Humanism in building

Humanism in building

Local construction business approaches home improvement with an eye toward how things really work

Brad Ruder works on the main entrance doors at the Shops at Riverside in Hackensack, where his offices and Senior Source are; it was March 19, soon after the pandemic shut down the county. (All photos courtesy Brad-Core)
Brad Ruder works on the main entrance doors at the Shops at Riverside in Hackensack, where his offices and Senior Source are; it was March 19, soon after the pandemic shut down the county. (All photos courtesy Brad-Core)

The space you live in really shapes your life.

People with disabilities always have known that. The height of a counter or a light switch, the width of a doorway, the shape of a bathroom, and the slope of a floor can make a huge difference in the way you live.

One of the many odd insights that have come from the pandemic that has forced so many of us inside is the understanding that the rooms in which we have spent so much unexpected time affect our moods, our health, our behavior. (That insight is born of experience; when you spend a lot of time staring at the walls, you start to develop feelings toward them.)

Brad Ruder felt these things instinctively for as long as he could remember, although it took him some time to make sense of them. Growing up as a nice Jewish boy in Livingston, he knew that he wanted to build things. He wanted to construct buildings where people would play, work, exercise, live, and at times even die. He knew that he cared about people, and that forming the spaces that back up their lives would be a way to put that caring into action.

The Brad-Core office staff — the family, as Mr. Ruder calls them — stands in front of the Senior Source lounge. Brad Ruder and Leslie Greenberg are in the front, behind them from left, are Jim Savino, Elena Aligo, Alex Tobon, Michele Silver, and Brad-Core friend and client Pam Ennis of the Sinai Schools.

Eventually, it turned into Humanism in Building, into his concierge service, into Senior Source, into all the ways that Mr. Ruder and his company, Brad-Core, are informally merging construction with social work as they make buildings for real life.

Mr. Ruder went to Purdue University’s construction management program; the first in its unusual field, it combines just about every aspect of construction, from the finances to the engineering to the actual building, from the most abstract to the absolutely hands-on. (Mr. Ruder spent some of his college summers working underground for the New York City Transit Authority — in other words, in the subway tunnels. He was an oddity there — again, he was the Jewish kid from Livingston — but he wanted to be there, and he stayed.)

When he graduated, Mr. Ruder got the kind of job Purdue prepared him for, managing huge projects for major corporations. He loved it.

After he graduated, he worked for some very big international companies, including Skanska and Hensel Phelps. He gained a great deal of experience, some of it in project management and human relations, and some of it in the connections between work, buildings, and emotions.

Tracey Kirstein, an abilities specialist and aging in place coordinator, works with Brad-Core. Here, she’s at home in Teaneck.

He tells about the time he was working for Skanska, building childcare centers for Bristol Myers Squibb in Lawrenceville and Plainsboro. “From a construction standpoint they were no great shakes, but I learned so much from it,” Mr. Ruder said.

“Normally, if you are building $100 million projects, you finish one and move on to the next one, but this time, probably because there were two projects, I was able to be around when the teachers were filling up their rooms.” They were stocking the school, preparing for the little kids who’d spend hours each day there. “I had a chance to see how these teachers and the kids live in this environment. And I’d always loved building, but this was the first time that I’d realized that wow! This really is a place for people. Real people will be using my building.

“That was probably when the first real seed was planted.”

From that seed — grown in the soil he’d cultivated from all his years in construction, fertilized by his mother, who was an early childhood educator — the idea for humanism in building began.

A new house in Teaneck has wide-open, wheelchair-accessible, light-filled ground floor.

Eventually Mr. Ruder decided that it was time to leave the corporate world and strike out on his own. He and his wife, Linda, a social worker, moved to Demarest; soon they had two daughters.

Mr. Ruder’s business, Brad-Core, flourished. He developed relationships with the founding generation of the Bergen County Jewish community, who combined an almost cultivated exterior toughness with extraordinary philanthropy. He learned about how to give from them.

Specifically, Mr. Ruder learned about humanism in medicine from Drs. Arnold and Sandra Gold of Englewood, who developed the concepts that led, among many other things, to the white coat ceremony that sanctifies the work of medical students as they assume the life-and-death duties of their profession. He was so moved by it that he transmuted it into humanism and building, which is about the relationship between client and professional, concept and reality. It’s about providing real quality through teamwork, which sounds like a cliché but isn’t in practice, because it’s about genuinely trusting coworkers and clients. It’s about collaboration, rather than competition, as a real driver toward increasingly better results. It’s about listening to people, figuring out what they think they want, what they really want, and how to make it work.

