story by Stephanie Nelson • photos by Carolyn Bates and Lauren Stagnitti
Building homes is a lot more than just hammers and nails, wood and concrete. And that's one of the many things Steve Sisler likes about it.
"To me, building is about relationships," says Sisler. "Relationships with employees, clients, architects, subcontractors, material suppliers are really important to me.”
"When you build a home for someone, it's a long process. When you include interviews, showing past projects and discussions with clients it can take nine to 18 months. You go through a lot of decision-making with them and you need to learn how to interact with different socioeconomic backgrounds. In my building region, our clients range from making millions of dollars a year to those who are building their first home on a tight budget."
In addition to dozens of beautiful and unique homes in the Stowe area bearing the Sisler Builders stamp, Sisler is equally proud or the friendships he's built while those houses were going up. Those sentiments are echoed in conversations with his past clients.
"You could always deal with Steve on a rational basis," says Fred Ross. "There were never any problems we couldn't resolve. It comes down to three things. Number one, he's fair. Number two, he's honest. Number three, he's intelligent. He's just a cut above most people building houses these days."
Adds Joan Ross: “We think very highly of him. He was so thorough and helpful. He's a very joyful person to be with. We still have him come back for various things. He's so dependable."
In 1987-88, Sisler built a 5,000-square-foot home for the Rosses on a hill overlooking Stowe Hollow. It was the largest project he'd done to date, and included extensive custom interior detail work, cedar-paneled cathedral ceilings, stone collected from the property and integrated into fireplaces, an Italian marble steam bath and other challenging nuances. To take full advantage of the view, the home included 127 separate windows. The results were outstanding, according to Fred Ross.
"We required high quality workman-ship because of the quality of the materials," says Ross. "Steve really delivered that. He and his crew started on time, they proceeded at a good pace and they finished on time. We've worked with a number of builders and architects and this was the best experience we've had."
A more recent project garnered Sisler Builders numerous awards in the 1997 Home Builders Association of Northern Vermont Better Homes competition. The home was built in Stowe for Ken and Nancy Kearney. Says Ken, "I was pretty definite about what I wanted. For example, we wanted a slate roof and he was able to track down the best guys to do it. There were a lot of specialty items that required skilled artisans and Steve was able to find the right people to do the job."
A jury reinforced Kearney's statements by awarding Sisler Builders first place in the Luxury Home and Blodgett Supply Best Kitchen Awards categories. For the kitchen, which includes a dramatic 15-foot-high arched window, slate countertops and back splashes, mahogany custom cabinetry, and commercial appliances, Sisler combed the state to find a cabinet maker who could deliver the caliber of work he required. Mark Pedley and the crew of The Joinery proved to be an excellent choice, delivering exceptional cabinets which are truly stunning.
Of Sisler, Kearney says: “He has very high standards. He’s very meticulous. He’s a smart cookie, very capable. The house had such a fantastic framing job, you can't hear the wind, no matter how hard it's blowing up here. It's so solid, like a rock. No squeaks anywhere." On a personal level, Kearney adds, "I consider him to be a friend."
The Kearney residence is largely made of rock. There is a 30-inch-thick stone veneer on a portion of the building which is made of granite blocks salvaged from the Barre granite quarries. The utilization of this material in conjunction with the Vermont slate roof, natural stucco finishes, recycled cellulose insulation, and super insulation techniques, won for the project the Environmental Excellence Award from the HBA of Northern Vermont.
In the decade between the Ross and Kearney projects, Sisler has developed a dependable and talented crew, anchored by site foremen Chane Bidwell, Sean Darby and Levie Gray. Together, they have the ability to do much of the interior detail work that some builders need to farm out. When subcontractors are needed, Sisler draws on 15 years of relationships he has built in the central Vermont area. Sisler Builders' focus on low volume and high quality is a conscious decision. It allows the company to fulfill clients' expectations in a timely fashion and ensure that the project is done right the first time.
