Archive » October 12, 2006
By James Buckley
TWENTY SOLID YEARS OF BUILDING
Giffin & Crane signs hug the curb in front of some of the most prestigious private homes under construction in Montecito. If you had just arrived here from Mars (or from even farther away, say, Los Angeles), you could be forgiven for believing that Giffin & Crane is some large conglomerate of construction engineers with headquarters in a major city. They seem to have monopolized the private home construction market in one of the nation’s top residential areas, Montecito, so they must be a hard-nosed building empire, right?
Giffin & Crane are the last names of two local and still almost young guys – Geoff Crane and Bruce Giffin. Both have honed equally impressive talents for pouring first-rate foundations, building top-end high-quality homes, and finishing the most elaborate of woodwork, panels, gutters, stonework, patios, hardscapes, and the rest of what goes into transforming a handsome house into a desirable home.
And, they’re not bad guys, either.
Geoff Crane’s grandfather, William D. Crane, was co-founder of Crane School on San Leandro Lane. Geoff is a fifth-generation Santa Barbaran; he and his wife, Kim, have been married 22 years and have two children: Samantha, 15, who attends Santa Barbara High School, and Kerry (22), currently attending the University of Oregon, he interned at Lotusland this summer. Geoff’s son William attended George Washington University and now lives in Washington D.C. All the Crane kids attended Crane School.
Geoff attended Montecito Union School, Santa Barbara Junior High, and Santa Barbara High. Geoff served on the board at Crane School for six years and is currently on the board of directors at Lotusland.
Bruce Giffin and his wife, Kelley, have also been married 22 years. They have two sons, Riley (16) and Teagan (14); both attend Santa Barbara High School, and before that Peabody (Bruce says he a “big believer” in charter schools). They live in downtown Santa Barbara and are building a home adjacent to Elings Park. Bruce has been in Santa Barbara “off and on” his whole life, but spent his junior and senior years of high school in College Park, Maryland. Bruce is immediate past president of the board of directors, Elings Park.
Bruce’s grandparents moved to Santa Barbara in 1927; Bruce’s dad, Don Giffin, graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1945. The Giffins owned a lemon ranch in Goleta and operated a business in what is now called Old Town Goleta, but was then just Goleta. The business, Western Welding, is ongoing and remains in the family.
Logs In Idaho, Nails in Alaska
Though he didn’t graduate, Bruce did attend Boston Architectural Center for a time, though not directly out of high school. “I knew I didn’t want to go to college right away,” he says, “since my dad was Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland, and I knew I especially didn’t want to go there,” he adds, chuckling. “Much to [my dad’s] chagrin, I said I was going to take a year off and see the world, and that included bicycling and hitchhiking across Canada; I ended up in northern Idaho.”
A friend of Bruce’s, an artist he calls “a second father to me, growing up,” Ed Kienholz, found a group of abandoned log homes in the mountains of Idaho and Bruce stayed there for what he thought would be five days that turned into five months. “We dismantled these old log homes and brought them to his lakeside property and started rebuilding them over the next three summers,” Bruce recalls, saying that he really “liked the sense of accomplishment” the work entailed.
“Even though I tried different things along the way,” he relates, “there was just something about hands-on working outside, the different experiences, different job sites, and different people, the thing of standing back and seeing what you’ve created. There is something intrinsically satisfying about the whole thing, so I always kept coming back to construction.”
Geoff experienced a similar early epiphany. “We took a trip to Alaska one summer,” he recalls, “and I ended up working at a construction site during that time and got a little bit of training with a contractor up there.” When Geoff returned to Santa Barbara, he began working with local architect John Kelly on a small crew building spec homes. For nearly nine years, Geoff says with undisguised relish, “we had our hands in every facet of the trade, digging ditches and what have you.” After doing it all: framing houses, siding houses, and finishing houses, he says he just “kind of gravitated towards the finishing end of it,” and became a finish carpenter.
“When Geoff says he was ‘working on spec houses,’” Bruce interjects, “that’s a little bit of a disservice. John was a very talented designer-builder.” It was the 1970s, so many of the houses contained elements of redwood, sandstone, and plaster. “They weren’t just your typical homes. There was,” Bruce emphasizes, “a handcrafted element to them.”
