Apple Tree Contractors
- Written by: Mike Schoch
- Produced by: Ian Nichols
- Estimated reading time: 6 mins
Apple Tree Contractors fills a tough niche in the construction industry—it handles the hard stuff. Specifically, it takes many projects where building and zoning code compliance are called into question and then works with officials to resolve them.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” jokes Chad Simpson, project manager and corporate secretary. “On one hand, it’s great that we have a specialty, on the other hand it means we have to do a lot of really complicated work.”
Case in point? Apple Tree, which has a real estate branch in addition to its construction branch, once wanted to lease a building to a fire truck manufacturing company, but the building was near a school and an area zoned for houses and apartments.
Initially, the zoning office said the building couldn’t be leased because it would be considered a heavy manufacturing facility, which must be kept apart from residential areas.
But Simpson persisted. He looked more closely into the facility’s operations and found that, according to zoning ordinances, it wouldn’t be considered heavy manufacturing because only pieces of the fire trucks were being assembled, not the entire trucks from start to finish.
“I pulled out the zoning book and explained that the facility was bringing a complete truck chassis with the engine and everything installed into the warehouse and just building the body around it. It wasn’t much different from a body shop,” he says.
Though it took several meetings and a few heated discussions, Simpson says he was able to convince the office the facility was in fact devoted to general manufacturing. This designation carried fewer restrictions and allowed Apple Tree to lease the building.
To challenge the code, you must know it
Based in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Apple Tree Contractors has been around since 1973, when it was founded by mechanical engineer and Chad’s father, Baxter Simpson. To maintain his engineering license, Chad says Baxter has taken continuing education courses every year for the past decade. Most of his classes have been in building codes. Often, Baxter is the lone builder and engineer among a sea of state and city code officials.
Baxter compares the international building code to another long and important text—the Bible. “You’ve got to read the whole thing and understand it as a complete and homogenous book,” he says.
Chad, who left a career in real estate reporting to help his father 13 years ago, says that since joining Apple Tree he has, “gotten deep into the ins and outs of the local zoning codes.” While Simpson acknowledges that many contractors are familiar with local codes, he says it’s rare for two senior members of a construction company to stay so updated.
Together, their expertise lets them tackle projects that customers and often other contractors think are be infeasible.
“[Often] customers go to the builder and he tells them ‘that’s impossible’, then they go to the government permitting office and the officials say ‘you can’t do this, it’s impossible,’ and then they come to us with their impossible project and we say ‘let us take a look at it.’”
In one such “impossible” project, Apple Tree converted an old bank into a performance art center for Rock Hill’s local arts council. “We got into the building and it was one code nightmare after another,” Simpson says.
Officials told Simpson that the building’s pre-existing $300,000 dollar air conditioning system would have to be removed if the building were converted to a theater because the system’s cool air vents were located on the floor, which officials argued, would be blocked by theater seats. Simpson and his colleagues did research and found examples of theaters in Charlotte, North Carolina, that were legally licensed despite using a similar design.
Another problem was the building’s lack of an emergency lighting system. Buildings in Rock Hill are required to have back up lighting both inside the facility and outside of its exits. However, Simpson pointed out that a nearby parking lot as well as several adjacent businesses casted light on the center’s entrances.
“There’s ten thousand lights downtown. If all of them go out at once in some kind of catastrophic event, you have a bigger problem than tripping and falling in the bushes,” says Simpson.
Both Simpson and his father, Baxter, are quick to point out that though they’re willing to debate certain points, they would never consider themselves experts on zoning codes. “The code is so vast and large and complicated that it’s hard to understand fully when you’re doing it on a part time basis like me,” Baxter says.
However, Simpson, like his father, is aware ordinances are not cut and dry. “It’s a matter of helping city and county officials interpret your use of a building correctly, not changing their minds or fooling them,” Simpson says. And you have to know the code to have that discussion.”
Though part of his job requires him to occasionally debate with the town and county, he says that Apple Tree maintains a great relationship with code officials. “Everyone we come into contact with we maintain great relationships. But they know we’ll always state our case, and we know we won’t win every single time.”
When Apple Tree finished the performance center, a fire marshal approached Simpson and congratulated him saying, “we never thought you were going to get this job permitted, but we applaud you for meeting all the rules and satisfying requirements.”
Making a comeback through hard lessons and hard work
Simpson says he doesn’t believe other contracting companies will go through the great lengths that Apple Tree does to get a project permitted. The company’s hunger and willingness to help clients is useful as it bounces back from a financially lean period.
In 2001, Baxter wanted a change from the grind of doing all the designing, engineering and administrative work for Apple Tree. “I just didn’t want to get back into doing what I’d been doing,” he says. “I told the staff I was going to close the company over a 6 month period.”
At the time, both Simpson and his sister were living out of state. But in 2003 Simpson got tired of interviewing real estate developers and building contractors as a reporter and wanted to enter the business directly. “I felt like a sports reporter sitting there, watching these guys play and realizing that I could be out there playing too,” he says.
When he first joined the family business as a rental property manager, Simpson says the contracting side of Apple Tree had shrunk to a skeleton crew. Between 2003 and 2006, Simpson remembers receiving a lot of calls for contracting projects that Apple Tree couldn’t take because it lacked the staff.
“When Chad came back to town he didn’t like telling people we were out of business,” says Baxter. “We realized [if we were going to re-enter the field] we had to get back into it more forcefully.”
Though the company had a few, “hard, mean and lean years” after the 2008 recession, Simpson says it is now doing better than ever before. “Since January 2016, we’re getting more and better [construction project] leads than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” he says.
Baxter shares his son’s optimism and says his goal for the future is to hire an engineer to replace him and hopefully give him some free time. What does he plan to do with that free time? More building, of course.
“We have a lake house and I’ve got to add a couple of bedroom on to that,” he says.
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