Richard Laughlin is on a mission to restore pride in the building trades. “There seems to be a whole generation who have lost that pride. They only seem to value computers,” Richard, the winner of this year’s Fred Case Remodeling Entrepreneur of the Year Award, explains. “It’s as if they even look down on you if you can’t play Nintendo but you can frame a roof.”

Many of us are familiar with this loss, which manifests when builders and remodelers try filling job positions. Almost none of the applicants have any knowledge of building, much less skill. New workers take longer to bring up to speed, if they can be retained at all, creating a high turn-over rate and a steep investment not only in the time it takes to train individuals but in lost productivity during that time.

While many people complain about these problems, Richard has actually done something about it: With the help of other builders in his community, he started a self-funded, community-based trades program at the local high school from which students graduate with the skills they need to go directly into the workforce.

A Scalable Model

The program—dubbed Casa Über Alles, a mash-up of Spanish and German that speaks to the backgrounds of residents in Richard’s community and translates as “A House with Pride”—started with a wish to revive the local school trades program, from which Richard had graduated in 1978. In those days, the school schedule allowed for three-hour class blocks, which was enough time for students to hop on a bus (which the instructor had converted to haul tools as well as students) and travel to a work site. Each year, students constructed a three-bedroom home in the community, and each phase of construction formed the basis for the curriculum.

Then, in 1994, Texas, like many states at the time, passed a law requiring more-stringent graduation requirements for students. To fit more classes in the day, schools eliminated the three-hour class block, which proved a death sentence for the building program. It devolved to a shop class where the kids were making picnic tables and deer blinds—nothing that had much to do with building a house.

Richard floated the idea of reviving a more robust high-school trades program at a meeting of the Hill Country Builder’s Association (HCBA), and it was met with enormous enthusiasm among other builders and subcontractors and caught the attention of M. Scott Norman of the Texas Association of Builders, who provided instrumental support. To get the idea off the ground, Richard and his colleagues initiated a meeting with Dr. Eric Wright, then the superintendent of the Fredericksburg Independent School District.

“Dr. Wright immediately saw value in the program,” Richard explains, “and we were pretty much able to write our own curriculum.” That curriculum boils down to teaching all phases of building a 750-square-foot custom house on school grounds. “We’re building a very nice home, with custom cabinets, hardwood floors, wood windows, a standing-seam metal roof. We’re teaching kids to build quality homes, the kind of houses we build.”

When the house is complete at the end of the year, it is auctioned off to help fund the next year’s program.

The building trades program Richard founded  at the local  high school is self-funded. “No one can argue with that.”
Jeff Nelson The building trades program Richard founded at the local high school is self-funded. “No one can argue with that.”

Self-funding. To get any attention at all, Richard knew he couldn’t lean on tax-generated funds. Richard and his colleagues hosted a couple of skeet shoots, raising $6,000 in the first round and $10,000 in the second. They also asked companies to donate material. “We went to anyone who would listen, and asked for support. That’s always the first step: You have to ask,” Richard urges. “We now have support from both local businesses as well as national—WoodTone supplies cabinets, Sierra Pacific, windows. In the past, we had support from Marvin.”

There was still one sticking point: The school schedule. You can’t build a house working 90 minutes a day. Working with the builders association, a strong local Chamber of Commerce, and their state representative, Richard and his colleagues helped get a state bill passed that relaxed the high-school graduation requirements. This allowed for a 2½-hour class block—enough time for building a house on school grounds.

All instructors—Richard and his fellow builders and subcontractors—had to get background checks, which are required for anyone working with students on school property. “There are definitely some hurdles you have to jump over,” Richard said. “But if you’re willing, it’s all doable.”

In each of the four years since its inception, the program has produced a house with a replacement value of about $135,000. Because of the donated labor and materials in the project, the actual cost to build the home is about $35,000, and the sale price at auction is around $75,000. “We essentially double our money and put that back into the program.” The cost of moving the home off school grounds is absorbed by the owners. Most importantly, the program costs the school district zero in tax-based funding.

Richard Laughlin (fourth from left) with the many partners that make Casa Über Alles possible.
Richard Laughlin (fourth from left) with the many partners that make Casa Über Alles possible.

In addition to self-funding, there are a few details that Richard sees as vital to success:

Become a nonprofit. The program established a 501(c)(3) under the Texas Builders Foundation. “That’s a really important part of this,” Richard urges. “All kinds of people are willing to donate, but only if they’re able to take advantage of the tax write-off.”

Share responsibility. Each year, the builders participating in the program rotate the position of “superintendent.”

“Whenever one of us assumes this role, we handle it like one of our jobs,” Richard explains. “We order the materials. Line up the subs. Run the schedule. If you are the superintendent, you don’t teach that year.” This detail is key. Without spreading the responsibility, one or two people end up shouldering the burden for too long, creating an unsustainable model.

The rest of the builders participating teach on site about 10 hours a week. Even the subs, many of whom donate their labor, also donate time to working with and training the students. At the end of the year, students have a solid grounding in every aspect of building a house.

A Solid Foundation

Proof of a well-established company that shows consistent, sustainable growth is a requirement that qualified Richard for the Fred Case Award. It is also a vital ingredient for his program: To have the time he needed to launch Casa Über Alles, Richard needed to bring in the right personnel and business systems that would allow his company to function efficiently without his constant physical presence.

Richard built his company on a solid foundation. His grandfather and father were masons by trade, who each went into building commercial firms. As a teenager, Richard did not care much for the repetitive nature of commercial work, and he hired on with a local German crew building houses before he went out on his own with a three-man crew building 1,800-square-foot ranch homes. Over 35 years, Laughlin Homes & Renovations has evolved into a successful, nationally recognized design-build firm. With 14 employees including its own carpentry crew and full-time building and interior designers, the firm does everything from kitchen remodels to large-scale custom homes.

The Fred Case Award, named for Fred Case, who founded Case Design/Remodeling on a shoe string in 1961, is limited to smaller firms ($5 million or less in annual gross remodeling volume) that demonstrate innovative business practices. It’s the only award of its kind that gives cash prizes: $2,500 to each of four finalists and an additional $10,000 to the winner.

What does Richard plan to do with his award? “Hopefully, we can use it to spread the word about Casa Über Alles all across the country,” he says.