Twin Cities architects Barry Petit and Maureen Steele Bellows came out of the recession wondering how to launch a new architecture firm in a market dominated by design-build firms.
“The 2008 crash seemed to be in the rearview mirror,” said Petit. “But it was clear that we could not compete against the well-established custom builders.”
The couple, after writing a design book, searched for an unfilled niche that would make the best use of their skills and set them apart.
Earlier, Bellows spent five years working for a single client who commissioned her to design three homes in Hawaii, Colorado and northern Minnesota. Petit worked for Meyer Scherer and Rockcastle Architects (now called MSR Architecture, Interiors, and Urban Design), a top-shelf firm that counted the Daytons, Pillsburys and MacMillans among its clients.
“These folks were genuinely more compelled by the process than the actual outcome,” he said. “One became spoiled with their passion for design and the passion for exploration.”
Frustrated by the sameness of the many-gabled stock designs that seem to dominate the suburban landscape, the couple decided to test an idea: They’d create a portfolio of designs based on the simple lines and shapes of the barns, farm houses and other rural buildings that dot the Minnesota countryside.
“After several days of pinning words on the wall, staring, arguing and rolling eyes, we settled on Vernacular Revival,” Petit said. “It was perfect because the ‘vernacular’ spoke to the notion of a local language — in this case our regional agrarian aesthetic — while ‘revival’ suggested a rediscovery of the past.”
And instead of trying to sell their services directly to consumers, they decided to focus on selling their designs to the big companies that build the bulk of the houses in the Twin Cities metro area. By sidestepping buyers, they’re positioning themselves as what the couple call “invisible architects.”
Petit said that he often gets calls from prospective clients who are surprised when he tells them that he’s going to immediately put them in touch with the builder.
“Most imagine that an architect would rather become the owner’s agent, so to speak, and start the design process and become fully engaged with the client before finding the builder,” Petit said. “Once I explain our concept, they really do appreciate the tidiness of getting the builder in control as soon as possible.”
To test their idea, they hired a local company to build a house based on one of their plans and they entered it in the 2014 Parade of Homes Spring Preview. They quickly sold three plans and then created a portfolio of 38 stock designs that can easily be replicated and adapted by just about any builder for any site.
The company is also heading out of the metro area and has recently targeted builders in Fargo, Des Moines and Madison, Wis.
“The ability to market far beyond our local area with only a two-person firm is purely a function of being the ‘invisible architects,’ ” Petit said.
Petit and Bellows sell those stock plans to builders, but they also make money by charging $2.10 per square foot to design finished above-grade space, and an hourly rate if the builder wants to make additional modifications to their stock plans.
The company recently formed a partnership with Vercon Inc., a builder that has done a lot of work in the Brainerd Lakes region, but wanted to expand into the Twin Cities by marketing something unique.
“We cannot offer the same design formula that has dominated the residential industry for decades,” said Jay Helgren, Vercon’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We need a fresh product.”
Petit said the strategy seems to be working. The company now has a growing stable of builders who have signed up to use their plans, including five that have recently signed a contract.
“Probably our greatest mission is to challenge the relentless residential design fashion of complicated forms, peaks, multiple gables and random applications of ‘stuff,’ ” Petit said. “We want to change residential design by allowing the market to see something new.”