Mr. Ruder offers concierge services. He and his clients have ongoing relationships; clients discuss their changing families and interests and hobbies and resources and needs as they change over time. On a practical level, Mr. Ruder is paid a retainer and in return he charges less for each job. It’s easier for people to get projects of all sizes done, and to know that the quality always will be high. On the emotional level, it’s more satisfying all around.

A very long, wide ramp leads from the driveway to the door.

He also set up Senior Source, which until the pandemic was a free gathering spot on the second floor of the Shops at Riverside in Hackensack. It was for older people, retirees, really anyone with some free time to fill with companionship, games, talk, education, and whatever programs and services were on offer. Senior Source also provided jobs to special-needs students from the Sinai Schools, the tailored-for-each-student school that is housed in yeshiva day schools in Bergen County, Livingston, and Riverdale.

The pandemic has changed much of this.

Senior Source had to close its space. “That was easy for us because we had no choice,” Mr. Ruder said. “We don’t know when we will reopen. Technically we could reopen now, with capacity restrictions, but that wouldn’t be safe and it would be improper. At some point in time it will be a gray area, but now it would be improper.”

His mother, Leslie Greenberg, was a very active volunteer at Senior Source, both working and modeling volunteer work, and Michele Silver, who is Dr. Sandra Gold’s daughter and learned about humanism from her mother, is its only employee. The two women have kept Senior Source going as well as an in-person program can go when it is forced to become entirely virtual. Ms. Greenberg and Ms. Silver have done some in-person visits; they’ve worked with other local institutions to include its members on Zoom programs. They make phone calls to participants. They’re holding on, waiting for this to be over, when Senior Source can resume and expand.

Everything in this new bathroom is ADA-compliant.

Meanwhile, Brad-Core, which undertakes projects in Bergen and Essex counties, mainly through word of mouth, has been doing very well. In general, “construction is doing well,” Mr. Ruder said. “There’s been a lot of exterior work, pavements, walkways, pools.” Also, as the weather changes and people grow more comfortable with having masked strangers inside their houses — and as they grow tired looking at the paint they no longer like and the cabinets that could be renovated and the refrigerator breaks and the washing machine makes weird noises — there’s more interior work done as well. “Some people have just been staring at their homes and they’re sick of what they see,” Mr. Ruder said. “They say, ‘I have been wanting to fix this forever.’”

There’s also been a lot of renovation as people realize that they might be working from home for a long time, so they want to make their temporary offices more permanent and comfortable. In fact, Mr. Ruder said, the main problem for construction companies now is getting materials. As in other industries, there are supply chain issues.

Mr. Ruder is proud to say that he “didn’t let anybody go during covid. We” — that’s his Brad-Core employees — “bonded together, like we always do. We came up with a strategy; we were about being cost effective, and we are all there for each other.” In fact, he added, two months ago he actually hired someone new.

That new employee is Tracey Kirstein of Teaneck.

Grab bars in a small bathroom in a Fort Lee apartment were designed to fit in that space.

As he built up his concierge business, Mr. Ruder had taken on projects for families who could not afford his usual rates but needed help. “The only problem with helping people is that you can’t survive as a business if you do that all the time.” When he works with families in need, “my price structure is less, and it takes more time. But as I have grown a solid business, as Senior Source and Brad-Core have taken off, I have wanted to blow up — in a good way! — the humanism in building part of it.

“A few months ago, right before covid, I was introduced to a physical therapist” — Ms. Kirstein — “and we had a cool, interesting conversation. We hit it off immediately. She fell in love with what we do as an organization, and she wanted to be part of it.”

Now, Brad-Core is expanding its business. It’s not only a concierge building and maintenance service; it’s also involved in helping people with a huge range of temporary or permanent physical disabilities live more comfortably in their homes.

“As of two months ago, when I brought her onboard, we were going through the internal movements to figure out how to turn this into a division — until then I’ve been doing it all myself. I don’t care if it’s senior citizens or a young couple with a child who broke a leg and needs a ramp for two weeks. It doesn’t matter why people need construction — once you start to think about how much design and construction affect our lives you understand the need for it.

There are times when an elevator is the only option, Mr. Ruder says.

“I am not a doctor. I can’t fix people the way doctors can. But I do have the tools to design the space.”

