Chris Burch Builds Dreams and Dream Homes
By Sallie W. Boyles Photography courtesy of Grand Bay Construction
Many, including some of the most accomplished individuals, spend decades on various pursuits before realizing their intended calling. Colonel Harland Sanders, the iconic founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, was sixty-two when he opened his first restaurant—after working on the railroad, running a motel, and numerous other jobs. Others identify their passions early on. Microsoft mogul Bill Gates, for instance, started programming computers at thirteen, and Chris Burch, president of Grand Bay Construction in Grayton Beach, Florida, decided as a boy that he wanted to build.
During the summer in high school, Chris went to work shadowing his uncle, a builder in Chicago. The hands-on experience helped him decide to attend Auburn University for his undergraduate degree in building science. He and his college buddy, Lee Carroll, also started their own remodeling company. “When it was time to graduate,” says Chris, “Lee and I thought about continuing, but we were young and inexperienced.” Apprehensive over making a mistake that would shut them down, the friends parted ways. To gain experience, Chris accepted a position with Rudolph and Sletten, Inc., a prominent, California-based construction company that would expose him to large commercial projects.
Shortly before leaving Auburn, Chris met a young lady in a coffee shop. “She asked me what I was doing after graduation,” he relays of their conversation. He told her about a backpacking trip of Europe he planned before relocating to the San Francisco Bay area for his job. Coincidentally, her parents were living in California for her father’s corporate position, so she invited him to visit. “I later took her up on her offer and called,” Chris says, remembering how he and her father, Ed Lewis, immediately hit it off. “Within five minutes he was saying we should go into business someday,” Chris recalls.
Three years later, Chris returned to Auburn for his MBA with a minor in economic development. “I like everything related to building—architecture, engineering, business, real estate, economic development,” he says, mentioning that he has both real estate and home inspection licenses. “I’m always trying to learn better ways to do things. I’m also interested in the macro- and micro-level issues involving how cities grow.” Chris finds that his economic insights enable him to spot up-and-coming areas.
People always ask if my family was in the business,” Chris says. “I had to teach myself how to use a screwdriver!” Introduced to building when some houses near his home were under construction, he would wait for the workers to leave each day and then check on their progress. “I’d walk around the houses and smell the pine, trying to guess what each room would be,” Chris recalls. “It got into my system.
Chris credits Ed Lewis for guiding him to Northwest Florida. He was completing grad school in 2004 when Ed, who’d moved back to Auburn with his family, revealed how much potential the Panhandle presented for a new construction company. Ed would provide the financial backing and Chris would do the building. Already a fan of the area, Chris says, “As a child, my family would vacation just about every summer in Panama City.” Proclaiming “Let’s do it!” they launched in 2005. Although the two are no longer partners, they remain great friends.
The market was booming, but Grand Bay Construction had to build a reputation. “Our first project down here was a one-car garage,” says Chris. As he began to build homes, Chris did not share the attitude of some who were cranking out houses on spec, thinking they were “too good” to deal directly with homeowners. “I’d learned that to be diversified you needed a presence in the remodel business.” A few years later, when the collapse occurred and work became scarce, he divulges, “We actually did sidewalk jobs for the Florida DOT, funded with stimulus money.”
Today, in addition to residential construction and renovations, Grand Bay also specializes in building out commercial spaces according to clients’ unique specifications. “We pride ourselves on building anything the client wants,” Chris says.
Curious and open-minded about unusual requests, Chris and his team are known for custom homes that are nothing less than spectacular. “We’re blessed to work in an area that attracts many talented architects,” he says. Occasionally, he admits, “I’ll look at the architectural plans and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ But a cutting-edge project with two window walls meeting in the corner—that’s the fun part of my job!” In fact, instead of bearing a distinctive Grand Bay look, the company’s portfolio shows a range of styles relative to each owner’s vision.
Since 2009, the ministry has donated construction management services to facilitate life-changing projects in coordination with other mission organizations.
A glass and concrete Gulf-front beauty under way now in Seagrove Beach particularly excites Chris. “It’s super out of the ordinary,” he says, calling attention to the angled and curved steel beams. When completed in 2016, the home will encompass more than eight thousand square feet.
Whether for a contemporary home or an Old Florida–style cottage, the finishing details, inside and out, certainly enhance the “wow” factor and pose interesting challenges. “We can get almost any material,” says Chris, naming old Chicago brick and Italian stone as examples. “We’ll find whatever the homeowner wants. It’s an interesting time to be in the building business, with all the advances in technology and the array of new products being introduced into the market. We’re also understanding and adopting stricter wind and energy codes.” Likewise, he says, “We’re always willing to try new products and cutting-edge techniques that don’t conflict with tried-and-true methods.”
In the business of fulfilling dreams, Chris says, “I never dreamed that I would be able to make a living here one day doing what I was created to do.” His purpose, Chris further realizes, extends well beyond Northwest Florida to Central America, South America, and Africa (so far) through the time and expertise he gives to Third Lens Ministries, an Atlanta-based nonprofit founded by his college buddy and onetime business partner, Lee Carroll.
Since 2009, the ministry has donated construction management services to facilitate life-changing projects in coordination with other mission organizations. “We’re focused on delivering expertise for needs like site planning, researching, running costs, designing architectural plans, and finding people to oversee and do the work,” says Chris. Their largest endeavor to date entails assisting Orphan’s Heart (based in Lakeland, Florida) in developing a full community in the Dominican Republic with a hundred single-family homes, a community transformation center, and a church plant.
Typically, North Point Ministries, also based in Atlanta, vets and refers projects to Third Lens, but Chris found one opportunity by being in the right place at the right time. Invited to a church service in nearby DeFuniak Springs, Florida, Chris says he had to push himself to attend. “On that day,” he reveals, “I heard a man speak about building a live-in job-training facility in Uganda.” When Chris later pressed the speaker about the details, he knew the ambitious undertaking’s success required professional planning and oversight. Third Lens has since committed multiple resources to the endeavor, including months of on-site construction management.
Considering all of his so-called chance encounters in life, from finding homes under construction as a kid to meeting Ed’s daughter in a coffee shop, Chris believes each has ultimately led him to serve others. “God had a plan for me,” he says.
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