The Gibbs Spotlight: Zach Punnett

GCA Communications intern Kathlyn Dannewald (K) spoke with Zach Punnett (Z), a Construction Science Alum here at Gibbs! We sat down with Zach to learn about his experiences as a builder and company owner in the residential construction industry. Read on for highlights or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

K: Hello everyone, welcome to the Gibbs Spotlight. My name is Kathlyn Dannewald, and I’m a communications intern at the Gibbs College of Architecture. Today we’re speaking with Zach Punnett, an alum of the Construction Science program. Zach is the founder and president of Punnett homes, a residential construction company in the Oklahoma City metro area.  

Thank you so much for joining us today, Zach. So, to start off could you just introduce yourself to our listeners and share a little bit about your background? 

Z: Yeah, sure. Like you said, my name is Zack Punnett. I’m originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma and went to school at OU as a Construction Science major, and I graduated in 2003. I have many years, about 24 years, in the construction industry so far. That journey is still going.  

My background is pretty simple. Like I said, I went to OU from ‘99 to 2003. And then after graduating in ‘03, I went to work for Home Creations. And it was about trying to find my way into the residential world when at that time, construction science was mostly commercial.  

A lot of my friends who were builders or planning to become builders had parents or dads who were also builders. It was a generational thing for them. For me, it wasn’t like that. My dad was in the oil business. I needed to find a way to get into homebuilding without it being a part of my family. So, I went and worked for Home Creations, and I was there for seven years. In about two and a half years, I was a superintendent. And then after that, I was an area manager. In 2010, I resigned from Home Creations, and I bought a handful of lots and started my own company. 

K: That’s so cool. I was going to ask you if your family was in construction, because it seems, like you said, a lot of people get into it that way. So, since your parents weren’t in construction, why did you decide to study construction science? 

Z: Yeah, good question. When I was young, I was always technical. I also liked to draw. I had a drafting table in my room, when I was 12 or 13. And I would draw houses, more just concepts, and I’d do things like put rivers running through the middle of them and things like that. Just things I could do to think outside the box. And that was fun for me. I always enjoyed construction. And I had one family member or two family members that were in construction at the time. I thought that was going to be a good fit for me. 

K: Was there any reason you decided construction over architecture? 

Z: Yeah. Good point. So, I knew I liked to build. I wanted to be outside. I started off actually at OU as an accounting major. I didn’t actually know about the construction science program until I got there. I saw one of my friends walking with a big set of plans underneath his arm between classes one day — it was right before the end of the first semester of my freshman year. And I was like, ‘What is that? And where did you get it? Because I think I know what those are. Those are plans. And that means there’s construction going.’ 

So, he told me, and I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s where I’m going.’ So, over the Christmas holiday I changed majors and away I went in construction science. But I picked construction science because I wanted to be more outside building, more hands on. I’m fairly hands on. 

K: Yeah, I feel like architects, they get to do the cool designing. But then they kind of lose control of their project. 

Z: Yeah, I’ve never thought about it that way.  

K: So, after you graduated in 2003, like you said, you worked for Home Creations for seven years, but then you started your own company – Punnett Homes. So why did you decide to start your own company — that’s kind of a big leap? 

Z: For me, I felt like it was kind of the next step. I come from a family of business owners. My mom owned her own business. She was a hairstylist, and she actually worked in our house and all the ladies would come to our house and she would do their hair. So, I got the idea early on that that’s just the way that things went. I think that was always in my mind that I was going to end up that way. And I knew that I needed to go work for someone out of college because I couldn’t just go start it. I didn’t feel comfortable starting it right out the gate.  

So yeah, I come from a family of business owners and that led me to where I was headed. And I mean, yes, you can say, ‘I want to make more money’ or ‘I want to do this.’ I think I wanted to be more flexible with some time, but also just designs. Home Creations is a great builder. They’re a production builder. And I really got to shine by taking the technical aspects that I learned in construction science and applying them to these homes.  

One of the biggest things I focus on in construction is water management. And if you can get that part right throughout the process, your houses are going to last a lot longer. There’s nothing that will destroy a house faster than infiltration of water.  

I will say this too. Because we had just gone through a downturn. 2008 was obviously the Great Recession. I knew that, ‘Okay, prices are down on lots and things to buy.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I think now might be the time.’ I felt like 2010 would be more rebound. But actually, it was more like 2012 before it really started kicking back up. So that was interesting trying to span those years. 

I resigned in 2010, bought the lots at probably the lowest you’d get them for. The prices had gone down quite a bit. I jumped in and built for two years. But again, like I said, it didn’t really pick up until 2012. So, I built one house the first year. And then two houses second year. Also the first year, I did a commercial restoration and then I didn’t do much commercial after that.  

