The world is three

quarters water.

Start living like it.



Pilot Builders, a design/build firm that has been building homes in the Lake Oconee, Georgia, area since 1998, has several very simple rules that have made its nine-year old business grow to about 10 custom-built homes a year. These are homes, said partner Douglas Tumlin, that range from $400,000 up to over $2 million. And they are for homeowners who are well educated, savvy and have high expectations.


Tumlin and his partner, Chris Hilsman, ask good questions. They then listen carefully to the answers. They give realistic time lines. They present detailed budgets. And they take their customer service seriously. Tumlin and Hilsman are the ideal partners (as well as being childhood friends): Tumlin offers extensive business experience, while Hilsman is very talented and experienced in construction and mechanics. Tumlin explained that Hilsman worked with a large commercial construction company in Miami, Florida, before returning to his lake area home to join a couple of local custom homebuilders prior to starting Pilot Builders. Tumlin, with a business degree from the University of Georgia, ran a marketing company, then managed real estate purchasing and renovating before becoming the business manager of a contracting company in Athens.


Pilot Builders’ main focus, said Tumlin, is designing and building custom homes on homeowner lots. They will work with architects, they will design themselves, and they will work with homeowners and realtors to determine the kinds of homes that will fit on a certain lot. “Clients may have ideas for a house, or have plans, and they need someone to pull it all together for them,’’ said Tumlin. “We assist with surveying, topographic mapping, site planning, soil testing, landscape planning and everything else they need for permitting and architectural submittals.’’


For many of their clients, proximity is not a given – they may be executives who live on the other side of the continent. They need a team they can trust, said Tumlin, and they need ready access to visual aids that help them in the decision-making process. “Many times, clients have a good foundation on which to base their decisions – they know what they’ve had before and what they want to be different. They are very educated consumers, and they want all the information and all the possible choices; they really depend on their builder to know the many different opportunities out there and to bring the best possible recommendations,’’ said Tumlin.


The Pilot Builder’s website ( has almost every product that is used in the building industry to help inform clients. In addition, Tumlin and his associates regularly attend seminars and conventions. “There’s a lot of new building science information, with many studies we try to stay abreast of with regard to air purification, moisture control, fresh air exchange and insulation. We have a mechanical engineer out of North Carolina who advises us on the size of heating and air conditioning systems and designs that are needed,’’ said Tumlin.


So Tumlin and Hilsman get to the table well-informed. Next, they begin to ask questions. Even after they present sketches to their clients, this is often not enough. “A common challenge is that our clients have a hard time visualizing, in the design phase,’’ said Hilsman. “We help them by giving them visual examples – such as taking them to houses, so they can actually see products. They also may have a hard time making decisions. Michelle Combs is exceptional with advising them during this phase.’’


Combs, their selections coordinator, is involved with clients from the first meeting onward. She said she will help them select everything from roof shingles (and Pilot Builders uses at the minimum 30 to 40-year architectural shingles, as well as other maintenance-free, high-quality materials) to kitchen appliances. “My position in this company is one of the ways Pilot Builders is set apart from many of the other homebuilders in this area,’’ said Combs. “I’m the liaison between the builder and the homeowner, which means I wear many hats. I make sure everything is organized for the homeowner and builder. I keep us all on task to ensure that all deadlines are met, and the homeowners are confident in their choices and completely pleased with their new homes.’’


Combs’ role is one of the reasons Pilot Builders can design and build a home smoothly, on time and on budget – a rare combination in the custom home building industry. “Even before plans are drawn, I make sure that all selections work together throughout the house. I take their ideas and help them evaluate what will work and not work, according to their needs and budgets.’’


Budgets, said Tumlin, is a big issue. Therefore, they present an itemized, detailed budget list that they go over with the client. “From preliminary discussions, we have a good feel for what they are going to put in a home. It’s a partnership, truly, and we do both fixed price and cost plus budgets, whatever the client is more comfortable with. Either way, they need a realistic allowance schedule,’’ said Tumlin.


The other crucial schedule is the timeline, which adheres to another list of details. “We have been very accurate on hitting our schedules,” said Tumlin, saying that the key to this is giving clients realistic expectations. “Sometimes it is a little longer than they want to hear on the front end, but at least it’s something realistic they can plan on.’’


To finish off the job doesn’t mean to walk off the job and not be in touch again. Pilot Builders, explained Tumlin, is based in a small town where word-of-mouth is crucial. He feels that they build long-term relationships with their clients that are based on commitment, communication, trust and reliability. To that end, each client has his own private page on the Pilot Builders’ website, where he can view the progress of the home, communicate with staff, and see budget and selection reports. By being involved in creating a home from the inception, said Tumlin, they eliminate surprises during construction.


Tumlin, Hilsman and Combs stand by a few homeowner/builder tips that have helped them build good working relationships:


  Be open about how you see your house, and share all details that will impact the design, including your budget.
  A picture is worth a thousand words: clip pictures of homes and details that you like.
  When you bring in a design you like, you may like three or four things about it, but once we start asking detailed questions, we may discover six or seven you don’t like. We design a house that is uniquely suited to you.
  Our whole team knows when a client wants to be very involved, and when one wants us to help in the decision making. Often, they look to us for guidance. Listening is a crucial element. This is a home for you, not for us.
  Pilot Builders is not a huge corporation, but a strong team of professionals specializing in each phase of custom building. Every client gets one-on-one attention.

The design build process works something like this:

  Initial design meeting
    Wish list, ideal floor plan, magazine pictures
  Site planning
  Lot survey, topography map and soil test
  Conceptual design
  Bubble diagrams, design sketches, spatial relationships
  • Preliminary plans, 1/8” scale
    Front and rear elevations, floor plans continued, refinement of style
  Preliminary specification development
    Definition of design, features, interior and exterior finishes
  Preliminary cost analysis
  Preliminary estimate, based on preliminary plans
  Preliminary plan revision
  Continuation of plan revision and budget-related changes
  • Final construction drawings
    Complete set of documents to build structure, ¼” scale
  Final site plans
  House placement, erosion control plans, and landscape plans
  Detailed construction specifications
  Complete set of detailed specs, list all finishing details
  • Final cost estimate
    Complete line item, construction estimate total and cost to build home