How did Sisler Builders get to this point? Steve was brought up in Ithaca, NY. His father was a professor at Cornell University, still serving on the Board of Trustees. His mother was a home maker who became executive director of Historic Ithaca, overseeing fund-raising and selection of restoration projects. While Sisler was still in high school, he and his father occupied many hours in their garage workshop, building two Adirondack skiffs—15-foot rowing craft built of mahogany and walnut. They also restored a couple of historic Adirondack "guide boats" (canoe-like row boats), which are now collectors' items.
His mother actually got him pointed toward the building trade when she hooked him up with a contractor that was restoring the historic Clinton House in Ithaca, a former grand hotel that had become a derelict building. He worked with that company during vacations and summers while attending high school and Union College in Schenectady. In his spare time, he played ice hockey on the varsity teams at both schools.
After graduating from Union with a degree in industrial economics, Sisler half -heartedly went through the job interview process with banks, insurance companies, and large construction companies. On an economic and personal basis, Sisler decided to start his own cabinet and custom furniture shop in Ithaca. He enjoyed the hands-on aspect of that venture, but was dissatisfied with the degree of stimulation offered by simply utilizing machinery to create custom pieces.
"I got tired of it because there was not enough personal contact with your clients. I realized I needed more personal interaction."
To gather his thoughts, he took money he had saved and spent a year touring Europe and North Africa. "I was inspecting the great works of architecture in the cathedrals of Seville, Spain; the mosques of Fez, Morocco; and Notre Dame in Paris. I was also reaffirming relationships I had made on a semester during college and solidifying my Spanish language skills," he recounts.
At his parents' urging, he returned to the Adirondacks to renovate a camp they had recently purchased on a small lake. After that, a burgeoning interest in windsurfing took him to the national championships. There he met individuals training for the U.S. Olympic Windsurfing Team and was invited to the U.S. Virgin Islands to train with the team. But after a winter on St. Thomas, "rock fever" had set in and when a college friend from Burlington called to ask if he would be interested in joint-venturing a home in Stowe, the immediate answer was "yes." That was the beginning of a three year partnership (1982-85).
During that time the focus was on spec houses. There was no pay until the home was sold, and money made from the previous project was immediately reinvested in the next one. This presented some difficult financial situations. Sisler recalls the time his car died and he needed to finance the purchase of a new truck. "The truck payment was coming due, I didn't have the money in the bank and wasn't too happy about it."
The ongoing pressure of this financial situation made Sisler think about the long-term viability of this partnership and the way it was functioning. He decided that his goals were different enough from his partners' to warrant heading off in his own direction, and he formed Sisler Builders in 1985.
About the same time, he decided to establish roots in central Vermont. He purchased property in Waterbury Center which had a fire-damaged historic house and a barn. The house was too far damaged to be salvaged, but there were a number of architectural woodwork pieces which were saved and integrated into the home Sisler created out of the barn. During construction, Steve and Sharon, his then-girlfriend and now wife, resided in a teepee pitched out back and cooked over an open fire during the summer months. This situation allowed ample time for Sisler to develop the philosophy that he has followed ever since.
"We don't cut corners," he says. "We know the materials we need and we know how to integrate them into a home to derive the best value. We emphasize quality and details, with the ability to deliver what's promised. As a result, we can foster and maintain good relationships with our clients and other trades people important in the building process." Those relationships have kept Sisler Builders busy throughout their business life simply by word-of-mouth advertising.
Evelyn Minter, who heard of Sisler Builders through a neighbor, asked them to build a screen porch on their Waterbury home.
"We're really thrilled," she comments." We asked Steve, “Is there any way you can keep [the porch] from looking like an afterthought?” and he did that. He's just a great guy and he does beautiful work." There was no preliminary plan for the project, Minter says. "It was his imagination, his ideas."
For tasks like that, Sisler enjoys calling on his early woodworking background.
"I like to design cabinetry, porches, handrail details, smaller things that are more personal," he notes. And his course work in engineering doesn't hurt, either. "I can figure out structural loads and have the confidence to make field decisions that someone else maybe couldn’t. I think my knowledge has helped the company. I like to teach the guys these techniques. I like dealing with people. I enjoy what I'm doing and I want to keep on doing it."