Nova Designs + Builds crafts some of California’s most elegant homes

John Schrader, Principal of Nova Designs + Builds shares insights into the organization’s story and significant milestones. “When I first started the company, it was more of a kitchen and bathroom showroom. We quickly realized that the main concern of homeowners buying kitchen and bathroom products was how they were going to complete their project. So, we started offering construction services and the size of the company pretty much quadrupled in the first month because of that.  

“The next phase involved moving into larger projects. Instead of taking on kitchen and bathroom refits, we started working on complete home renovations, and particularly so, in the San Francisco area. They tended to be in the medium-to-high-end range, rather than the super luxury homes you find in San Francisco.
At that point, I would say our limitation was our expertise. Realizing that, we brought in an architect, Fabien Lannoye. Fabien moved back to the states in 1996, having grown up in Belgium, and joined Nova in 1999. While his expertise in Europe wasn’t necessarily in the residential market, he is an excellent architect and extremely structured in his approach.  

People first 

“Around the time Fabien joined us, approximately ten-to-15 percent of our work was in-house projects. After a couple of years, this grew to encompass approximately half of our workload. At the same time, we started doing high-end luxury homes in San Francisco, so, the volume doubled once again. After several years and following increasing delays with permitting in San Francisco, we branched out into Napa County, which is about an hour north of San Francisco. Napa has a robust demand for luxury homes and we started operating out of that area, doing single-family home projects. Today, this is where we are predominantly, with approximately 80 percent of our work taking place there instead of San Francisco,” he explains. 

The company was founded in 1989 and is celebrating its 35th anniversary. “We’re very proud of this achievement,” John continues. “We’re also proud to encourage others to gain expertise working with us, then go out and attain their own licenses. We refer them work and really enjoy watching them, their companies and families grow. From our perspective, some of our employees have been with us for at least 20 years, some 25 years. We’re not under the illusion that our employees’ lives revolve around our company, and as such, we do various things to help them. We need to keep our workforce close to us, so, for example, we’ve established a program whereby we can help them to buy a house. Real estate in this area is expensive, so, we will assist with down payments on properties.”  

Data-driven design 

Between the two of them, John and Fabien have opposite but complementary skillsets. “Fabien tends to do most of the permitting, floor plans, and exterior materials spec, and I supervise the interior design and construction,” he explains. “We look at a project from different perspectives to blend the design with functional living. In our 35 years, we’ve worked on over 1000 projects. This has enabled us to experiment, try ideas, and see what works. Our aesthetic sensibilities keep developing, and our approach is changing constantly as we learn. 

“Alongside this, we try and design to a budget. We’re usually within ten percent of whatever budget we set. As such, we reverse engineer, and design with cost control in mind, while striving to achieve aesthetic satisfaction. We have a robust database that enables us to drive cost containment, and I believe this is something that sets us apart within the sector.”  

Respectful, reciprocal partnerships 

With a double major in music composition and classical studies, John’s route into the industry was far from textbook. From a chance opportunity to refurbish his existing accommodation, he went on to flip properties and seek out opportunities to add value to renovation projects. “The company I was buying cabinets from, was a Swedish company called Swenova. They asked me if I would be interested in taking over the business. So, I did, and that became Nova. It’s certainly been a steep learning curve but a rewarding one, for sure. Our vision, for a long time, has been to try and create an enjoyable work environment. Subcontractors form an integral part of our workforce. As such, we try to ensure they make money working with us, feel part of the team, and are supported. We extend this approach to our vendor relationships too. It’s equally important to foster respectful and reciprocal partnerships with our suppliers.” 

Looking to the future, John shares his hopes for the coming year. “We have two very large projects in San Francisco that we hope to finish in 2024,” he continues. “One is probably going to be a $20 million home and the other is approaching $11 million. Current economic factors make the market unpredictable. That said, we should complete two projects in Napa that will go on the market in 2024. Beyond that, we’ll break ground on a further two or three homes in the same area. As an organization, we’ve never advertised for work but always seem to have three years of work ahead of us. I’m always looking for projects that make sense, but it’s unpredictable how and when you find them.  

“In 2024, we hope to find opportunities and other projects, because I think this year will pick up. People are adjusting to the economic circumstances. While there has been a swathe of unpredictable factors,” he concludes, “we’re just going to roll with the punches as they come. We have learned that over the last 35 years!”