He and Ms. Kirstein are thinking about the problems that people face when they’re discharged from a hospital; they might be neither mobile nor strong. “Tracey can actively engage with the organizations that are releasing patients,” Mr. Ruder said. “She meets with the family and gets the low-down and then comes back and we do an initial assessment. And then I will meet the client. Her goal is to reach out to the community, find out what the need is, and bring back the story.”

He has stories about some work he’s done already; he’s turned a family’s garage into an apartment for the grandparents. “No one wants to put people into assisted living nowadays,” he said. “That’s why we renovated the garage for the in-laws.” It’s compliant with ADA standards, and “now they can stay there, and not in some weird room in the house, or displace the kids.

“We use construction to change the entire family structure,” he continued. “And we did it just by being creative enough to think of it.” Of course, the construction involved more than just the initial idea. It also required zoning board approval — and Brad-Core took care of that too.

This kitchen allows someone in a wheelchair or a scooter to use the kitchen sink.

How does this get paid for? In general, Mr. Ruder’s clients pay a fee for the concierge services, and that entitles them to a discount. “But if I go to a house and there’s a 42-year-old man who is stuck there, housebound, and there is an unsafe bathroom, and they don’t have a lot of money, we help them. We help them find grant money. And I am not going to charge the same amount.”

That project took seven months; the actual construction took two weeks. That’s because of the family’s very specific needs and requirements. “I can’t come up with any formula for it,” Mr. Ruder said. “Every family in need is different.”

His impetus to do this — the need first to use the tagline “Humanism in Building” and then to turn Humanism in Building into a separate division of his company — comes out of his Jewish values, Mr. Ruder said.

First, there was his childhood. “I grew up in MetroWest,” he said. “I went to the JCC, I went to Hebrew school at Temple Bnai Abraham, I had my bar mitzvah there. It all made me feel that there was a Jewish community there. You can be Jewish without a community, but I was surrounded by it constantly. I was constantly a part of it.

The air conditioning system in the Jewish Home Assisted Living in Rivervale broke. “This job had to be coordinated in every detail,” Mr. Ruder said. “When a crane has to hang over an active assisted living facility, every precaution must be in place.”

“When I was at Purdue, my parents said ‘You should go to Hillel.’ I said ‘I’m not going to Hillel!’ But I went to Hillel.” And he loved it. “It wasn’t only the people I met there,” he said. “It was also the feeling of being part of something. It makes you want to do better.

“It’s kind of like when you’re on a sports team, when other people rely on you to make something work. You step up to the plate, and you know that it’s not just about you. You are truly part of the community.”

Then, once he moved to Bergen County, “I was lucky that at every turn the members of the Jewish community embraced me. I just could not believe how caring and available the Jewish community is. They are all connected.

“The Jewish community here taught me what it is to be philanthropic and take care of the community. They taught me that it doesn’t mean that you say, ‘Hey, I’m loaded. I’m writing you a check.’ It’s not just about writing a check. It’s about learning what giving back does for the people you touch, and also what it does for your own self-worth, y our own trajectory.

A basement flood led to a major sewage line repair project in Teaneck.

“It’s not about popularity and getting your name on a wall. It’s about having the ability to connect to people.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the Jewish community,” Mr. Ruder said. “They wound me up and set me on the right path. I might have tried to do the right thing but I wouldn’t have been as dedicated and focused if it hadn’t been for those people who showed me the way.”

Tracey Kirstein is building her new role at Brad-Core and Humanism in Building on her 37 years of experience as a physical therapist, specializing in geriatrics. She’s worked in many different kinds of institutions — in sub-acute and acute hospital settings, in nursing homes with short- and long-term residents— as trends in the industry changed. She’d been at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck for a long time, doing home care for people recently discharged after surgery.

“In my home care experience, I was very cognizant of where everybody was situated,” she said. Back when she worked in nursing homes, with a patient who was “about to go home, we tried to understand where you were going, and how accessible it would be. Once I was doing home care, it became really clear to me what some of the actual limitations were, in terms of people who were aging in place, understanding how even a small modification to their homes could improve their lives.”

A Sinai School student gives Brad Ruder an artwork he’d created as thanks for the work-study program Brad-Core runs.

This is a part of the larger issues that surround the concept of aging in place. It’s great to allow people to stay in their own homes rather than being shipped off to an institution, but they need modifications — both physical and psychological — if it is to work. “We don’t have a template in advance for this,” Ms. Kirstein said. “People are living much longer, their family members who have some role in their care are not trained, and we have to make it all up as we go.

