What is a home if not part of a community? That's a question San Francisco–based David Baker Architects (DBA) considers every time it takes on a commission. Whether it's an urban loft building, a townhouse complex, or affordable housing, context is key down to the details, which often are made by local artisans: a mailbox surround, a distinctive front door, or lobby furniture that doubles as sculpture.
At first instinct, the artisan/production builder pairing seems odd, but it's a relationship that bears rethinking. According to a report by the Institute for the Future (IFTF), the past decade's economic and technological shifts are changing the way big companies work with suppliers. The Great Recession prompted many people to ply their trades from small shops, and the online marketplace—think sites like Etsy—made it easier to sell and commission work. As demand grows, fabrication technologies, too, have expanded the range of products craftspeople can make.
"The next 10 years will see the re-emergence of artisans as an economic force," the report predicts. "Many of the new artisans will be merchant-craftspeople producing one-of-a-kind or limited runs of specialty goods for an increasingly large pool of customers seeking unique, customized, or niche products."
Vendors With Benefits
What can artisans offer builders and buyers that mass production can't? Authenticity, for one thing. The details of craft tell a more intimate story about local culture and the power of place. David Elder is marketing coordinator at Michael Imber Architects, a San Antonio–based firm with a classical bent. He says builders of New Urbanist communities want the carved stone columns and ironwork the firm designs for custom clients.
"We research the area for historical significance and find the artisans who can produce what we want," Elder says. "The builders and developers want that handcrafted element."
Supporting backyard businesses, however broadly defined, certainly is on the public's radar. North Prairie Tileworks sits close to eight large multifamily buildings near the Minneapolis greenway. When developers presented their proposals, neighborhood groups asked that they commit to using local products. That didn't happen, says Roger Mayland, the tile company owner. "But now that some of the buildings were made into condos, the owners are coming to us to differentiate their spaces."
In an industry focused on affordability, handcraft isn't always more costly. When Ohio Design, in San Francisco's Mission District, made condo furniture for DBA out of locally sourced materials, "it was unbelievably price-competitive," says Brit Epperson, DBA's architectural interiors lead. Sometimes the developers are willing to spend more for functional pieces that stand in for art. "When you don't have to pay to ship from China, you can add back to the value of the product and get something even nicer," she says.
Local specialty manufacturers are better at innovation and problem-solving than their larger overseas counterparts. Big companies have a longer time to market and a lot of capital invested, which stifles creativity, according to the IFTF report: "Face-to-face interaction continues to be the best way to exchange complex ideas and information. Thus, niche manufacturers close to their customers have a clear advantage."
Epperson thinks so, too. "Local manufacturers are more nimble in a lot of ways. You can work with them to create something that makes sense specifically for your project," she says. "They're easy to contact; you can bike over to their shop to see if the prototype is working. And their interpretation has such great local flavor."
They may not request it directly, but buyers pick up on that quality, notes Houston interior designer Wendy Mitchell, co-owner of Millennium Designs, who works with production builders nationwide. Whether it's the way a model home is staged or the options builders offer, buyers are looking for items they don't see everywhere else, she says, which tracks with the buy-local movement in general.
"I love to eat at farm-to-table restaurants because the food is fresh and you're getting good quality," Mitchell says. "With interior design, it means limited quantities of unique things. When Mr. and Mrs. Smith are walking 15 models on a Saturday afternoon, there needs to be something they remember."
KRDB, an Austin, Texas, speculative builder, includes a defining feature in each project, and something handmade often fits the bill. It could be a one-of-a-kind concrete tub surround, a custom cabinet niche, or a handblown glass light fixture. "We're trying to hit the $150-per-square-foot mark on spec homes and spend more money on the performance side, so we use decorative things sparingly," says principal Chris Krager. "But we're doing two spec houses now at $750,000 and know someone looking in that range will have certain expectations."
Artisans are filling a gap left by vendors that didn't survive the recession, Mitchell says: "Things are shifting. We're in recovery mode; builders are energized, excited, and wanting to do new things."
Testing the Waters
The handmade movement has yet to get traction with suburban production builders. But Taylor Morrison currently is testing a related theme with its Made in America house in Houston. From carpets to cabinets, all of the interior pieces are U.S.-sourced. The model debuted in June in Grand Vista, a community of homes priced from the high $100,000s to half a million dollars.
"We're constantly looking to differentiate ourselves with relevant themes, and jobs are on the public mind," says Jim Ellison, vice president of sales and marketing for Taylor Morrison's Houston division. "The community neighboring it caters to small business owners, teachers, firefighters, and veterans. We decided it was the right place to fulfill this concept." This approach is not just a marketing tactic, but a suggestion that builders might be able to adapt in the place-making game by giving American manufacturers exposure to visitors throughout the city.
As manufacturing industry employment declines, builders can help forge connections between small businesses and local employment opportunities. For example, developers in New York City often install Atlas East's modular furniture—handmade in Newburgh, N.Y., and Lancaster, Pa.—in their condominium models. "In a couple of cases, the model has been sold with the beds, desks, and chairs at the buyers' request," says co-owner Joseph Fratesi.
DBA may be ahead of its time, but probably not for long. While the artisan market is currently small, a majority of U.S. consumers will participate in this sector by 2018, the IFTF report predicts.
Epperson can trace that trend. "This is an idea we've typically had to sell to our clients, but now they are pushing in that direction because they see the added value in using locally handcrafted things," she says. "It's about the identity of the project, adding to the story and engaging people so they'll rent or buy in your building."
It's also a story about manufacturing ingenuity, about jobs and intellectual property, and about how partnerships will play out in the future. "Buildings are about people and the communities that surround them, and how those synergies connect," Epperson says. "That's really important to us."
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Lancaster, PA, Austin, TX.