Saying ‘Yes’ to Leadership: Lessons from an Award-Winning Custom Home Builder

Sean Sullivan

Sean Sullivan
2023 Custom Home Builder of the Year

With nearly 30 years of experience in custom home building and design, Sean Sullivan and his wife, Laura, are a force to be reckoned with in the residential construction industry. The couple own where they design, build and furnish custom, sustainable homes in western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina.

At this year’s International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, Sullivan was named NAHB’s 2023 Custom Home Builder of the Year, thanks to a surprise nomination by his wife.

After winning the award, Sullivan spoke with NAHB about importance of getting involved at the local, state and national level of membership, his dedication to green building practices, and more.

How did eco-friendly and energy efficient building become such a big part of Living Stone Design + Build’s mission?

When my wife and I were introduced to the Energy Star program and other green building programs in early 2007, we learned that statistically people who live in green homes are happier, healthier and more productive than people who don’t. I thought, “Why wouldn’t we want to do something better every time we do it? Why would we want to build the same house twice?”

We built our first certified green home in 2007 as a model home in a new neighborhood. By the time we wrapped up, the recession hit Asheville and the development team disappeared — so there was no sales team to sell our house.

We ended up buying the home for ourselves and living in it for seven years, which was a learning experience. We thought we had done everything right. At the time, testing for radon wasn’t part of the certification process. We didn’t test for radon until buyers requested it years later. The test came back at 14 picocuries (pCi) per liter. At 4 pCi, the EPA recommends installing a ventilation system. That was a pivot point where Laura and I realized we don’t know what we don’t know and there are factors outside of our design and building process that need to be considered.

That path eventually led us to want to deliver homes with no smell. You know that new car smell you get? Those are chemicals you’re smelling. So we worked hard to be able to deliver a home with no smell. That led us to eventually sourcing and building non-toxic furniture.

You’ve served in several leadership roles at the local, state and national level, and have taught and mentored through the North Carolina Builder Institute. What keeps you coming back to leadership, education and mentoring?

It’s really about “iron sharpening iron.” I owe so much to my local association. I said “yes” back in the early 2000s to joining the board of directors, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I had all these builder mentors who were helping me, maturing me and encouraging me to be the best leader I could become.

From these roles at my local association, I was introduced to state events and started getting involved with the state association by joining committees and taking on leadership roles. In 2015, I ultimately became president of the North Carolina Home Builders Association. That led me to the North Carolina Builder Institute (NCBI), where I discovered my passion for teaching and found that when you teach and invest in others, it comes right back to you.

North Carolina recently passed a continuing education requirement, so now the role as an instructor at NCBI has become even more instrumental. Between regular classes and continuing education for the licensing board, I probably teach 500 to 1,000 North Carolina builders each year. I find it extremely rewarding and enjoyable. You can see when you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life and business.

I also became more involved at NAHB and chaired committees. What an amazing group of individuals — both the staff and the volunteers. It’s very hard to parallel. We’re fortunate in the building industry to have a huge advocate for us like NAHB. Then, if you roll into something like the [a networking tool for top executives of NAHB member firms comprising similar builders, remodelers and other industry professionals from non-competing markets] that’s just the cherry on top. My wife and I joined years ago.

When you learned that you won NAHB’s Custom Builder of the Year Award, what was the first thing that came to mind?

“How did this happen?”

Truly, my wife and I were at the beach, and I got a call from [NAHB Director of Business Development Director] Marcia Childs saying, “Hey, Sean, you’re coming to IBS, right?” We usually go every year, but this year we decided we weren’t going to do it because our Builder 20 Club meeting was the next week, and we were kind of burned out after some stuff we had been going through. I said, “Well, Marcia, we decided not to go this year because it was too tight of a timetable.” She told me, “You really need to go. You’ve been nominated for something.” I said, “Have I been nominated, or do I really need to consider?” She said, “You really need to consider.”

I looked over at Laura at that point, and she said, “I nominated you for Custom Home Builder of the Year.” I was so surprised and blessed. I was not expecting it. That was the coolest part. It was very humbling, and I am still extremely grateful.

We ended up booking a flight and took our 17-year-old son. He’d heard about us going (to IBS) over the years, but had never been himself. He also had never worn a suit, so I got him to do both. It was a really wonderful experience.

Aside from your award, what were some of your favorite moments from this year’s ?

The show floor is overwhelming, but it’s amazing. Every single time I go I bring something back. I brought some products back this year and have implemented them already.

The closing concert is one of our favorite things. We don’t go to many concerts during the year, so we almost always try to at least go to that concert, which is always a blast.

Probably the most important thing is . We try to always get a tour of that. It gives us inspiration for what we want to bring back to our own market.

Any trends that your fellow custom builders should keep an eye on in the months ahead?

My wife would say colors are huge this year — earthy tones and textures. I think aging in place is a huge trend, because the baby boomers are at that phase now, and the Gen X-ers are thinking about it because we have parents that are aging-in-place.

Certified homes are important, and a lot of people don't think about it. When you buy a car, what is the first thing you look at? It's the miles per gallon. I think eventually all homes are going to have a HERS score, so when you buy a certified home, the first thing you look at is your HERS score.

For novices just starting out in the custom building industry, what are some best practices for achieving success?

Try to find continuing education, and hire well. You've got to perfect your hiring process. None of us knows the best way, but you have to start somewhere. That’s where most small businesses struggle, including ours when we started out.

Once we started putting a focus on training and accountability, everything changed. You have to communicate what your expectations are and hold up that standard. You've got to build a strong culture in your company.

The Custom Home Builder of the Year Award is presented annually as part of the NAHB Honors during . Learn more about the Custom Home Builder of the Year award, including past winners, on nahb.org.

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