Real connection: Heather Thompson

Sep 18, 2022

Co-founder of Juniper Design + Build, where award-winning design and advanced construction ensures beautiful and environmentally responsible projects.

By Liisa Andreassen

After working on multiple projects together over the years, Heather Thompson, former owner of Thompson Johnson Woodworks, and Rachel Conly, former owner of Rachel Conly Design, decided it was time to come together and form one firm – Juniper Design + Build (Peaks Island, ME). Now, they’re the poster child for collaboration. Added into the mix was a third co-founder, Mark Pollard, who was a lead carpenter at TJW. They knew that if they all joined forces they could create some real magic and high-performance building with a positive impact to boot.

“We’d thought about merging our businesses for several years and 2022 was the year we finally did it,” Thompson shares. “We felt confident to make the move. Our businesses were thriving and we had solid industry relationships. The timing was right.”

In part, the pandemic actually contributed to this decision as there was an influx of design/build business. Thompson says people were really rethinking the spaces they were living in and contemplating what they could do differently. Many wanted to renovate or build, and their clients shared the co-founders’ ethos for building appropriately-sized homes with a small carbon footprint.

For example, the Woods + Water House project began with a request for a humble bunkhouse. Its breathtaking site – a bluff of spruce and pine on an island overlooking the sea – inspired what evolved into a dramatic studio. It’s now divided into two distinct halves, then woven together by 1,000 square feet of cedar decking, creating complete immersion in the stunning surroundings.

Designed and built to minimize carbon footprint, the building uses siding, decking, and pergola framing of locally-sawn white cedar, with seams painstakingly aligned across the walls, doors, and even the floors. Cabinetry, flooring, and trim are made of rift-sawn white oak. The result is an unforgettable, environmentally-responsible building, easily up to the challenge of enduring its seaside location.

What does collaboration look like? Thompson and Conly love great design and share a commitment to top-quality work, sustainable building practices and carbon mitigation. They enjoy building a diverse workforce and are committed to communicating that in their culture’s messaging. As a majority woman-owned firm, which is somewhat unusual in design/build, Thompson says there have been many clients who have sought out their team because they are women.

“Ultimately, they select us because of our work,” Thompson says.

They do still like to highlight this fact in their marketing because it helps to distinguish them, but what really sets them apart is how well they all collaborate and communicate with each other and their clients.

“There’s a real connection that forms,” she says.

Overall, the co-founders believe in the advantages of integrated design, which means from the get-go the whole team is involved – builder, designer, engineer, subcontractors – the whole kit and kaboodle. This helps to save time and reduces errors. Plus, you get the added benefit of years of experience weighing in to create a top-notch solution. Collaboration at its best.

“Design/build is the best option, not just for us, but for our clients too,” Thompson says. “It’s not like the traditional competitive bidding process. Rather, we’re estimating throughout the process which brings everyone together from the beginning. In turn, this builds trust and brings in more accurate pricing, as well as beautiful design solutions for the clients.”

Since starting the firm a mere few months ago, Thompson says some of the most important skills she’s learned have to do with collaboration.

“When like-minded people come together you just seem to make better decisions for not just the company, but the whole staff,” she says. “And, as a leader, while I maintain a high standard, I think I am seen as fair, approachable, and a good listener. I try not to micromanage and nitpick. We’re like a family.”

Thompson also works to manage expectations.

“I often have to tell people news they don’t really want to hear (e.g., budget, costs, project deadlines) in little bits and often to manage expectations – for employees and customers, alike,” she says.

And, while COVID-19 did have some impact on how everyone is coming together, it hasn’t stopped them from meeting in person.

“It’s hard to telecommute to the construction site,” Thompson jokes. “However, we do many of our meetings with vendors via video conference now. And we also notice that the pandemic has changed our mindset and that of our clients. People are more willing to Zoom for a meeting.”

She shares that one of the best parts of coming together as one firm was that she was finally able to take a real vacation – one that led her to Italy for a month.

“I knew I had my partners and the entire team to rely on and everything ran smoothly,” she says. “Honestly, I probably worked a total of eight hours in four weeks. Sheer bliss. It just goes to show – we’re stronger together.”

The nuts and bolts. So, after collaboration, what’s next? What’s important to the team at Juniper Design + Build? Thompson says that having employees commit to them is a top priority. They strive to treat people well, be kind, and to give good benefits.

“We’re a small company, so we try to have regular conversations with everyone to make sure they’re happy and talk with them about their goals, ideas, and whatever else they want to bring up,” she says.

She admits that they do this with varying degrees of success, but she sees that when people feel engaged and they’re heard, they’re happier and stay on. And, there’s also generous vacation and holiday packages, and PTO policy. They pay 100 percent of an employee’s health insurance and offer a simple IRA with a 3 percent match. There’s a tool allowance for carpenters and they also adhere to FMLA and parental time off even though they’re below the company size threshold.

Focused on three. Thompson says there are many challenges to meet ahead including the serious labor shortage that everyone seems to be dealing with, but right now, the founders have several short- and long-term goals, and they’ve narrowed their focus to three:

  1. Continue to hire a more diverse workforce. They’re putting this out there in their marketing and on their website. They also work with a local organization that helps new immigrants find work.
  2. Build resilience to get through the coming recession. Currently, the company is solid and has a good backlog of work – about two years – but it will continue to build on that to ensure a secure future.
  3. Continue to improve building practices to maximize build efficiency. To meet this end, they will continue to focus on maximizing the utilization of carbon sequestering materials – that’s an important part of the company’s ethos.

Currently, the firm reviews its balance sheet and job profitability each quarter and adjusts practices accordingly when it makes sense. All indications are that Juniper will grow robustly, but that’s not primarily what they’re after. They’re more about creating a quality day in/day out work life for their employees, a satisfying client experience, and leaving a design and sustainability legacy that future generations of Mainers will be inspired by.

“That’s what gets us to the office every day,” Thompson says. 

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