The men met through a mutual friend at a party in Montecito. “We became friends first, then partners,” says Geoff. Soon after that initial meeting, Bruce left for Boston to attend architectural school. “I thought I wanted to be an architect,” he says, but after a couple of years, changed his mind. “Winter was coming on for the third time, and I just said, ‘What am I doing here?’ and came back.”
After rekindling their friendship, Giffin and Crane picked up a small job renovating dentist Steve Buchanan’s office. They discovered that Geoff’s finish talent and Bruce’s framing and foundation talents meshed well and from there began working on other projects together.
Bruce credits local builder Frank Thomas for giving them the start they needed. “God bless Frank Thomas,” says Bruce. “He was one of those guys who saw a couple of young guys, both newly wed, and who probably weren’t the cheapest, but he wanted to give us an opportunity to establish ourselves.”
After forming Giffin & Crane in 1986, they took on smaller re-modeling projects via word-of-mouth. The late ‘80s, however, witnessed an enormous building boom, and many larger new homes were being planned and built. “We’d grown up hands-on building those,” Bruce says, “but no one would really give us the chance to build one from the ground up, though we certainly believed in ourselves and our ability to do that.”
So, what seemed like a curse at the time – doing small jobs while missing out on the large homes and large profits that went along with them – “turned out,” Bruce opines, “to be a blessing in a way.”
He notes there has been “a sea change” in the art of building science since the mid-‘80s and many guidelines of that era turned out to have been misguided. “The fire department, for example, was saying ‘no vents in the eaves, no vents in the roofs,’ because that’s going to be a fire hazard,” Bruce recalls. He says builders and the fire department have since learned that without vents in the eaves, things rot, noting that, “A firestorm occurs once every thirty years, but rot occurs every day.”
At the time, crawl spaces were designed “almost like catacombs, for seismic reasons. Again, no air moving through there, so you had a lot of rot coming up in houses built in that timeframe.” Since they never got any of the big jobs, never built any of the big homes, they never had to re-do and/or correct any big problems those guidelines led to.
What finally lifted Giffin & Crane to a new level, Geoff recalls, “was Jamie and Marcia Constance selecting us to be their home builder in 1990.” They built one of the first homes – a formal Tuscan-style villa – in what was then called Las Entradas (now Ennisbrook). “They saw who we were,” Geoff says, “and gave us the opportunity to build their home. It is an extraordinary home and that was, for us, a huge moment.”
“Pat Scott (Masonry) was a good friend,” Geoff continues, “and he was in charge of the grounds; he helped give the Constances the reassurance they needed.” Pat has since died (of a brain aneurysm) but Giffin & Crane continues to work with Scott’s successor, Eddie Langhorne.
Boom To Bust
After the late ‘80s building boom, came the real estate bust of the early- to mid-‘90s that nearly put their new business out of business. Geoff recalls many days of simply sitting in their office “looking at each other and waiting for the phone to ring.” Bruce adds that they were fortunate in that they “had a lot of great contracts and a lot of great homes to build at the tail end” of the boom that sustained them. “Everyone said it was going to be a ‘short’ recession,” he says, “and of course it wasn’t in California for various reasons. Luckily, we had saved money.”
Curiously, it was the Painted Cave Fire of 1990 that had the perverse effect of putting many out-of-work builders and contractors back to work. “In a sense, the Santa Barbara building community got spared,” says Bruce, “by having to build six hundred new homes with out-of-town money (from the insurance companies). So that kind of bought a couple of years for us.”
The bottom came in 1993, which Bruce refers to as their Russian Winter. “It was brutal,” he recalls. “We literally went nine months without signing up a job.”
Giffin & Crane had gone from 45 employees to two and a half. “We were picking up small jobs, just doing what we could to keep money coming in and trying to hang on,” Geoff recounts.
Santa Barbara Bank & Trust came through with a large loan, something neither Bruce nor Geoff will ever forget. “They had belief in us,” Bruce says affectionately; “they’ve been an integral part of the team, particularly Phil Morreale. He is a wonderful banker,” Bruce continues, noting that Phil is “the kind of guy who likes to fish for shark offshore in a kayak.”
