingham’s personal touches is to visit his jobsites “and talk to everyone and build positive relationships with my subs and their people, so that they really like to work on my projects but also because I can impress upon them the fact that they’re building someone’s home. These barns are special because the horses are special to the client.”

His philosophy that “a successful project evolves from a shared set of common core beliefs between the client, architect, and builder” has tangible implications for the building process. This client-centered view of estate construction prompts Buckingham to assert that “good scheduling and cost management, while important, are not ends in themselves.” Instead, he strives to efficiently manage schedules and budgets “so that we can concentrate foremost on the workmanship.”

Homes and horse barns whose schedules “are allowed to slide with no end in sight will ultimately result in strained relations,” Buckingham contends, “and projects that suffer from a budget standpoint will underutilize the true talent and effectiveness of the craftsmen.” Considering that Buckingham Resources’ estate projects often last up to two years, managing construction costs and schedules is a major undertaking.

“Good communication is really vital,” Buckingham says. Each month he provides clients with a customized progress chart that graphically depicts start and finish dates for all construction activities. In addition, clients receive a detailed summary of all invoices for work completed each month, plus a total line-item breakdown of costs-to-date and copies of all invoices.

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Adapting his homebuilding procedures to encompass equine construction “was fairly easy for me,” recalls Buckingham. “The construction techniques for high-end homes and horse barns are basically the same, which also means I can use the same high-quality subcontractors for equine facilities as I do for my custom homes. The main difference between the two is that horse barns must be built to accommodate the safety and strength of the horse.”

Buckingham’s transition into the equine market has also been eased by his frequent partnership with architects Royer and Matt Johnson of Equine Facility Design. “I don’t do any barn designs myself,” he explains. “Linda and Matt do the design and the specs, and all I have to do is follow them. But I also bring to the process my knowledge of high-end buildings, structural products, and aesthetics.”

While many equine builders erect only the shell, Buckingham provides his clients a turnkey facility complete with stalls, interiors, fencing, and every appointment. “I just enjoy building these barns so much,” he says, “and I find that the more I build, the more word gets around and the more equine projects I get. Horse people are a small world. If you do quality work, they all know about it. And if you don’t give horse people great quality, then you’re through.”06RB0706.jpg

Buckingham enjoys working with clients, such as his horse bar n customers, who appreciate quality. “People who want to build an equine facility have vision,” he notes. “They’ve thought it through, and I love the chance to work with them and make their vision a reality.” He also finds that people who own horses are typically “good people, honest, responsible, maybe because they’ve grown up with the responsibility of caring for horses.”

The popularity of horse ownership has boomed in the Portland market, Buckingham suggests, particularly as Californians have liquidated their high-priced housing and moved north to Oregon where their equity buys a lot more real estate for the money. “You can sell a 3,000-square-foot house in California for $3 million,” he says, “and then come to Oregon and use that money to build a horse estate.”

Compared to 1989, when Buckingham Resources was founded and demand for equine construction was comparatively slight, today Tom Buckingham sees a trend in his market toward larger homes and larger horse barns. “The barns have become more elaborate, at least in the high end of the market,” he reports. “I use a higher grade of subcontractors who provide a higher level of workmanship. They also cost more and wouldn’t be cost-effective for a small barn. That’s another reason why we don’t cater to the lower end of the equine market.”

Seventeen years after leaving his own corporate career and entering the building business, Buckingham has never looked back. “When I was behind a desk, I missed doing hands-on work,” he recalls, “and even today, as a builder I still keep my overhead small  and I do only three projects at a time and stay within the Portland area so that I can go out and visit all of my projects every day.”07RB0706.jpg

Keeping his operation small likewise allows Buckingham to personally provide the high quality that is his stock in trade. “If I grew the company and had to use area supervisors,” he points out, “then I wouldn’t be able to ensure the level of workmanship that my customers hire me to provide.”

And the customers keep coming, even though Buckingham does virtually no advertising. “I haven’t displayed at the horse shows in a while because I’ve got plenty of business,” he says, “but I still enjoy going to the shows on my own. Though I only get to ride a horse myself maybe once or twice a year, I always love watching these beautiful animals.”

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