I also started a roofing company simultaneously to also kind of help with income. I was so discouraged by what I saw, how roofs were being put on or how there was no attention to detail in a lot of these aspects. Or there’s flashing that wasn’t being used in places that should be flashed — a lot of things that just bothered me. And so I was able to start my own roofing company and then provide roofing services for friends and family. I really didn’t advertise. I don’t run the roofing company anymore.  

Once my building company picked up, it got to be too much for me to manage both. But it was a great way of having something that didn’t take as long to produce a little bit of income while I was trying to get the houses built and going. Because it’s about six months or more when building, so it’s hard. And you really don’t get paid until you sell the house. Even if you sell the house under contract, you still don’t get the money then. You’ve got to build that all the way through and then you’ll get it at closing. 

K: Yeah, that’s a lot of upfront risk. Could you talk a little bit more about exactly what services your company provides? Is it just residential construction? 

Z: We bounced all over the place. I feel like when I first started, we were going to be focused on custom homes. I wanted to build some nice stuff. I wanted to stretch my limits, if you will, when it came to construction. I had done over 500 homes that were all production, but I wanted to get into some nicer things and just be a little bit more creative.  

So, I started off with custom homes in mind and in my focus. And then also with building a spec here and there — a market home, something that would be speculative. I liked that part of it, because I wanted to put in my own influence and design. I actually like design quite a bit, and I wanted to put some of those things in play. And I can do that with my spec homes.  

Through the years, we’ve done plenty of custom homes. I’ve built really cool stuff. I put a fire pole in one house, so the kids could slide down from the top bunk. That was really awesome. And it’s something that you can’t just pick up the phone and be like, ‘Hey, where’s my fire pole contractor?’ I mean, you don’t really have that. You have to get creative as a homebuilder since you don’t have some of the connections that a commercial guy has for some of the specialty trades. So that was fun trying to figure that out. I called my cousin because he’s a metal manufacturer. And I was like, ‘You got a bar that I could put in this house?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I got something.’ So he got me a solid chrome 20-foot bar. It was so heavy. It took eight of us to lift it. It was pretty fun.  

I think custom homes have changed so much from when I first started because of things like Pinterest  and Houzz and all those things. You’re building someone a $500,000 house, but they’re getting ideas and pictures from a $3 million house. That’s a really big challenge. So that’s been tough for me. I don’t know if I have the temperament to deal with a lot of that sometimes. So, I’ve been able to put people in place to help, so I can still build those houses, but have people help me do that to where I can keep up with more things because after a while it becomes a lot to keep up with. 

K: Your houses are beautiful though. I looked on the website, and they’re just really pretty. 

Z: Thank you. I appreciate that.  

K: It seems like you’re building people’s forever homes, like the homes they want to be in. 

Z: Yeah, I think we have. We have a lot of those. One of the things that I’ll add. When I started, I knew that Edmond had a lot of baby boomers, a lot of empty nesters. I felt like it was a really great market to build smaller, nicer homes that were  geared towards empty nesters. So, I started kind of going down that path. I was a certified Aging in Place specialist. And I also got a green certification. Because I was focused on energy efficiency and just efficiency in general. And so I tried to apply those two things, to try to get some skills real quick, and apply those two things to the market that I wanted to serve. And it  just took off from there.  

I think a lot of times, and maybe I’m wrong and this is just the way it was for me. But these businesses can take on a life of their own sometimes. You can start with a plan, but you almost have to follow the way that it’s taking you if that’s the direction you want to go.  

So, I do that. And I still build customs. I build more specs than customs right now. I still don’t do a lot of specs because that’s just crazy. But I probably build maybe five to eight houses a year. And sometimes more. It just depends on what projects we’re working on. 

K: Seems like a ton, especially when you’re starting just from one a year. 

Z: Yeah, yeah, it was funny, because when I started one, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so busy.’ But you’re starting a company, and I was running the roofing business at the same time. But I never was not busy. But now if I was running one house, I would be not busy. You learn to handle more as it comes on. And it’s like working out. You start lifting weights at five pounds, and next thing you know, it’s 60 after three months of doing the same thing over time, so it works out that way. 

K: Yeah, so I saw on your website that you’re currently working on some homes at the Villas at Cedar Point in OKC. How’s that project going? 

Z: It’s great. So, I actually developed that neighborhood. My parents partnered with me and said, ‘Okay, we want to develop. We want to go through this process and see what it’s like.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m on board for that too.’ And we talked about that when I first started my business, but we actually purchased this land in 2011. It wasn’t long after I started my business that we purchased the lots. 

