Building a new era at Wright Builders: Longtime construction company changes hands

By MADDIE FABIAN

For the Recorder

Published: 02-09-2023 3:41 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Having taken over ownership of longtime construction company Wright Builders Inc. from founder Jonathan Wright, 40-year-old Seth Lawrence-Slavas says he is committed to continuing the company’s progressive and sustainable vision.

During its five decades in business, Wright Builders Inc. has made a name for itself locally for its dedication to sustainability, high performance and net-zero energy consumption. The company’s projects have ranged from residential renovation and construction of custom homes, to commercial jobs like hedge and fence restoration at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

The company also engages in larger-scale institutional projects. Its work at Village Hill Northampton resulted in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified neighborhoods and more than 90 buildings.

“Construction in its simplest form is a destructive process, in many ways, from an environmental standpoint,” Lawrence-Slavas said. “It’s really easy to do bad, and so you have to work on doing well.”

Lawrence-Slavas attributes his interest in sustainable building and construction to his young life. Growing up in Wendell, he was raised in an environment of educators, engineers and timber framers. Instilled within him at 4 years old was the idea that “if you don’t have it, you make it, and if it’s broken, you fix it.”

A graduate of the Building and Construction Technology program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Lawrence-Slavas joined Wright Builders in 2019 as a project development engineer. He was quickly promoted to vice president of project development in 2020 and became president of the company in March 2021.

“Seth has a level of human caring and intuition about the well-being of others that’s really outsized,” said Wright, 70. “It’s essential to being a leader in an organization.”

Back when Wright founded the company, the construction and building community cared about efficiency and low-cost materials. There was no widespread emphasis on sustainability because there was little known urgency to the energy crisis and other environmental issues. But from the start, Wright was pushing the walls of sustainability.

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“I like the life sense of being in a balanced place,” Wright said, “where our buildings can cause us to think about the way we live differently, so they can take care of us as we take care of them (and) so the built environment becomes a force for good, not a necessary evil.”

The company takes cues from the Living Building Challenge, which encourages the construction of regenerative and self-sufficient buildings that connect people with the natural world. In 2018, Wright Builders constructed the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, which was certified as a “living building” by the International Living Future Institute. The building meets high standards for green building, generates its own electricity and collects its own water.

Lawrence-Slavas aims to continue Wright’s vision of forward-thinking sustainability, but with a new leadership style and an increased emphasis on affordability. Meanwhile, Wright will remain the company’s senior advisor.

“I think the next phase of Wright Builders really is (making sure affordability goes) hand in hand with an energy-efficient house,” Lawrence-Slavas said. “The bottom line is, those are the people that need it the most. They’re the ones that can’t afford an $800 electric bill.”

Additionally, affordable housing oftentimes “means small and poor quality,” according to Wright.

“We just can’t do that. … It’s unhealthy. It’s bad for the environment,” Wright said.

“Both Jonathan and I feel very strongly about affordability and working with partners in that field that will push the high-performance affordability,” Lawrence-Slavas added. “It’s a lot of lift, it’s a lot of work and the funding isn’t always, ‘Here you go.’”

Currently, Wright Builders is involved in two major projects. The first is an addition to the North Amherst Library, which will include more accessible features and a new community meeting space.

The other is the Pine Meadows housing development project in Northampton, which is one of the first to mandate net-zero housing. The houses are, in fact, net positive, meaning they produce more energy than they use.

“The most exciting thing for us is that the building environment that we make has a positive impact on the health and well-being and productivity of the people in it,” Wright explained. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

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