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Tony Doyle.

Tony Doyle

When Tony Doyle of Kenai started his construction business in 1983, he planned to build 50 homes in 1990. That was before the building industry collapsed with the plummeting price of oil. If things go well this year, Doyle, 31, will design and build three homes.

"The bust was the best thing, in a perverted way, that ever happened to me," says Doyle. Previously on the track to becoming a real estate developer, today he prides himself on building not just houses, but homes.

"Quality is really important to me. Now I'm doing what I've wanted to do since I was a kid," he says.

Doyle's residence is marked by a house-shaped sign for his business, Creative Builders. What appears to be an access road turns out to be a long driveway ending at a Cape Cod-style house under construction. Lumber, tools, several pair of skis, and an unfinished porch surround the front door.

Doyle received a $10,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Regional Affairs to retrofit his 35-year-old home to standards set by the Alaska Craftsman Home Program. The program is designed to educate home builders and buyers about the benefits of energy efficiency.

When finished, the house will have a small office with a counter for customers. Temporarily, business is conducted at a glossy, hand-made wooden table in the kitchen. Although daylight is still visible through a crack in one corner, Doyle estimates when the retrofit is finished his annual heating costs will be cut in half. He collects and studies his Enstar bills as if they were report cards.

Doyle, president of the Kenai Peninsula Builders Association, has watched the exodus of more than half of the licensed builders in the state. At the end of 1985, there were more than 7,150 licensed contractors in Alaska, according to statistics from the state Division of Occupational Licensing. In March of this year, there were 3,039. Membership in the peninsula builder's association dropped from 90 at the peak of the construction boom to 37 today, according to Doyle.

Those who stayed had to redefine their occupation. Doyle changed the name of his business from Northern Sun Construction to Creative Builders to reflect his emphasis on quality and his willingness to work with the customer.

At the bottom of the slump, however, Doyle's business wasn't producing enough income to support him. In 1987, Doyle built two houses and climbed Mount McKinley. In 1988, he spent the summer as a deckhand on a fishing boat in Bristol Bay, pounded a few nails in Fairbanks in the fall and spent the winter working on an oil rig.

Doyle also began to work with real estate brokers and other contractors in the state to build a more reputable construction industry. In February, he traveled to Juneau to lobby for mandatory building inspections for all homes built with Alaska Housing Finance Corp. loans. The state Home Builder's Association also backed legislation that would require residential contractor licensing and education. The organization is also working to establish sensible thermal energy standards.

The goal is not to eliminate competition, Doyle says. "I just want it to be competition that's good for everybody's business. We got left with a black eye during the last boom."

In the market for a home in 1988, Jeff and Linda Koenings were not impressed with the inventory left by a horde of builders who took advantage of the profitable climate of the early '80's. Says Jeff Koenings, "We were amazed. We said, `There isn't anything out there we want to buy.'"

The couple interviewed several builders before asking Doyle to help them design and build a house in Soldotna. Doyle's interest in energy-efficiency and indoor air quality were big selling points, especially because Linda Koenings has an allergy condition.

The Koening's 3,450-square-foot home was finished in November. The thermostat stays at 65 degrees, but its occupants say the house is warm.

"There is no stuffiness, no staleness, no fumes. It makes coming home to your house something you want to do instead of something you have to do," says Jeff Koenings.

He refers to Doyle's business style as "user-friendly." "Most builders just want a blueprint and then they don't want to see you for four months," adds Koenings.

Designing is Doyle's favorite part of the business and one of the more rewarding aspects of home building. "There was not an architect involved, and I like to keep it that way," Doyle adds. "If I couldn't do that I wouldn't be a builder; I'd be in school to become an architect."

He notes his designs are not rigid, because what people like on paper, they sometimes don't in three dimensions. Linda Koenings thought the large round window over the front entry was too low after it was installed. Doyle took it out and moved it up.

Jeff Koenings asked Doyle to round a square corner on the second floor landing. "And he was right," admits Doyle.

Also added during construction was a child-sized door on the second floor. Adults have to duck to enter. Down three stairs is a playroom with pitched walls, a miniature kitchen and often a small cook - one of the Koening's two daughters.

"I think building a house should be one of the most exciting things in a person's life," says Doyle. After building a house together, an experience that has ruined many relations, Doyle remains friends with the Koenings, who let Doyle show their home to prospective customers. "I've got my own key," Doyle says.

The home builder came to the peninsula from Phoenix, Ariz., in 1977. He says, "I came to Alaska for adventure, to seek my fortune, and to climb the mountains. It's so good for the spirit to have that wilderness so close."

Doyle married a year ago. He is active in the Kenai Christian Church, and a member of the Peninsula Dancers, a local troupe of jazz, modern and classical dancers.

Seeking a fortune is secondary; Doyle loves his career as a homebuilder. "By no means am I getting extremely wealthy on the business. I'm remodeling a lot of bathrooms," says Doyle. Eventually he hopes to design and build 5 to 10 houses a year on the peninsula.

Adds Doyle, "I'm here to stay. I plan to be a builder here for the rest of my life. I've never had to collect unemployment and I've never been bored a minute."
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Title Annotation:People in Construction
Author:Thomas, Margaret
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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