I sat on it for probably two years. And then I got around to getting moving on it and trying to get some of the design, some of the civil engineering, and things like that done and out of the way. So, I really started the process around 2013. It’s been a while. And then it was 2016 that we were really moving on to development.  

I mean, it’s so funny how many years can go by in a development like that. Time flies when you’re out building houses, and then kind of coming back to the development. And our development was a little bit different. I didn’t go to the bank to seek a loan. We were paying mostly cash. And so that did help me take my time. But I mean this was a really tough piece to develop. The engineer was like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy, you picked probably the most difficult piece you can pick.’ For me that’s par for the course. That’s what I tend to do, I guess.  

Z: So it was important to be able to slowly navigate that process and make sure I understood everything as we came across it and also have the time to make decisions and things like that. And as the market changed or as things developed, we actually started with smaller, more simple homes, and then it was like well, ‘It would probably be better if we did larger homes that are really nice, but don’t have a lot of maintenance and yard to keep up with because this is a great location for working people that work all the time sometimes.’ Like doctors. It’s funny because there’s like six or seven doctors in there. But this is important to note when you’re building and you want doctors to move in your neighborhood. If you’ve got a central location between three hospitals, you’re in pretty good shape.  

K: Yeah. 

Z: Because every time they buy a house, they have to make sure it’s within 20 minutes of where they work most of the time. We just happen to be located really conveniently between three of the major hospitals and so that worked out well for us. It did take on a life of its own, and the homes have actually become much bigger as we go through the neighborhood. There are only 22 lots. It’s not a huge neighborhood, but it’s a really nice, quality neighborhood that’s coming together pretty nicely. We probably have five lots left that are open, that aren’t built on but probably have already been spoken for — at least a couple of them. We have about three or four left that have not been spoken for. 

K: Yeah, that must have been a crazy process bringing it from just a plot of land to 22 lots.  

Z: It was on the side of a hill with a creek at the bottom. I went from building on flatland with Home Creations. And putting up one after the other where they’re all the same — boom, boom, boom. To now I have a different floor plan for every single lot there because not all the lots are the same size, so they don’t have the same layout or elevations and all that kind of stuff. So, they do tend to change, and we have a lot of different plans there. 

K: It sounds like you really focus on quality and, like you mentioned, efficiency when you’re making houses. Is there anything else you prioritize when building homes? What’s important to you?  

Z: Yeah, I think the most important thing, and I mentioned it before, is water management. And I think that’s where I can be most effective. Even when I was coming through Home Creations, but also even now a lot of times, it’s sad. A lot of the trades — some of the framers, some of the roofers, they don’t even know why they put the flashing on. They know they’re supposed to put flashing on, but they don’t even know why in a lot of cases. They say, ‘Okay, it’s for water.’ But they don’t understand the physics of it. They just put this here because, ‘I was told to do by the guy that taught me how to roof.’ There’s a lot of that that goes on. 

And I think that that’s what separates me from other builders. The other builders don’t necessarily know why you do it either. They just know that it’s supposed to be there, and if they don’t know why or how it works, then they can’t fix it if it’s not applied correctly. So, I think that’s where I’m most effective — being able to identify areas where I can prevent water infiltration for years, so that my houses last longer. I think water management and structural knowledge really helps me and sets me apart from a lot of other people. 

K: It seems like you have knowledge of all of the areas that go into building a house and get to bring it from the beginning all the way to the end. 

Z: Yeah, definitely. I’m not an expert by any means on all the areas, but you learn a lot just being around let’s say the heat and air guys or electricians. I knew nothing about electrical stuff. Still, I don’t know why I can’t wrap my head around that. I mean, I know how it works, but I couldn’t wire anything up. And you don’t want me to. I’m not licensed, but I rely heavily on really quality contractors when it comes to those things. Where I’m weak in, I can definitely hire someone that’s more skilled. That’s their profession. It’s what they were trained to do. So, I leave a lot of that stuff to them.  

But I also learn off of them. I will ask questions a lot of times, so that I do understand it. And there’s so much to understand about so many different aspects when it comes to a home that I’m probably never going to get it all. But I think over the years, I’ve definitely gained so much experience just going through so many different things.  

We’ve done remodels. I didn’t mention that before. We’ve done remodels of historic homes in downtown OKC. I did nine in the last three years. And I loved it and hated it all at the same time. It was really cool. I love the products when they’re done. When it’s in the middle of projects, they’re so challenging. And you feel like you have to be there almost all the time. Because one little thing, ‘Oh, we let’s do this before we do that, because it would be better or that’s the way we should do it.’ But if you’re not there, and you have someone working there, sometimes those things can get by you. And I don’t like that, and I find it later sometimes. So, I want to try to be everywhere all the time and that’s pretty tough.  

