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Helping hands
Helping hands

Generally speaking, we set the standard and the foundation for excellence every day when we go to work. Then when the opportunity presents itself, we will have laid the ground work to elevate ourselves to the next level. For small- or medium-sized family businesses, the slightest bit of a helping hand can make all the difference in the world. We must therefore be prepared to acknowledge and accept the little snippets of wisdom when they come our way. Here are a few examples:

One night a few years back, sitting at the computer returning emails, I saw an email from a fastener manufacturer. Like many, I’d usually hit delete, but for some reason I read this one. Inside was a short online product survey. Since we used their products, I took a few minutes to complete and submit it. At the end, a free T-shirt was offered as a thank you. A couple weeks later, the manufacturer logo’ed shirt arrived in the mail. In the box was a note asking that if I had any nice projects being completed using their product, to please take a photo of myself at the job wearing the shirt, and send it on in. The shirt was thrown under the back seat of the truck and forgotten.

A month or so later, upon tightening up a jobsite, soaked and filthy, I was in need of a clean shirt. Out came the box, the T-shirt, and the note. What the heck, the job wasn’t bad, so I put the shirt on and snapped off a couple pics displaying FastenerMaster’s “Pride in Craftsmanship” slogan. This was a Friday night While loading the other job photos onto the computer, this photo popped up. Hey, why not send it in? By 8 a.m. Saturday morning, an email came back from Janet Blake asking about the project and if I had any interest in participating in a new video series. Sure, what do we have to lose? Janet guided us through the process and made it an extremely comfortable experience. It was an absolute succeess.

So the long and the short of it: the video was shot, and sales skyrocketed. Clients were calling, commenting on the video. People were loving it. The photo showed up on the banner in their booth at the very next DeckExpo. Unbelievable. What more could you ask for? All of this positive growth started by a single innocuous survey response, an email, and a shirt. An opportunity nine out of 10 people most likely ignored. To be honest, one we may have ignored a dozen or more times ourselves.

Fast forward a couple years. Sitting in an airport, there’s a guy wearing a Diamond Decks shirt. Being a NADRA member and former Contracor Spotlight of the Month, the company name was immediately recognizable. My fi rst thought was, “Hey, I need to meet this guy.” After introductions, a fast friendship was born. Even though work territories overlap, this gentleman, Bill Zinnert, had absolutely no reservations about passing on knowledge, ideas and advice on things that have helped make him successful. That type of idea sharing is what NADRA is all about. But it’s also mutual respect with your industry peers. Bill’s sharing of his insight gave the push that was needed to raise my business to another level. Not only did Bill freely share advice, but he pulled out his phone to show photographic examples. Examples like the use of drone photography, wrapping vehicles, how to cultivate the funds for it, better organizing your day to accomplish more in less time, and creating a better quality of life. Wow, talk about paying it forward. We should all be so fortunate to fi nd a mentor like this.

Again, most deck specialists are incredible visionaries, designers and craftsmen, but at times we tend to get caught in our own bubble. We love what we do and tend to work so darn hard that we don’t always take the proper steps to create better lives for ourselves and our families. When that helping hand is extended to us, we don’t always recognize it for what it is and we move past it. You should never be afraid or too proud to accept it.

So as we head into the fall months, with Thanksgiving right around the corner, I want to take a second to thank all of the folks out there who have graciously and selfl essly taken that moment to mentor, coach and extend the gift of knowledge to the next generation of deck specialists. After all, every builder has had to come up through the ranks, take their lumps, and learn from their mistakes. Each of us met that person or crew leader who taught us the ropes and tricks of the trade. We also needed that person to help with the business side of the industry. It’s our turn to be that person.

If you have any questions, ideas or photos you wish to share, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Bright ideas on low voltage
Bright ideas on low voltage

Setting the Standard in Excellence is not just a catch phrase—it’s a belief. It’s not meant to evoke a sense of competition, rather a philosophy on how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis. Every day we’re given opportunities to Set the Standard. Whether it’s with prospects, other businesses, while on the jobsite, or driving our company vehicles, we are leaving an impression. It also encompasses how we treat our team members and the trickle-down effect our attitude has on those around us.

