The Chateau Maker

    When Jeffrey Collé was a kid, he worked as an apprentice carpenter with his grandfather, a Belgian immigrant, and father maintaining Gold Coast estates. Decades later, the Massapequa-bred builder remembers “300-acre estates with magnificent greenhouses, polo fields, and stables.” With such influences, it’s no surprise that he builds houses that are both vast and echo those places he knew when he was young.
    Now, Mr. Collé has launched Estates by Jeffrey Collé, a South Fork company that is neither an architecture firm nor a straight building firm, but rather a hybrid. By offering to work with buyers to both design and build houses, he is, in essence, cutting out both the spec builder for those who don’t want a cookie-cutter specimen and the architect for those who want their dream house.

     Among his recent projects was a 12,000-square-foot house for sale just marked down from around $40 million to almost $29 million on Georgica Pond. Sited on the footprint of a Stanford White house (only the bones of an artist’s studio remain), it has a 30-foot double-height ceiling in the drawing room, a Versailles-pattern parquet floor made from ancient oak beams he found in several French barns, hand-doweled and assembled in Paris, Louis XV fireplaces, and walls made of quarter-sawn white oak, wire-brushed to raise its grain, then French-chalked and waxed for a creamy warmth.

    While building the house, which took two years, he employed a crew of more than 100 and set up a woodworking shop in the basement so that a dozen workers could mill, fabricate, and install the various wood projects — from antique wide-plank black walnut floors in the kitchen to mahogany doors throughout — on site.

    During a tour of the house, built on such a scale and with so many materials sourced from France that it was reminiscent of a chateau, he pointed out details such as squared pegs in a wall, doorknobs handmade at a Brooklyn foundry, and a scissor joint on a stair rail, all the while repeating his mantra: “You just don’t see work like this anymore.”

    While Mr. Collé is building two houses at the moment, the most prolific builder on the South Fork, Joe Farrell, “has more than 20 new homes under construction, or slated for construction, at a time,” according to a recent article in The New York Times.  

    “In this day and age where profit is the primary motive, Jeff puts in such a commitment that when he turns the keys of a house over to a buyer it’s a hard day for him,” said Philippe van den Bossche, an associate of the builder. 

        Mr. Collé said he had increasingly noticed in the past year that potential clients did not covet lookalike McMansions as much as they once did.

     “They’re going to dinner parties and seeing the same thing and they don’t want it,” he said.

    His hybrid approach to building is a solution for people with more money than time or know-how. “If you want to build a Hamptons house and don’t want to buy someone else’s dream, you basically become a project manager,” said Mr. Van den Bossche. Successful people, he said, think they can transfer their business skills to a building project and soon find out that they’re in over their heads. There are a multitude of variables to consider, all requiring expertise.

    With 35 years of experience building on the East End, Mr. Collé said he can view a piece of land for a prospective customer at no cost and tell them what and where to build. His hope, of course, is that the buyer will retain his services. This may sound easy, but there are zoning restrictions and environmental considerations as well as aesthetics: Where does the sun rise? (That’s where you’ll want your breakfast room.) Or set? (Great spot for a screened-in porch or a dining room.) “They’re looking at a piece of property and they don’t know what to look for.”

    But why not hire an architect? “I go in and evaluate the situation in a 24-hour period,” he said. This is a boon for a buyer who has seen a piece of property but is not sure yet whether to buy. An architect, he said, is brought in after the land has been purchased. “There’s a short window of opportunity.”

    Often when landowners hire an architect, “he’s not from the Hamptons,” said Mr. Van den Bossche, and, even if he or she is, “almost no architects are builders, so they don’t understand . . . what they budget for is usually not reality.” There is also the time-consuming aspect of the “bidding process,” when the architect seeks a builder. “It’s like being a waiter and chef at the same time,” Mr. Van den Bossche said of Mr. Collé. “There’s no going back and forth, so there’s more efficiency.”

    The customer, he believes, also “gets more value on the dollar — 40 to 50 percent more.” This is because of two factors: The process is transparent, and Mr. Collé works for a fee based on the overall value of the project.

    “He’s building a relationship with the owner, so he buys the best material for the dollar rather than trying to get the house built on a budget. When working with an architect and builder, he said, it can take two to three years to complete a project as opposed to the one year he said it takes Mr. Collé.

    “If you like the craftsmanship I provide, you’re still getting a custom house, but you’re taking a shortcut,” Mr. Collé summed up.

    While Mr. Collé insists that architects are hired after a property is purchased, Peter Cook, an architect with an office in Water Mill, said in an interview that “prepurchase land evaluation is something every architect offers.”

    “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve turned away from making a potential purchase based on zoning analysis just this summer,” he said, stressing that within “several hours you can study the property and talk to people in the town and tell [the buyers] the limitations. People don’t know that they’re limited by zoning restrictions, the Health Department, the conservation board, or that the permit process could take years.”

    “There is a reason architects are licensed,” he said. While he admits that “someone who fashions himself as a designer can design anything they want and hire a licensed engineer to stamp it,” and though he thinks that Mr. Collé is “in the enviable position of not having to build other people’s work, if he’s going to dismiss the value of [using an] architect, clearly he’s not going to be chosen to build their projects.” As far as value, Mr. Cook asserts that a house designed “by a noted architect is usually worth more.