Joe Farrell wants to play in the dirt.
Don’t try to stop him.
The founder and president of the largest building company in the Hamptons is seated in the conference room of his office in Bridgehampton, sun streaming in through the glass enclosure as if ordered on cue. He isn’t pinstriped up, no suit or corporate airs. The man has his hands in every aspect of Farrell Building Company, every day, and he likes nothing more than to get those hands dirty.
“I have mud all over me right now,” he says with an openly joyful pride in the vestige of his visit to a job site on Lumber Lane. “I was just telling someone, this is the 400th project I’ve done, and I don’t tire of it. Ever. Being in the dirt, digging holes, I love ripping stuff apart and putting it back together.”
The enthusiasm is infectious from the man whose company delivered 39 houses last year and has created not just a definitive style but a market within the Hamptons real estate market itself. With their distinctive looks and creative culture—his homes are designed quickly, built quickly, sold quickly, and clients include the likes of Kelly Ripa and Bill O’Reilly—Farrell is, without question, a brand name.
“I don’t think there’s been a brand like us before in the Hamptons. There’s five or six great builders here, but by accident we have a brand. It wasn’t by design,” he admits. “It’s by design now that we’re really building up the brand—now that, six or seven years ago, we realized we had one.”
The self-deprecation comes across genuinely, mixed as it is with the traits of tough business acumen and professional passion that Farrell is known for. Yes, he’s built a massive team of talent that allows him to produce more homes that his competitors—“My managers are so good at what they do, it’s like we’re a building company with 15 or 17 builders within the company,” he says—a team complete with fulltime lawyers and a paralegal, marketing experts and architects and engineers who he praises at every turn. Yet it is his vision that remains clearly at the fore, not just for the company at the top but right down to its most granular level. “I’m the guy who, when we buy property, I know exactly how to lay that property out. I’ll take a piece of paper and just draw a shape and then I’ll box it up inside and say ‘this room goes here, this room goes here,’” he says. “That’s always been my gift—space.”
Farrell had a sense of this calling some four decades ago—“I used to build really great tree houses when I was 13,” he notes—and can trace his inspiration back to an even earlier time. “In fourth grade I moved onto a street in Dix Hills, and I used to follow this builder around. I moved onto a street with nine houses, and this guy built all the shells. And he used to drive a Coupe de Ville Cadillac. In 1971, if you had a Cadillac, man, that was the car—you were rich. So I went through architecture in high school, I won the awards, but I went into finance, fortunately, not architecture. I didn’t have any money to buy a piece of land to build, or else I would have started building when I was 23. So I took a different route, I became an oil trader when I was 27, I made some money, I saved some money, and I bought a piece of land in ’95.” Upon that land in Brookville he built a spec house, sold it, and upon that success he’d build his empire.
Over nearly two decades, Farrell has followed the beat of his own drum in striving to separate his firm from the pack. “We don’t design a house from an elevation,” he says by way of example. “A lot of architects will design and say, ‘It’ll be a beautiful elevation,’ then you go into the house and there will be lousy rooms, or there won’t be enough windows to see the beautiful view. We always develop the floor plan first, and then come up with the elevation throughout the great floor plan.”
He sticks with what works, while also evolving. Give the market what it wants, keeping ahead of trends and making them his own. “The trend is modern. I don’t do ‘modern modern’ houses, because I think they need to be on the water and places like that. But three years ago we really went modern on the interiors, kitchens, cabinetry, faucets, tiles—but leaving a traditional exterior.
“My wife, Kristen Farrell, took on the design of all the interiors and exteriors about 15 months ago. She’s done so many houses over the years with me here, and our own houses, she’s a huge talent. We have an architect that works with her full time, so now they take the plans when they’re done from the architect, the plans go right to her and her team and the house gets a feel, right down to the exterior, the paint colors, the siding we’re using, right down to the interior, the stones, the faucets we’re using—so we have elevated our game three notches in the last 15 months, so our interiors are unbelievable.
Farrell used to do this work himself, “and we were good, really good, but now there are so many builders who’ve come here, from all over the island, from New York City—dentists, doctors, everybody’s a builder now, and there are spec houses everywhere. I really felt it was the time to really separate ourselves from everyone else, and we have.”
His company’s success has not come without its detractors, a fact Farrell openly acknowledges. Size has aided his growth and abetted the naysayers. “Being big has helped us be efficient, build quickly and maintain an incredible level of quality, because we have so many people who work just for us. It’s not like new subs here, new subs there—it’s the same trimmers on every house, the same plumbers.
“A lot of people look at us, especially the competition that wants to criticize us because we get it done so quickly, and they say ‘You can’t build that way, that quickly, with quality.’ And it’s nonsense. Complete nonsense. It takes a certain amount of man hours to build a house, and if everything is ordered when it should be ordered and it’s all waiting for you, you’re not waiting for it, and you go by the job site six days a week and you see a ton of cars and trucks and you see 50 people every day, you can build a great house in 6 months. If you add up all the down time and waiting time in these other people’s projects, there’s a year a half, two years. Is the quality better? No.”
His approach is a function of the times we live in. It’s driven by a clientele that is in turn driven by the breakneck pace of a world ever more consuming. “Our lives have gotten so busy with gadget, the internet, constant emails, that our days fly by,” says Farrell, upon whom the concept of home being where the hearts is does not get lost. “My clients have more money than they have time left. They don’t want to lose a summer, it’s just too precious, too valuable.