“We plan for a lot of things. If your child is going to kindergarten, or to college, you plan for it. But we don’t do the same planning for people who are aging — and we all are aging.”

“This is where Brad and I have merged,” Ms. Kirstein said. “I have been witness to his passion for home safety and mobility.” She hopes that doctors and other medical care providers will become more aware of the situation to which their patients will return, and will adjust their instructions accordingly.

She plans to explore county grants that patients can use to help fund construction, and she’s working with insurance companies to learn more about policy riders that also can be used for that purpose.

Even now, during covid, Ms. Kirstein makes some home visits. “If anybody is in need of a home assessment to determine how to make things more accessible, I will come and do it,” she said. Since she’s started at Brad-Core, she worked with an occupational therapy assistant whose parents — “I’m not making this up,” she said— needed help; her mother fractured her ankle and it cannot bear weight, and her father is shaky going up stairs. They were able to install an outdoor elevator near the driveway, which can double as a grocery-bag lift.

A Brad-Core team works on the beginnings of a new Fort Lee apartment.

Many houses do not have bathrooms on their ground floors, which can be a problem for people as they age and their ability to walk up and down stairs with ease recedes. “I know that often what happens is that people just stop drinking,” she said. She doesn’t mean they lay off the alcohol, but that they don’t hydrate themselves properly because the trek to the bathroom is too formidable to seem worth it. “If there is a kitchen and you are living alone, there usually is a way to add a powder room,” she said. “It’s rarely impossible.

“My job has a couple of layers in terms of reaching out to organizations” and finding out who might be in need of her services, Ms. Kerstein said. Then she will talk about it with Mr. Ruder; “then the team will come in, and solutions are discussed and proposals are prepared, and then the work begins.

“I have high hopes. I see that the home care organizations and rehab facilities sending people home can be in contact with us, so during the process of welcoming people back to their homes, there can be a lot of education of caregivers.”

Often she encounters skepticism from homeowners who fear that if they were to, say, install a grab bar, the value of their house would be lowered. “I am trying to bring the idea that the structure is theirs. They own it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it can never be changed.

“And how many times do people sell their beautiful homes, and the first thing that the buyer does is take out the new kitchen?

“My goal is to help people understand what can be done so that they can live and thrive in place, with maximum comfort, mobility, and safety, whether it is in their own home or as a guest in someone else’s home.”

Like Mr. Ruder, Ms. Kirstein is motivated by the Jewish values she’s learned throughout her life.

“I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor,” she said. That was her father, Symek Kirstein. “My father was a wonderful caretaker. That wasn’t his profession. He was a plumber. I don’t know who taught him, but he taught my children that if somebody is not well, you don’t ask. You do.

“You don’t ask a sick person if they want a cup of tea. You bring it to them. You do it for them.

“I try to explain to adult children that you don’t have to make everything negotiable.”

You also have to be straightforward — or at least consider the possible repercussions if you’re not.

She remembers the time her mother, Helen Kirstein, wanted her hair colored. She’d had cancer; the chemo not only made her hair fall out but changed its color when it grew back in. “I encouraged her to get her hair frosted the way she liked it,” Ms. Kirstein said, but her mother hesitated. A true child of her generation, she was uncomfortable paying as much as she assumed it would cost. So Ms. Kirstein talked to her own hairdresser, arranging for him to charge her mother an amount that would make sense to her — $50 — and paying for the rest of it herself.

“My mom played mah jongg with the same women for years,” Ms. Kirstein said. “They liked her hair, and they asked her how much it cost. She told them $50.” They all wanted to get their hair done there too. That, also is an eye-opener.

So, between her longtime experience working with geriatric patients, the extra academic training she got as she earned certification as an aging-in-place specialist, and her own lived experience as the daughter of aging parents, she’s well suited for this new job.

In January, Mr. Ruder won the community partnership award at the Sinai Schools gala; it’s a huge dinner, attracting people from across northern New Jersey and a sign of Sinai’s place in the community. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Ruder learned that the Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University has named Brad-Core as one of seven New Jersey Family Businesses of the Year. The awards luncheon is set for Wednesday, October 21.

Mr. Ruder does not take any of this recognition lightly. “If you love to do something, you truly love to do it, and you know that you can do it for people who need it?” he asked rhetorically. “What is better than that? Literally nothing. Nothing possibly can be better than than that.”

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