A Historic Home Restoration in Oklahoma City by Punnett Homes

But I gained so much experience though from building, or actually taking apart, these 100-year-old homes and rebuilding them. I learned how they used to do things and then I learned like, ‘Oh, that didn’t work. We changed this or we do it differently now.’ And you’re able to apply some of those newer practices to the older homes. That part was really fun for me. But it’s really challenging and being there all the time to catch everything the way that I want to catch it is tough. 

K: Yeah, I imagine that’s very difficult. I’m also someone who’s very attentive to detail, and it’s tricky to work in a group. So, for the last question I had, do you have any advice for students who are in construction science or want to go into construction science or maybe even want to start their own company one day? 

Z: Yeah, I think there’s going to be a lot of those guys that are self-motivated and maybe a little bit like me, in a sense, that knew that that’s the direction they wanted to go in from the get-go. I think being committed to that decision is super important, obviously. And I think making sure that you don’t do it at a time of your life when there’s a lot of stuff going on. Maybe not when you’re starting a family, getting married, having kids. That’s the way it went for me and that was pretty tough because I had to work a lot, especially in the early years and so my wife had to take care of the kids mostly. And so you’re trying to be there for the kids but also starting a business and, for me, my case was two businesses. 

Just try to make sure that when you do start the business that you feel comfortable with everything else. And don’t do it in a really intense time period. When it comes to residential building, the markets can fluctuate, and I think you need to have someone behind you, because I don’t know how long you’ll really make it to weather the ups and downs. I mean, you’re going to make some money in the first year and some money in the second year, but probably not enough to sustain you if you had a year of where you didn’t really do anything because of market conditions. There will be so many things. I want to create this perfect scenario of how they should do it, but I don’t think that that’s really possible. I think you have got to be committed and go for it. 

K: Definitely good advice, especially with such a tricky market of housing and construction. 

Z: Right now, it’s even worse with all the craziness that’s in the supply chain and the pricing. In 2022, it was impossible for me to keep up with all the changes. It was wild. 2022 was absolutely crazy. 

K: Yeah, it’s a crazy time right now to be looking at housing. I’m about to graduate college, and it’s going to be a while before I can consider buying a house.  

Z: Yeah, I know. And I could go on about affordable housing and things like that, too. I’ve been working on some stuff. To kind of go back on the services that our company provides, I told you where we started off in custom building and we did some specs. We’ve done a few commercial projects, we’ve done the remodels, we’ve done a lot of these different things. And I think all of them definitely added to  my overall understanding of construction. But it’s funny, because I told you, I wanted to break away and do a bunch of really big cool stuff. And I’ve kind of been there, done that with some of the nicer homes to where I’m going back to the production. And I like the idea of production. And I feel like it fit me really well. I liked the repetition of it, but also I can fine tune it. I can get really, really good at building a small house. And I think the quality that’s associated with our name and what we built and where we built, it helps me in the smaller market, because I think people understand that they’re getting well-built home, although it be smaller or affordable, however you want to say it.  

And then even more recently, I have been sucked into the world of modular homes. There’s a lot of reasons why I’m in this spot now, but we have some pretty cool projects that are coming up. They’re not 100% yet, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. But one project will help serve the homeless community through partnership with Catholic Charities. And then, another project is a private development for modular homes, out in Stillwater of all places. So talk about journeys, I’m building small houses in Perkins, which is home of Frank Eden, who is Pistol Pete. That’s who they based Pistol Pete off of. And that’s where I’m at right now. I’m like, ‘Wait, how did this happen?’  

But I like it out there, and we’re doing that project. They’re basically a one bedroom, one bath studio or ‘modules,’ and we’ll know a lot more in about two months. So that’ll be really fun. It’ll be something that I think will be interesting for a lot of people if we can get it across the finish line. 

K: Yeah. I’m definitely, as a younger person, way more attracted to smaller homes. I love the little tiny homes and stuff like that. It’s super cool. 

Z: Yeah, they weren’t really around or even feasible when I was young and single, but if I was young and single, I would definitely be looking at something like that. I think if I didn’t have to worry about a family or that kind of thing, then I would probably be in one right now.  

K: Well, I think that’s all the questions I have for you today. Thanks for taking the time to join us on the Gibbs Spotlight. Definitely let us know about those other projects as they kind of go through a little bit more. We definitely would love to feature them whether on the blog or podcast, but thanks so much for taking the time to join us.  

Z: You bet. Thank you.  

K: Have a great day. 

Z: You too. Take care 

K: Thanks again for listening to the Gibbs Spotlight. Tune in next time to hear more stories from the Gibbs College of Architecture. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.