Professionalism, courtesy, respect, pride in craftsmanship, being responsive, standing behind our work, proudly displaying our membership with NADRA or your local building association are all statements about how we want to be perceived by our peers. Using better materials, taking a few extra steps to increase structural integrity, or keeping a tidy jobsite are examples of how we can be Setting the Standard. Ultimately, it’s about being better than we were yesterday and spreading that belief throughout our organizations.

When we market our companies, we are seeking to set ourselves apart from a prospect’s other options. As we present our projects, we all have special key points we believe make us the “best” choice. We continuously seek out ways to stay ahead of the competition with design features, board patterns, inlays, transitions, picture frame borders, and lighting, to name just a few.

As I sat fascinated by the award-winning decks from the NADRA deck contest that were on display in the last issue of Deck Specialist magazine, one feature consistently caught my eye. It was so recurring I actually started keeping track of it. LIGHTING. Yes, lighting. The majority of the winning decks showcased some sort of lighting. Whether it was underrail, post cap, post sleeve, stair riser, or landscape lighting, it made each one of those projects stand out. Lighting is a relatively inexpensive way to have your deck literally shine above the others in a neighborhood, making your projects a focal point for all to see.

I'm a huge fan of deck lighting. In this day and age of plug-and-play wiring systems that take all of five minutes to figure out, it’s a no brainer. We all remember a time when deck lighting was nothing short of a migraine waiting to happen. Electricians were required to do the wiring. Fixtures cost a king’s ransom, and if you or one of your crew weren’t electrical savvy, the project’s completion could be held up waiting for other tradesman to perform that portion of the deck. Then we moved to the early days of low voltage, with transformers the size of a bread box. Bulky wires, massive fixtures, and a tremendous amount of cutting. What takes a couple hours now would require an entire day for completion. Times have changed.

Today we have low-voltage LED fixtures, easy-connect wiring, and fixtures so easy to install that the project can be delegated to a laborer. Wires are thin and inconspicuous, connectors are basic and simple.

There are a vast number of lighting systems available in today’s marketplace. Developing a relationship with one or two manufacturers can become an essential tool going forward. For example, last summer while in the middle of a project, we had a client that really wanted a different shade of bulb. I called the manufacturer; they custom-made the product we needed and got it to us on short notice. We didn’t lose a days work. Everyone liked it so much that it has become a standard item for the manufacturer, and our local supplier is now keeping it in stock. That was service you can’t get from just an anonymous voice on the phone.

You are no longer stuck with that harsh white bulb that puts off an almost purplish blue hue at 6,000 Kelvin. The 3,000 Kelvin bulbs are a softer yellow, easier on the eyes. On another note, LEDs don’t emit heat and therefore don’t attract nearly as many bugs as an incandescent bulb—another great selling point.

Our fixture options vary more than ever before. Today, white, tan and black post cap lights are just the tip of the iceberg. With codes requiring stairs to be illuminated, it’s a great opportunity to offer clients a plethora of colors, styles, sizes and shapes—starting with the new micro- and mini-fixture riser lights or the more standard riser lights or side lights with interchanging diffusers to recessed round lights.

From there we can step up to all sorts of post sleeve lights, round, half round, dome, flat or square. We have several under-rail lighting choices. You can get under-rail lighting in strips that appear to have continuous or intermittent bulbs. They can be attached under either the top rail lighting up the railing system or under the bottom rail creating a beautiful glow along the decking surface.

Another great, inexpensive lighting strategy is incorporating the round recess lights into the surface of the deck along the railing. You can set them between the posts, which is really nice when you have post cap or post sleeve lights. They take almost no time to install and with the super easy splitters wiring is a snap.

Another unique feature is to install some lighting on the outside of the deck. When building a deck with a picture frame border the lights tuck nicely up under the overhanging board. It’s especially nice on low level decks. It allows the clients to highlight some landscaping features. They can also add a distinctive elegance to an upper level deck. It’s a subtle, low-cost way to really make your deck shine.

