Hastings Read is the first to admit that Oakleigh Custom Woodworks of Mobile, AL, the three-person shop he runs with wife Anne, had no business bidding the 14-window replacement project for the Dauphin Way United Methodist Church in Mobile.
Not only is the shop small, it was less than two years old at the time.
But the fact that Oakleigh not only won the project from more established operations and also pulled off a stellar job is a testament to the dedication, skill, and savvy of the shop and the materials it uses for its custom commercial and residential wood projects.
The Reads’ path to becoming go-to woodworkers in Mobile isn’t a typical one. The British couple had careers in finance, both in England and in the States. After retiring to Alabama, the Reads converted Hastings’ woodworking hobby into a business at the height of the recession in 2010, a decision that turned out to be less risky than one might think.
Most of Oakleigh’s work centers around Mobile’s famous Dauphin Street, a historic area whose old homes, businesses, restaurants, and art galleries will always be in need of authentic wood detailing. Among the company’s projects were replacement windows for the Mobile Bay Lighthouse, retail shop windows, and gates, fencing, railings, windows, and doors for nearby homes.
But much of their success stems not only from custom capabilities, but also from the couple’s attention to detail, old-fashioned professionalism, and smart selling strategies, traits that were key to winning the Methodist church project. Knowing that the building’s 50-year-old existing windows had rotted out, “Our approach was to look at the total lifetime cost of the new windows, rather than the first cost of acquisition,” says Hastings. “The choice of materials could have huge downstream effect on subsequent cost. We wanted to avoid a bidding war with the absolute lowest cost prevailing regardless of other benefits. A financial analysis demonstrated the significant benefit of looking beyond first cost, i.e., the initial cost of the windows.”
Oakleigh’s bid included insulated or low-E glass—targeting a 30% reduction in the building’s five-figure annual energy cost—an elastomeric glazing, and extremely high quality Fine Paints of Europe. Finally, the Reads specified Accsys Technologies’ Accoya® wood, an acetylated (or “modified”) radiata pine whose durability and dimensional stability are an ideal fit for Mobile’s wet, humid climate. Accoya wood reduces swelling and shrinkage by 75% or more, helping coatings last three to four times longer and therefore reducing maintenance costs.
The project’s contractor also appreciated Oakleigh’s plan for custom cross-lap joints, in which continuous vertical and horizontal muntins (rather than single pieces) are notched at each intersection to create a lattice for stronger joints.
“It shows how to compete for business on something other than price,” Hastings says. “This is a case study in how to get the customer away from the price and focusing on the overall benefits.”
With 14 windows measuring 54 inches wide by 21 feet high, the church was Oakleigh’s most ambitious project to date. Replicating the historic windows they replaced, each new unit includes 56 double panes of glass, each with 1/16-inch clearance. The team built a prototype window at full width and partial height to determine a precise construction method.
The windows’ 27 individual and interchangeable parts were made in advance then assembled at one time; each length was made into three subcomponents, then finger-jointed into the final window. To create the arched panes, Hastings made blanks from four pieces of Accoya wood then cut the arches on the CNC machine. All construction,including glazing and painting, was completed in house.
Oakleigh’s use of CNC machines, in which Accoya wood performs as well as other materials, provides the speed and accuracy of a larger shop within the walls of a low-overhead small operation. The Reads’ precise techniques, including laying out every cut by hand, also helped maximize the raw wood pieces to bring down upfront material costs versus other bidders.
The Reads continue to use Accoya wood whenever possible, and have even found it to be a distinguishing factor in driving word-of-mouth referrals for new and replacement projects. “Everything we’ve done in Accoya wood looks like the day it was put in,” Hastings says. “Everyone’s looking for an edge. Accoya wood plays particularly well in Mobile, because everyone’s [tired of] dealing with rotted wood.”