Los Altos builder crafts signature homes

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Bob Owen of Owen Signature Homes has built hundreds of local homes, including the Los Altos Hills residence above. Bob and his son Shawn are currently constructing a steel home in Los Altos, below.

Bob Owen loves to build houses. In fact, he’s built so many that he’s lost count.

“It’s in the hundreds,” said Owen, a product of Los Altos whose firm, Owen Signature Homes, is marking its 43rd year.

Construction runs in his blood. His father, who died at 42, founded G.H. Owen Construction in Los Altos.

“I was just a kid then,” said Owen, who raised his then 9-year-old brother.

Although Owen liked helping out in the family business as a youth, he wondered why anyone would want to be a building contractor given the ups and downs of the economy. With his parents’ hard times in mind, he changed course, graduating with a degree in finance and business from Brigham Young University.

He worked in the finance departments at Westinghouse Electric Corp. and Varian Associates Inc. before becoming disenchanted with the corporate world.

“Business is all politics, and I wanted to do something on my own,” Owen said. “I loved construction as a kid. It was so gratifying at the end of the day to stand back and look at something I had done.”

With that in mind and lessons learned from his father, he purchased a lot in Los Altos on a handshake – “I had no money” – and built his first spec house. He drew the plans, poured the foundation and did the framing and just about everything himself.

His “signature” home led to contracts for 10 more. Intel Corp.’s Andy Grove was among the first potential buyers to tour the house.

Since then, Owen’s business has grown – along with his reputation.

“He’s intensely professional,” said Peter Detkin of Los Altos Hills. “He and his team were good about communicating with us every step of the way.”

Detkin and his wife, Michelle, are “thrilled” with their custom home.

“We moved in a few weeks ago and continue to get very good service,” he said.

The couple’s spacious home with its media and exercise rooms is worlds away from the ranch homes popular when Owen started out.

Changing with the times

“In the ’70s, living spaces were defined. Every house had a living room, dining room, kitchen and family room,” Owen said. “Now there are open floor plans and great rooms.”

More people today eschew living rooms, but Owen believes a house should at least have a parlorlike area away from the action for sitting and relaxing.

“Homes in the ’70s and ’80s were pretty dark inside – now it’s just the opposite,” he said, citing the desire for volume, high ceilings, skylights, more glass and natural light.

“Houses were more budget-driven when I started out,” Owen added. “Now people have more money to venture out. And, the clientele is getting younger.”

Among the other trends Owen has noted as his construction career has evolved:

• Kitchens. There are more appliances and convenience items, such as built-in coffeemakers priced upwards of $2,000. Everything is gas. Islands are prevalent and are being “loaded up,” although Owen disdains cooktops in islands. Four or five ovens in a house are not uncommon. He recently installed a steamer oven.

• Basements and elevators. Owen has been building basements for 10 to 15 years, but they’re au courant because “people want a house as big as it can possibly be,” he said, which means going underground. He cited the example of a 12,000-square-foot house being built on a 1-acre lot. Elevators are becoming more commonplace because of multilevel dwellings and an aging population.

• Bigger rooms and specialty rooms. One of Owen’s clients wanted 20-foot-by-20-foot bedrooms for the children and a 20-foot-by-25-foot master bedroom. Media rooms, home theaters, game rooms, gyms, home offices and storage rooms have replaced dens and TV rooms.

• High-tech electronics. Think smart houses.

Builder and customer satisfaction

Does Owen have a favorite house or project?

“I love them all” is his ready reply.

What about a favorite architectural style?

“I like Mediterranean and traditional,” he paused. “And comfortable houses and ones that have a little more country feeling. I’m often asked what style I am noted for. My answer is, ‘Yes.’ Doing something different is exciting and so much fun. I like to be a trendsetter.”

His main goal is to satisfy his clients. His son Shawn, vice president and active in the business for a quarter of a century, shares the mission.

“We work hard to make clients think their house is the only one we’re building, although we may have 10 to 15 projects going at a time,” Owen said.

He is able to control costs more and accommodate clients’ needs because he is both architect and builder. There are four sets of eyes on every project – his, Shawn’s, the architect’s and the supervisor’s.

“There are two rewards for me – to see what I’ve built and to have happy clients move in,” Owen said.

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