Builder Without Borders, John Finton

Category: Architect Published: Monday, 19 July 2010 16:39 Hits: 4920

Finton builds houses for some of the most demanding clients in the world, including Simon Cowell, Eddie Murphy, and Ben Stiller, as well as hotel and night club impresario Sam Nazarian. He has executed designs by renowned architects like Richard Landry and many other AD top architects and designers, such as Frederick Fisher, Moore Ruble Yudell, Jennifer Post, and Marc Appleton.

Recently, riding a new, unprecedented wave of prosperity, his practice has expanded to include clients in Russia and Asia. These new clients hire John Finton to build the kinds of homes that have never been seen before in their native lands.

“It’s amazing how much wealth has been created in countries like Russia and China,” Finton observes. “There’s a whole new generation of people there who haven’t seen this level of wealth in generations, maybe centuries. Even two years ago, this market didn’t exist.”

This new elite is sophisticated, worldly and well-traveled, as well as rich. They have seen grand homes in the U.S. and Europe, and they want that same level of craftsmanship in their own homes and, in some cases, the same internationally known architects who designed the house they admired in Bel Air, Beverly Hills and other wealthy enclaves around the world. They want what their American peers have, and John Finton is the man who can give it to them.

In the beginning, it was not easy. “A house is a process,” Finton explains. “America has become the center for fine artisan building.” Many foreign builders, confronted for the first time with exacting and demanding designs by America’s leading architects and designers, may be confused and overwhelmed by the designs’ technical demands. “If a contractor has not been exposed to this kind of building before, if he is unfamiliar with the materials and techniques it requires, he’s going to be lost.”

Finton has embarked on an ambitious mission to train local contractors and artisans in these emerging economic powerhouses in the art and science of fine building. “I am helping them learn how to put the building together from a technical standpoint: where to obtain the best materials, how to create the finishes they want,” says the builder extraordinaire.

Materials and finishes are the vital components of Finton’s craft as they are the elements that make an architect’s artistic conception a three-dimensional, fully functioning reality, distinguishing a house that is merely large from a home that is indisputably grand. Finton is fanatical about the materials he works with and will travel literally to the ends of the earth to find the right ones: French limestone, Italian marble, antique stone fireplaces and door surrounds salvaged from demolished European estates. His willingness to travel great distances, even take great risks, to make sure his client’s vision is realized to perfection has earned him the playful nickname “the Indiana Jones of builders.” He will fly to a stone quarry in Italy to make sure his client gets precisely the right marble for a floor in Beverly Park, and he once traveled, illegally, across hundreds of miles of Middle Eastern desert in a rickety Jeep to make sure that a master stone carver in Jordan was fulfilling a commission that had been made in Israel. He didn’t have his passport with him.

“I didn’t even have a passport until I was over thirty!” he laughs. “Now, I fill five pages a year. The amount of traveling I do helps me in my work. Clients get inspired by what they see in their travels. They remember bits of architectural details they have seen—fountains or doors or windows—and they want to hold on to that memory, that feeling, by incorporating into their new home the things they have seen. Because I travel so much, I’ve usually seen the same things, or something similar. If I haven’t seen it, I will make a point of going to look at it.”

His new, foreign clientele appreciates his cosmopolitan perspective and takes full advantage of the builder’s vast knowledge and know-how. “I’m working on a project in Moscow now,” says Finton. “It’s a contemporary version of a Prairie Style house, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s 65,000 square feet. The roof came from Vermont, the exterior stone is from France, the windows and doors are Italian, and all of the interior wood and cabinetry is from the U.S. We’ve been working on it for eighteen months; it will take a total of three years to complete.”

Along the way, he has encountered both logistical challenges—one entire room had to be shipped in sections from the U.S.—and cross-cultural misunderstandings. “In Russia, it took over one week to install one window because they didn’t have the proper tools handy. My team was better prepared and we had flown halfway around the world!” Since the house has 800 doors and windows, it was an unacceptable pace. “It’s a different mindset,” Finton opines. “In Russia, workers want to go home at 3:00.”

He is training foreign contractors in American-style work ethics as well as building techniques. “The Chinese are incredibly industrious,” he says in wonder. “They are willing to work 24/7, but they aren’t used to the quality of materials we use, and they don’t have the level of skills that we are accustomed to, but they are very curious, and eager to learn.”

Finton continues to oversee a multiplicity of demanding projects: an Arts and Crafts–inspired house in London, a group of houses in a resort development in Mexico, and an ambitious, “sustainable” house in Malibu for writer/director Keenan Ivory Wayans, among others. While his business expands in scope, it does not alter its focus: John Finton builds extraordinary houses. He has no interest in hotels or high rises.

“Building a house is as much of an art as a science,” he says. “It involves complex materials and precise building techniques. Everything we build is unique and one-of-a-kind. We have built houses in similar vernaculars, but no two are identical in any sense. It’s very specialized, building custom homes for a client base like mine: they have much higher expectations of their home than they would of any other project. It’s not just a question of dollars and cents. It’s where you live, it’s where you raise your family, it’s how you live.”

John Finton has made a career of understanding what architects want and how his clients live. “I’m pathologically accommodating,” he deadpans. It’s a little more complicated that that, though. “You have to please the entire entourage: the client, the architect, the business manager, the eco-consultant. At this level, there are a lot of opinions involved, and they all have to be satisfied.”

He has the ability to express in wood, stone, steel and glass his client’s most cherished dreams of what a home should be and, because of this, he frequently builds more than one home for individual clients, or houses for several members of the same family. The level of trust put in Finton is extraordinary.

“Life is short,” says the master builder. “I have to love the people I work with and love what I do. Most of the architects I have worked with have become personal friends, and so have most of my clients.”

Experience, perfectionism and the commitment to pleasing the client have made John Finton one of the preeminent builders of luxury custom homes in America, and now, around the world. “I’ve been responsible for over a billion dollars’ worth of residential construction,” he says. “That’s a lot of sticks and bricks.”