“All the people who summer out here, these are the greatest times of their lives, from Memorial Day to Labor Day with their families in these homes. And they want that summer. It means everything to them. During the week, they’re crazy. They’re nuts, they’re stressed. They come here, they’re on their bikes, they’re at the beach, and they want it done. And that’s the kind of business we get—their lives are too fun, too important, they don’t want a three-year job. They want to get it done.”
He’s has taken that same get-it-done approach down the coastline to Point Manalapan, Florida, just south of Palm Beach. A few years ago he began building a house there for himself and found that “the overhead was so much that it made more sense for me to build four houses than one, because I wanted to hire some really talented full-time people. So we started a business, all around building my own house. So within two years, we’re just finishing our fifth and sixth house, and we have a lot of spec, and now we have $30 million houses on the ocean.”
He may be making his mark in the Sunshine State, but Farrell isn’t leaving the Hamptons any time soon. He loves what he has here. The market’s potential and its resiliency in crises like the one that hit in 2008. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see warning signs for the future, of course.
“There are so many guys out here, and I see them overpaying for land, and they’re asking prices that are absurd,” he says, truly astonished. “They’re building on main roads where you’d never see a house—they’re building on every piece of dirt they can find, in front of all the traffic. And I think in the next downturn you’re going to see a lot of guys hit. There’s a lot of spec houses for sale right now.
“I have a lot for sale, but it sells pretty steadily, and I’m taking the foot off the gas a little. In 2011 we really stepped on it, but there was nobody building. We were pretty much alone. Because they couldn’t borrow. Everyone was scared—including me. In the future I think you’ll see less builders, I think a lot will be washed out in the next downturn. We’re in a very long bull market right now, we’re in our sixth year—that’s a long time. But for the moment the world looks okay.”
He speaks with the optimistic tenor of man with no rearview mirror, who has his priorities aligned with personal and professional passions. “I take a tremendous amount of time off with my children—that’s a regret I’ll never have, which most people like me regret because they work too much.” If there’s anything he might even think about doing differently, he notes, it’s that “I did all this with very little leverage, because I was terrified of going bust. So I wish I leveraged. I don’t really look back, I’m not one of those people, because I’m grateful for what I did. But I was very conservative. People think I’m crazy—I have 28 spec houses. But I have no debt. If the market tanks tomorrow, I tell my wife we’ll go furniture shopping and be in the rental business. So I have a plan B, C and D. So, I didn’t use enough debt. But I really have no regrets.”
You can’t look back if you’re constantly looking ahead like Farrell. Whether it’s the building in Southampton for Gold Coast Bank, of which he’s part owner, 830 self-storage units in Port Jefferson or 160 apartments in Newburgh, New York, Farrell is keeping his company moving forward into new territory. “We’re going in that direction, because when the music stops—which it will—we’re going to have other things to do, because I have all these people I have to keep busy.”
As for himself, Farrell does make sure to balance work and family time, his office joyfully close to his Bridgehampton home known as the Sandcastle. The Bridgehampton property with amenities such at the basketball court and indoor half-pipe, and summer renters like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, has become part of Hamptons real estate lore. For all its grand image, its origin story began simply, when the land was offered to him by the widow of a friend, Ahmet Ertegun, who was the head of Atlantic Records. Farrell was able to purchase 14 acres for $11 million, then sold off 2 acres for $5.5 million plus a building contract, and then he turned to building his own home. Combining aspects of homes from a few other clients, he designed the house not just from the ground up, but from below ground up.
“I wanted this great basement, I wanted a bowling alley I wanted a squash court, I wanted a spa, I wanted this crazy kids room,” he says with a the enthusiasm of a kid given the go-ahead to design his own playroom. “So I figure out a footprint for this crazy basement, and I designed the basement. And that’s how the house became that size—for the basement. So here was a footprint, and we just filled it in. It’s not as big as they say—it’s like 17,000 feet, the first two floors, which is huge, and the basement is huge, but I did it because I loved doing it. It was the most fun thing I ever did.”
Despite ongoing rumors of its going on the market, “it was never really for sale,” Farrell says. But no summer rental season would be complete without a story about its temporary-availability status. Not that renting it out was in the initial plans. He built the home during the real estate market implosion, “and during the meltdown there was this Russian oligarch who heard about it and offered me 400-and-something thousand in rent for two weeks, the first summer. My wife almost killed me, because we had to move out like eight weeks after we moved in, but it was only for two weeks,” he adds with a smile.
“And then the next year I had this woman, she rented it for $550,000 for two weeks. So I did that every summer since then. Every year someone offers to rent it for the whole summer—they offered me a million and a half dollars for the whole summer. Which I would do in a heartbeat and go live in a tent, but my wife would kill me,” he laughs. “Last year we rented it for a week for $300,000—just a week—to the family of the man who invented the Chicken McNugget. The guy had just died and they had always cruised Europe, and they just wanted to be together and have a beautiful week.”
For each summer renter, each admirer, the Sandcastle is the stuff of which Hamptons dream homes are made. As for Farrell himself…
“When I moved into that house, somebody asked me, is that your dream house? And I said, God, no. And they looked at me like I had two heads. It’s not your dream house?” He pauses, a small smile emerging.
“And I said, I never dreamed that big.”