March 2018

Compass Custom Homes: Stepping In and Fitting In

Author: Lynnie Leavenworth | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Aptly named, Compass Custom Homes has been providing a means for determining direction—the direction home—since 1989, when Dale Thompson ostensibly retired from his professional career as a structural engineer and took to the helm of his custom home building company, founded in Howard County, Maryland. Thompson likes to say, “Having a passion for your customers and your craft makes very few days feel like work.”

After visiting the Lowcountry on the recommendation of a friend and Maryland client who had purchased property in Palmetto Bluff, Thompson and his wife, Luana felt the point of their own compass turning. “What I realized when I first came here, and it only took a weekend to figure it out, was that the upscale custom work that Compass Custom Homes did, and the way we did it, was very unique in Maryland. But in Bluffton, for many, many communities, it’s just automatic. An architectural standard is set by each neighborhood and enforced.

Each community allows a certain amount of latitude, but there’s a theme, and the theme is respected,” Thompson said. “The development and business philosophy that I had, that worked very, very well for many years in Maryland, was already here. I didn’t have to create it; I just had to step in and fit in. It almost felt like coming home.”

Moving themselves and the company to Bluffton in 2015, Compass Custom Homes has projects in the works that are beautifully melding Thompson’s tenure and expertise with the local housing market, where he is finding his footing and feeling very much at home. “Architecture is very locale-specific. A lot of what I had to do to learn the Lowcountry was to learn what Lowcountry architecture is. I came down here to be a Lowcountry builder, not a displaced Maryland builder. I’ve embraced it all and have said. ‘roll up your sleeves and learn it.’ And I have to say I have enjoyed it very much.

“Compass Homes’ specialty in Maryland was pricing predictability. A homeowner deserves to know from the beginning what they are going to get and how much they are going to pay. And as they make their personalized options come true, they need to know contemporaneously what the cost behavior will be for each decision. Compass will provide this to their Lowcountry buyers in the same predictable manner that it always has.”

Thompson called one of his first projects “Luana’s House.” The couple purchased land in Palmetto Bluff and began building their personal, Lowcountry-style home, based on her vision. “It’s her project,” Thompson said. “It’s her home, and I’m her builder. Luana is an architect by profession and practice, and she designed many of the homes we built in Maryland.” They moved into their new home last year in time to welcome family for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Across the May River from Palmetto Bluff, Compass Custom Homes is working on a home expansion and remodeling job, changing the face and function of an existing 25-year-old home. “It’s a beautiful home and a beautiful lot,” Thompson said. “You wouldn’t characterize it today as a Lowcountry home, but it will be when we are finished. The remodeled design was prepared by Pierce Scott and the new owners’ interior design and decorating is being guided by J. Banks [Design Group], so the outcome will be impressive.”

Thompson sets Compass Custom Homes apart by placing his customers’ needs and wishes squarely at the epicenter of everything they do. “Everyone thinks of home building as concrete and lumber and roofing and electrical work, and yes, that’s exactly what it is, along with all of the finishes that go inside and out,” he said. “However, our company’s real focus is the management of the process. We focus on listening to the customer, learning what they want, and putting it together—keeping them very much involved in their home and ensuring that it is built their way. That involves a team of professionals and architects, but it also involves tactical response to things in the field that doesn’t always happen on a drawing board. The whole process must be managed to the best interest of the project, while keeping everyone involved informed as to all the details.”

Throughout the course of any project, the customer is highly likely to stop by the job site and to make adjustments and requests of on-site team members: the electrician, the plumber, the carpenter, and the list goes on. “The challenge for a home builder is keeping everyone’s scope of work correctly in place between yourself [the builder] and your customer, as well as yourself and your subcontractors. It’s a very detailed and important task. It is critical to make sure the customer always knows the cost behavior of their decisions. It is my job to be certain the customer understands that we can satisfy any request, but before you see it happen in your house, you’re going to see it happen on paper. This approach goes a long way in preventing surprises from happening.

“If a builder doesn’t keep his scopes of work intact, then he will drift into not being able to keep his relationships with his subcontractors intact. Over the years, we’ve gotten good at keeping smooth relationships with our subcontractors. You have to select the right subs that work with the program.” Selecting the right subs has been an important part of the first two years of establishing Compass Custom Homes in the Lowcountry.

“We have assembled a team of subcontractors that we’re very comfortable with,” Thompson said. “People ask, how do you know which subcontractors to use? My approach to this is to prequalify subcontractors by going to the work that they are currently doing. You can just look at a brick layer and tell in three minutes whether he’s good or not. You see by the way he moves, by the way he handles his trowel. You can look at a carpenter and see this in the same manner. There are a lot of indicators unique to each craft.”

A keen sailor, Thompson is charting the Lowcountry home building waters rather expertly, providing a means for determining his customer’s direction—always tacking toward home. Dale Thompson is finding himself stepping in and fitting into the Lowcountry and loving every minute of it.

For more information, please call (843) 836-3600 or visit

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