Geobarns Founder is Building a Lifestyle

Sunday, December 02, 2012
White River Junction — Geobarns LLC founder and driving force George Abetti is not a simple man.

In fact, some of his 62 years have been complicated, and every day he deals with sets of complex business problems that he boils down to a consistent routine, thanks to the Pythagorean theorem.

And Abetti is evangelical about his work that he sees on many levels. He’ll tell you he’s not just constructing barns, or barns that have become homes, office buildings, wineries and studios. He’ll say he’s building a lifestyle, an environmental statement and something beautiful that will endure long after he’s gone.

“I’m really passionate about what I’m doing, and so many of my clients really want to deal with people who care about what they’re doing,” Abetti said during a recent interview at the job site where he’s constructing a barn-like structure that will house American Crafted Spirits distillery in Windsor Industrial Park.

“I think our clients are passionate about what they’re doing, and they like to do business with people who feel the same way,” he said, adding that for many people a building represents one of the most significant financial outlays that they will make in a lifetime. That venerability puts the builder in a position of trust to use their money wisely.

“About one-third of our business is now residential, and I really think that a home is one of the few material things that people really feel matters. They want it to be built right, and they want to trust that it will be built right. And when you’re building a house for someone, you have to honor that trust.”

That philosophy and his construction methods have apparently paid off for Abetti, who has built more than 200 structures since he decided to make Geobarns a full-time business nine years ago.

The design-build company is based in White River Junction. The operation includes architect and Middlebury, Vt., resident David Hamilton and Abetti’s wife, Susanne Abetti, who also is the head of the Hartford Historical Society. Geobarns has multiple construction crews and is building nationwide with a backlog of customers, waiting as long as a year for a building, Abetti said.

Construction on the American Crafted Spirits building in Windsor is nearing completion, owner Peter Jillson said last week, noting that the building process and working with the Geobarns crew has been “a wonderful experience.

“George and his architect partner, David Hamilton, spent countless hours with us trying to get things right, before we even signed a contract with them. And it’s not just them, the crew on the job is clearly care about what they do and explaining what they’re doing. They couldn’t have been better,” Jillson said.

Abetti said he’s tried to be very selective about his crew members and who he uses as subcontractors, making choices have benefitted the business.

“We’ve been very fortunate. Our business has blossomed since we started full time in 2003, and we’re working all over the country. We do all kinds of things. We’re on a five-story, 20,000-square-foot-building in downtown Napa (California), and I’m going to build a little pottery studio in Bethel for some people there.”

About 30 percent of the company’s business is commercial, equal to the residential construction and about 40 percent is multiple use hybrid outbuildings, he said.

“This is a fun business, but it can become stressful trying to keep all of the jobs straight and on schedule.”

In a much-told story, Abetti, a 1972 Yale University graduate and a former preacher, traces his start with barn construction back to a rough patch in his life in the early 1990s. After his marriage fell apart and he lost his pastorate, the English major with a master’s degree in divinity needed to find a way to support his children who were living with him.

After he helped his brother to build a traditional stick-built barn in Connecticut, a nearby neighbor asked him to construct a larger horse barn. The budget was $17,000, and Abetti’s bid was $3,000 higher. He needed the job, so he figured out a way to cut the costs without sacrificing quality or his profit by using diagonal bracing instead of conventional studs.

With the diagonal framing he eliminated the need for plywood sheeting on the outside of the building and the strapping that would have been required for the ship-lap siding.

From that barn, he developed the unusual building system, which not only uses diagonal bracing, but also free-span trusses with buttress beams, as the basis for Geobarns.

“We use the Pythagorean theorem (a formula used to determine the sides and the hypotenuse of a right triangle) and calculators all the time” to make the angle cuts, he said, noting that a 16-foot two-by-six can provide multiple pieces of bracing with only an inch and a half of waste. “It takes a little longer, but we have it down.

“Not only is it a cost saving because we use less material, but we’ve also eliminated almost all of our waste. We will build an entire building, and we can just throw it in the back of a pickup truck,” he said.

The system of building used by Geobarns allows long spans that could be replicated by using steel, but using wood not only is less expensive, but it also provides strength and gives the structures the look and feel of timber-frame construction, Hamilton said last week. “It’s much more attractive and cost less.”

Using conventionally-sawn lumber in an intelligent way also eliminates the waste, he said. The diagonal studs, which are easy to cut with a chop saw once you figure out the math, also keep the building staying plumb and level, and eliminate the need for plywood sheeting on the outside that serves the same purpose. “On a 6,000-square-foot building, I’ve seen the total waste take up nothing more than a couple of wheelbarrow loads,” Hamilton said.

Recently, Abetti and Geobarns also developed new methods for building cantilevered porch roofs and hanging porch decks from the roofs without support from below. The innovation enhances the aesthetics of buildings, doesn’t increase the original footprint and lowers the cost for the addition, he said.

After building that first barn, Abetti went back to school, got a master’s degree in counseling and worked as a counselor with Bradford, Vt., school system. For almost a decade, he confined barn-building to summers and off-time, and when his children were older and he had the business established, he started building full time.

The buildings go up in a hurry — about one week per 500 square feet or 30 days on average — and can be roughed in for $35 to $40 a foot. A completed house runs an average of about $120 a foot, he said.

Geobarns will do about $2 million in construction this year and is averaging between 10 and 20 projects a year, “although (the buildings) are getting much larger, so the number (each year) will go down.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com.