Staying Alive Through ‘95
A maxim making the rounds among real estate agents during that difficult time was “Stay alive through ’95,” and that proved fairly accurate, although things didn’t really pick up until late ’96. By then, the line had become “By ’97, it’ll be heaven.”
By 1997, interest rates had come down and a new law that allowed interest deduction on second homes created a shift in the economy; Giffin & Crane’s business – they were now capable of building everything from Tuscan villas to English stone houses to Southwestern to Cape Cod – began to grow along with that shift.
“We’ve always enjoyed building high-quality homes,” Bruce says. “For us it is very pleasing,” he adds, noting that, “we live in a place where there is a culture of that. This has been going on since the building of the great estates of the late 1800s. I think we’re part of that chain of adding to that quality of life, architecturally.”
Over the past 20 years, including renovations, remodels, and some 35 new homes, Giffin & Crane, now a $10-million-plus business with just under 50 employees, has stamped its imprimatur on nearly 350 homes.
Building costs have risen dramatically since Giffin & Crane was founded; $100 a square foot for upper-end homes was not an uncommon price in the mid-‘80s. Today, one can expect to spend from $400 to $600 (and more) a square foot to build a quality home, and over $1,000 a square foot to buy one.
Changes over the years include a greater use of manufactured lumber. “We don’t use much solid material anymore, except for exposed beams and two-by-fours,” Bruce says. Geoff explains that the advantages of using engineered products are that “they don’t shrink; they don’t move as much, and are probably less susceptible to termite damage.” He says there is a lot more steel in buildings now too, because of seismic requirements.
Giffin & Crane Small Projects
Before they became known as ‘those guys who build those big estates,’ much of their work was dedicated to smaller jobs, which is something both Geoff and Bruce see as a growth area once again. To respond to that perceived need, Cherilyn Milton, formerly leading designer for California Closet Company, has been named president of a new division: Giffin & Crane Projects. She is building her own team to tackle those small jobs with the same kind of efficiency and expertise Geoff and Bruce put into their larger projects.
While Giffin & Crane is known mostly for homebuilding, the company has done some high-end commercial projects: an extensive remodel of Wine Cask Restaurant among them. “It was a half-million-dollar job that had to be done in ten days,” Geoff recalls. It was finished on time and on budget. San Ysidro Ranch has been a Giffin & Crane account for many years; the company built the new two-bedroom Eucalyptus Cottage (designed by Jock Sewell) that now rents for nearly $4,000 a night; the new library and arts center at Crane School is a Giffin & Crane project, and they remodeled the Crane School auditorium some years ago. The renovation and restoration work – the kitchen, the sunken dining room, the pavilion, which the executive director now resides in – at Lotusland, is also a Giffin & Crane project, as was this year’s CALM Show House renovation of a George Washington Smith original.
Additionally, Giffin & Crane has been assisting the Santa Cruz Island Foundation in restoration projects on the former Dr. Stanton Ranch on the island, whose buildings date back to the 1890s. They are currently doing what Geoff calls “cleanup work – changing out doors and other decorating things” – at Montecito Inn.
A Legacy Continues
Design changes from 20 years ago include more openness, bigger rooms, media rooms, combining family rooms with kitchens, and a greater awareness of melding indoors with the outdoors. “We live here because of the climate,” Bruce opines. “Landscape architecture is probably more important now, what the outdoor space looks like and how it relates to the house.
“Outdoor landscaping has become a field of expertise,” Bruce suggests, “because of drainage and water management issues related to hardscapes, patios, terraces, and other things of that nature, like retaining walls.” He says they “learned a lot” from Pat Scott, who “set the standard for stonework in Montecito,” and suggests that much of what one sees in Montecito is his legacy.
Geoff adds that they learned a great deal from Oswald Da Ros, founder of Santa Barbara Stone, and that his legacy is evident throughout Montecito too.
As far as we can see, that legacy must also include the 35 new homes (and counting) built by the expert late-twentieth-century, early twenty-first century team of Bruce Giffin and Geoff Crane.
Happy Anniversary guys!
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