Please note that there are many great brand options on the market. It’s not my intention to push one over the other. My only advice is to start simple so you can get acclimated to installing lights on your projects and expand from there, dabbling in more complex projects. In my experience, the engineers, designers and field reps of many lighting manufacturers are more than willing to walk you through any issues that arise from an installation. We have even experienced examples of when they were willing to visit a site to ensure proper installation and operation or to help diagnose an issue.

A lot of people hate installing post cap or post sleeve lights on a deck with basic white vinyl post sleeves because of the additional work involved (ripping a corner or dadoing a groove in the post and then fishing the wires through the groove and blocking). This can be time consuming and aggrivating. A great solution is to use steel surface-mount rail posts. Not only do they have on average three times the strength of a 4x4 wood post, they are hollow. Prior to bolting them down, just drill a 1-inch hole through the deck and the solid blocking below—now wiring is a snap. In 30 seconds, you’re finished and life is good.

Every year the lighting industry evolves. This year transformers are making huge leaps into the tech world. We already have internal programmable timers, key fob-mounted dimmer switches, photo eyes that can be moved to different locations, and the ability to integrate different brands of LED lights into one system. Now manufacturers are coming out with transformers that will indicate if there’s a short somewhere in the system and at least one that is Bluetooth enabled, so you can sync it to your smartphone to program and control the lights.

With a little imagination and willingness to step outside of our comfort zones, low-voltage LED lighting is an easy way to stand out above the rest and really make a bold statement about being a custom builder.

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Draw on artistic details
Draw on artistic details

In today’s revitalized economy and marketplace, most contractors have experienced a surge in business, and with this ever-changing landscape in outdoor living products, our only limitations are our imaginations. By nature, many deck specialists are artists and craftsman searching for ways to hone their skills and take their reptutations to the next level.

Five years ago, when a client was asked what was more important, price or design, the common response was, “I’m on a limited budget and just need a place to put my grill, a table, and some chairs.” Conversely, today’s clients are seeking a little more flair and pizzazz out of their outdoor living space. Size, lower maintenance, multiple colors, picture frame borders, and other amenities have become hot ticket items.

As business has picked up, so has the volume of competition, and deck specialists everywhere are fi nding new and better ways to separate themselves from the unimaginative masses. Today’s composite and PVC manufacturers have made this a rather simple process, requiring only a little research and creativity. They are producing boards that have the option of solid or multichromatic coloring, providing contractors and their clientele a vast array of design and price options. One of the simplest and most visually appealing of these options will be the picture frame border, whether it’s a single, double or triple, allowing designers to incorporate contrasting accent colors at very little expense.

With straight decking, the average crew can add this feature to a project in 30 minutes or less; in almost no time at all you’ve created a wow factor that will set you well above your competition. On larger decks, that border can be incorporated into transition boards or inlays between decking patterns, allowing the craftsman to eliminate unsightly butt joints. As one example, creative contractors are going from an octagonal corner on a deck to completing the visual outline into the deck pattern with the border board giving the appearance of a full octagon without having to change levels and losing useful deck space.

Going a step further, that same accent color can be incorporated into a deck board rail cap feature. Clients will thank you for being forward thinking and providing them with a place to set plates, drinks and other implements on their railings. Our experience has even shown examples of the border colors being used as the stair treads, really tying the deck and colors together.

A good approach is to offer it as an option when presenting your initial base design. When clients see how much nicer your deck will be for only a few dollars more, you already have a leg up on the competition. You have displayed a uniqueness that others are either unwilling or incapable of providing. 

After all, you are Deck Specialists and should continue to "Set the Standard in Excellence."

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Brendan Casey Deck Contractor and Builder serving Frederick Maryland and surrounding areas Brendan Casey of Casey Fence and Deck has over 35 years of experience in construction and helps fulfill the growing need for creative, custom and long lasting outdoor living spaces. Casey Fence and Deck has received multiple awards for their decks and Brendan has had several articles published.