Case Studies

Old Town Construction

After the glitz and glam fades, only the science of good building remains

Every builder of luxury condos or multi-family buildings defines the term luxury differently. In a lot of cases though, it’s about the glamour: Counters made of high-tech, replicated stone; movie theaters; concierge services—even places for your cat to get a shampoo and massage. Developers will go to any lengths to distinguish their properties in crowded cities where land is at a premium and options are abundant.

Amenities can transform a property, but they’re always secondary to clean, quiet, well-planned living spaces. That’s why Jared Spahn, founder of Old Town Construction based in Ellicott City, Maryland, engineers value into the very walls of his buildings.

Old Town Construction

Spahn says that an intelligently designed building, well protected from noise and mold, will hold its appeal long after the pet spa has been replaced and the fancy counters ripped out.

The science of a quiet, clean rental

“The number one reason tenants move out is noise attenuation,” Spahn says. Taking this to heart around 2007, he started attending trade shows and consulting with sound engineers to find the most effective way to reduce noise between apartments.

“I treated it as a chess match. My opponent was sound and I had to move pieces around to defeat it.”

After five years of research, he found the perfect move—using yards of heavy, sound-dampening vinyl that Old Town Construction now strategically places in the floors, walls and ceilings of every apartment it builds. Spahn spent weeks crunching numbers and sketching designs that let him soundproof every unit while keeping building costs affordable.

Not only does the vinyl block high frequencies like voices, says Spahn, but also lower frequencies caused by video games or bass-heavy music played by younger tenants. Old Town Construction, he says, is one of a few contractors in Maryland to include extensive soundproofing as a standard feature.

Another standard practice is the company’s use of health-conscious materials, like paint with few volatile organic compounds and a waterproof barrier to prevent mold.

Staying a few moves ahead

On top of meeting tenants’ day-to-day needs, Spahn attracts long-term tenants who provide steady revenue by looking ahead to the management of the building. He keeps in mind some pretty minute details, including how fast the elevator moves relative to the height of the building, stocking spare parts to repair specialty fixtures years down the road and locating trash rooms so tenants don’t need to drag leaky trash bags across the hallways.

Old Town Construction

Old Town also builds with the slightly more distant future in mind. For example, it has upgraded the electrical services in its properties to accommodate more electric vehicles. Similarly, it has also prewired its storage rooms for internet and phone access, so that they can be used as telecommuting and videoconferencing stations down the road.

Teacher and student

Spahn’s meticulous approach has been honed by his unorthodox background. He didn’t grow up on worksites and construction wasn’t even his first career. A public policy major, Spahn spent his college years interning for people like former senator and presidential candidate, Bob Dole, as well as taking a semester off to work for the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After college he taught history at a private school for a year, before finding the real estate industry through the encouragement of a family friend.

In short, the 43-year-old Spahn knows how to learn a new discipline by jumping in, buckling down and consulting experts. He says he often takes the advice he used to give his students.

“There is always someone out there that knows more than you do; take the opportunity to learn from them whenever you can.”

“There is always someone out there that knows more than you do; take the opportunity to learn from them whenever you can.”

He adds that he will speak with everyone from journeymen plumbers to bank inspectors and superintendents. On some projects, he learns from his investors, many of whom are second- and third-generation property owners.

These conversations help him cater to all parties entwined in any development deal: the tenants, investors and contractors. Though it would seem that each party has different resources invested and each has a different need, Spahn prefers to look for the common denominator.

“It’s a singular goal,” he says. “The investor needs a return, subcontractors need to make money and the tenant, who is the ultimate client, needs to feel like their hard-earned money has been well-spent.”

Close connections

Now that Old Town’s annual revenue is approaching $100 million, Spahn admits it’s not exactly small anymore, but he says he still manages to have a personal connection during every project.

Some of the projects he’s most excited about include Belcrest Building Seven in Belcrest Plaza in Hyattsville, Maryland. Spahn says the 330-unit building is outside the crush of the city, but next to a Washington DC metro station. Old Town is also at work on a 175-unit building, The Southerly, in Towson, Maryland, and a 65-unit building called Highland Haus in Baltimore.

While the size and volume of the projects has grown since the early days, Spahn says he still involves himself in every project.

“I crave that personal interaction,” he says.

Drawing on a teaching analogy, he adds, “I wouldn’t be a good teacher at some school where there are 500 kids in a lecture hall. I like knowing each person individually and all of the details about them.”

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