Home & Design – The Rolls-Royce of Remodelers
by Jack Welch
In construction-industry parlance, homebuilder/remodeler Ben Tyler is an “OJT man,” meaning he didn’t develop his knowledge and skills via trade school or college architectural courses but through hardhanded on-the-job training. As a 23-year-old in the early ’80s with a Vanderbilt degree in business administration, he strapped on a tool pouch, picked up a circular saw and “started cuttin’ boards,” recalls veteran remodeler J.R. Vaughn, who groomed the budding carpenter during a project or two they worked on together back then.
Now, 25 years later, Tyler carries a cell phone and notepad and leaves the cuttin’ to others as he directs 20 to 30 remodeling jobs a year, the majority of which are located in the Highlands and other well-established East End neighborhoods and subdivisions. He also, on occasion, builds new houses, examples of which can be found in the “New Urban” Norton Commons development off I-71 in far eastern Jefferson County. In the process, his company has accumulated more than a dozen local and state remodeling awards, a couple of historic-preservation awards and has had its work appear twice in Southern Living magazine as well as on the Discovery Channe
Not bad for a guy who came into the business “cold” and a little bit confused. “After I graduated from college (where he captained Vanderbilt’s soccer team in his junior and senior years) I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “Helped out as a classroom assistant at a behavior-disorder school downtown, just for a job. I thought, shoot, I don’t know what I’m gonna do – better go back to school. And so I took the law boards and applied to U of L and got in.”
“In the meantime, a couple of friends had bought a building on Douglass Boulevard, a sixplex. They asked me if I’d be interested in going in with them and working on that project. I guess the rest is history – there’s one less lousy lawyer in town; never went to law school. I enjoyed the carpentry, enjoyed the whole process of building and remodeling, the creative and the physical. We did some historic renovations, some new construction, and I basically learned as I went.”
Vaughn remembers getting the feeling that “Ben wanted to do more – he wanted to run the jobs. Back in the ’80s when I was building, I had a pickup truck and a phone, and I think he wanted to be that more than a carpenter. But he did realize you had to start at the bottom. You had to learn the trade in order to graduate and go on to what he’s gone on to.”
“He’s got a lot of architectural savvy. That may have been inherited (Tyler’s father was an architect who designed a number of Indian Hills houses and worked on the 800 Building) and he might not even have known he had it. He’s got a good eye for making things compatible, making elements blend and meld into the finished product – to kind of make (an addition) look like it grew there and wasn’t added on. And that’s what you strive for: You don’t want it to look like you’ve been there. Ben’s got that knack.”
Architect Tim Winters recalls that a couple of years after Tyler started Ben Tyler Building & Remodeling in 1990, the two of them collaborated on their first mutual project, an infill new house on Hill Road in the Highlands designed to fit in with the stately homes around it. “We got along so well,” Winters says. “He had all the same goals we did of historical detail and trying to make the house look old from the beginning. One of the rewards of that in the end was, once it was finished, one of the preservationists from town stopped by the house and said, ‘I thought I knew this area perfectly and I don’t remember ever seeing this house. I don’t know how I could have missed it.’
“He swore it was an old house,” Winters says. “The clients were just thrilled, of course, because it was less than a year old.”
Such a level of thoroughness and exactitude does not come cheap, of course. Tyler is widely known as a favorite of the well-to-do set. “If you call Ben Tyler, you get the best, but get your wallet out,” says Jonathan Wolff, who moved here from California last year and had Tyler add a bedroom, workout gym and bath to his home in the Cherokee Gardens West subdivision. “I was happy to pay the bills,” he says, “because I knew that when (Tyler’s crew) finally left, this house was done.”
And how did the Louisville newcomer find out about Tyler? He says that after closing on the house, he placed a call from California to his soon-to-be next-door neighbor, who owns a local lumber company, and asked for a recommendation on a remodeler. “He diplomatically asked me if I intended to work within a strict budget,” Wolff recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to be ridiculous and extravagant about it, but money is not going to be my primary factor for choosing a builder.’ He said, ‘Do you want a few names?’ I said, ‘Not really’, So he said, ‘Here’s your name – Ben Tyler.”
Bittners senior interior designer Betsy Wall, who has both worked on projects with Tyler and hired him to remodel her own home, says his reputation as expensive is a little misleading. “A lot of times the guy that gives you the low estimate is not building things in that they anticipate you’re going to want. They just try to lowball it to get the job. Then they do work-change orders or add things as the job goes on. Ben is completely up front as far as what he thinks you’re going to want in this job and what amount of detail he thinks it’s going to require, and that’s what he builds into his estimate on the front end.” Wall calls Tyler “more realistic” with potential clients than a lot of remodelers.
Generally speaking, the architectural style the 1975 Kentucky Country Day graduate specializes in is Colonial Revival – often referred to these days as simply Colonia – a style that, loosely defined, mimics and elaborates on the classically configured Georgian and Federal homes built in late-18th- and early-19th-century America. Colonial Revival rose to prominence in eastern U.S. cities during the hyper-prosperous 1920s (when subdivisions such as Cherokee Gardens and Seneca Gardens were developed) and continued on into the ’50s. You can’t help but have noticed that it has undergone a revival of its own, with Colonial-esque copies strewn all over the modern suburban landscape.
The idea of owning a home steeped in American Colonial tradition and located in a mature East End neighborhood is not only alluring to longtime Louisvillians looking to upgrade their urbanity, but also to the steady inflow of affluent corporate professionals either transferred here by their companies or drawn by Louisville’s financially “tasty” housing market. When they decide to expand their families or create a deluxe master suite or add a new wing for houseguests, they want “seamless” (as they say in the biz) work from a well-regarded, straight-shooting remodeler with a high-quality work crew. And that’s why so many of them end up choosing Tyler.
Bittners’ Wall says he possesses another admirable trait: He’s not headstrong. “Ben’s very capable and talented in his own right,” she says, “but he’s also not so high and mighty that he doesn’t realize at what point he needs to bring in some people with greater expertise than he has. That’s rare in a builder; a lot of them think they’re architects or think they’re designers and they don’t know when to stop.”
“I try to set up kind of a team approach,” says Tyler, “where contractor, interior designer, and architect or designer all work together to achieve the final product.”
Speaking of teams, Wolff was more than impressed with the work crew – a project manager and three carpenters – Tyler assigned to his second-floor addition. “The people he uses are amazing,” the homeowner says. “Almost anyone you ask who has had work done will have complaints about their builders – ‘Oh, they took too long; they were messy; they were rude; they didn’t show up when they were supposed to.’ I’ve got none of these things to say. I have only good things to say about these people. We grew to like them. All the Ben Tyler people were bright, articulate, well-mannered people who we were happy to have around our kids.”
“Anyone who likes precision of detail and likes things to be right,” says architect Winters, “they tend to hire other people who have the same goals.”