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Building Houses As If They Mattered

Building Houses As If They Mattered

In his attention to sustainability, community, and integrity, Chicago-based Perry Bigelow builds houses that foster their inhabitants' flourishing.

Perry Bigelow, a Chicago homebuilder, is not perfect. He's humble and knows he needs to rely daily on the mercies of Christ …. He was the kingdom-oriented businessman I was hoping to find in Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power, but didn't. Perry's pursuit of righteousness … shapes his vocational stewardship.

Perry is the founder of Bigelow Homes, a suburban homebuilding company just outside Chicago. (His son, Jamie, now heads the firm.) Perry's integration of faith and work began from the deep-set conviction that he is the steward, not owner, of his business. The orientation of his whole life, including his professional life, is Godward. Over many years, Perry has prayed, studied Scripture, and read thoughtful Christian scholars in order to develop a God-honoring approach to his stewardship of all the gifts and assets he has received.

Based on this foundational desire to please and honor God in and through his work, Perry seeks to obey biblical standards of morality and to imitate Christ's character. This commitment to personal righteousness is expressed concretely in the strict ethics the Bigelow Homes firm expects of itself and its employees. Company policy is straightforward: "We will never knowingly lie to each other, a home purchaser, a supplier or subcontractor, or government official. We place a high premium on personal integrity."

In addition to modeling Christ's servanthood, Perry has treated his employees compassionately. The homebuilding industry is notorious for cyclical booms and busts. That means that most construction workers find steady employment a chimera. Bigelow Homes takes seriously a responsibility to keep its labor force on the job. It does so by refusing to overreach in the good times and eschewing the temptations to become big for the sake of bigness. "We aim for careful, sustainable growth," Perry says.

This has allowed the firm to go through all but two of Chicago's innumerable housing cycles without laying off anyone—while competitors were shedding as much as 50 percent of their workforce.Perry and his team have also thought carefully and creatively about the product their business offers.

They've advanced two kingdom virtues through the way Bigelow homes are designed. The first is community. Perry is aware of the trend in American culture toward hyper-individualism. His love for the biblical value of koinonia (fellowship and co-participation) gets infused in the design of the communities Bigelow Homes builds. These designs aim for "a balance between privacy and neighborliness." For example, Bigelow builds extra-wide sidewalks and multiple "commons" spaces for spontaneous interaction and puts large front porches on each home.

Perry has also advanced the kingdom virtue of sustainability through his work. Through product and design innovations, Bigelow homes are extremely energy efficient. In fact, the company guarantees that homeowners won't have to spend more than four hundred dollars per year on heating bills—in Chicago! "Our innovation in energy efficiency is a direct result of our great respect for God's creation," Perry explains, "and a belief that we should preserve as much of it as we can for our children's children."

Perry and his team have thought wisely not only about their product design, but also about the ways their company's assets—networks, expertise, technical prowess, managerial talent, and financial resources—can be deployed to assist inner-city housing ministries. So, for several years, Bigelow Homes has partnered with nonprofits as they work to provide quality, energy-efficient housing for low-income working people in Chicago.

Perry has also sought to design and build neighborhoods that bless the local community in practical, tangible ways. For example, knowing the challenges that vital but modestly remunerated professionals like teachers, police officers and firemen sometime face in finding affordable homes where they serve, Bigelow Homes deliberately builds "workforce housing."

These are family-friendly homes with affordable per-square-foot prices. Bigelow also follows an unconventional model of planning neighborhoods—one marked by deliberate product diversity and what Perry calls "compact development." This approach blesses the school district and the local municipality. Here's how: By offering diverse styles of homes with prices ranging from $150,000 to $350,000, Bigelow subdivisions create demographic diversity. Singles, retirees and families all live in a community. This demographic diversity spins off positive cash flow for the local school district because the total number of students in the subdivision is less than it would be following conventional, suburban-sprawl building practices. Moreover, Bigelow's compact development leads to "high assessed value per acre and less infrastructure." As Perry explains, this is the recipe for municipalities to make a profit from property taxes.

In short, Bigelow Homes' design-building practices challenge the suburban homebuilding industry's conventional wisdom. Perry's company has shown the industry that it is possible to do well by doing good. It has demonstrated that it is possible to build attractive, energy-efficient and yet affordable homes. It has proven that compact development that strengthens a community's tax base can be designed to produce an aesthetically attractive and neighborly subdivision. Through Perry's writings and work with municipal officials, he is bringing this message to the powers that be, advocating reforms in the industry toward the more sustainable approaches Bigelow Homes has pioneered.

Perry Bigelow has stewarded his vocational power to rejoice the city. He has blessed his employees through his compassionate and thoughtful business model. He has brought joy to his customers—many of them first-time homebuyers, many of them working families needing a safe, neighborly, affordable community to live in. He has also blessed the city of Aurora by building a subdivision that contributes to the local tax base, generating revenue for schools and municipal services. And he has blessed future generations by taking the biblical value of sustainability seriously enough to let it shape his product design.

And all the while, Perry has been humble and approachable—a regular guy. He's not a "super saint." His life shows that it is indeed possible to be a tsaddiq—someone who stewards everything, including their money, vocational position and expertise, assets, resources, opportunities, education, relationships, social position, entrée and networks for the common good—in modern America.

Amy L. Sherman is senior fellow at Sagamore Institute Faith in Communities in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her newest book is Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (InterVarsity Press, 2011), from which this article was adapted. Copyright(c) 2011 by Amy Sherman. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

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