shades of green

David Arkin, AIA, Arkin Tilt Architects, Berkeley, Calif., agrees. “A house offers an opportunity to be extremely site-specific. That's where a talented architect can make a huge difference,” says Arkin, who is also president of Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility. He and his wife, Anni Tilt, have built a practice around energy- and resource-efficient design that is highly sensitive to the landscape and climate. Knowing how to position a house for passive solar benefits and using recycled materials differentiates his services from those of production builders. Developers don't have north-, south-, and west-facing floor plans. Their homes aren't the least bit tuned in to the sun's path across the sky, and they're likely to be covered in vinyl siding, which lasts forever in the landfill.

The firm's knowledge of alternative building methods, such as rammed earth and straw bale construction, also appeals to a growing subset of potential clients. After completing a straw bale house on a relatively flat site, Arkin and Tilt modified the plan and offered it for sale on www “We are very clear about which way the house needs to be pointed in order to work properly,” Arkin says. “I'm a big believer in the ability of straw bale construction to create energy-efficient and beautiful homes, so we're hoping to embark on a series of modest, affordable straw bale designs. It's our belief that you shouldn't have to be ultra-wealthy to build an exciting shelter.”

Concord, N.H., architect Dennis McNeal, AIA, who also specializes in sustainable design, is sometimes asked to tweak stock plans from mainstream sources. Usually he can satisfy the clients' needs with less square footage. “I tell them, ‘Had you built the mail-order plan, it would have cost you this much above the cost we came up with. Instead, you'll pay my fee and get an earth-friendly house that fits you now and 20 years down the road,'” says McNeal, who charges roughly 8 percent for design. “They need to look at my fee long-range, amortized over 30 years.”

model behavior

There's no getting around the fact that one-of-a-kind architecture takes a lot of time. At some point, architects tire of defending and massaging their fees: Either clients get it, or they don't. They can pay for it, or they can't. But another way to satisfy the architectural soul of middle-class America is to offer architecture en masse. Five years ago, Vetter Denk Architects, Milwaukee, diversified into development so that it could touch people in the $150,000 to $400,000 price range (and on up). Through density, efficiency, and repetition, the firm can omit the high design fees while still offering some degree of customization and site-specific architecture.

“We struggled with it for many years—this huge group of people who see the value in architecture but can't fit it into their budget,” says partner John Vetter, AIA. “Being our own developer was the most logical solution we could see, rather than cutting our fees to provide architecture, or providing half a service. We're becoming our own largest client.”

The firm brings 20 years of residential programming experience to the urban condominiums, row houses, and single-family homes it's been building in Milwaukee and, most recently, on the Fox River waterfront in Green Bay, Wisc. But it hasn't abandoned individuality. The architects are offering everything from raw to ready-made. For example, at Park Terrace—21 row houses and 17 single-family homes in Milwaukee's Beerline neighborhood—clients can purchase one of three palettes that take the guesswork out of interior design. Buyers may upgrade the level of finishes in each package, tweak the floor plan, or wipe the slate clean and pay an hourly fee for custom work. Sound familiar? Maybe, but it far exceeds the design rigor and level of customization that most home builders offer.

“There's an affordable shell; it's spatially interesting, takes advantage of sunlight, prioritizes views, and really thinks about cross-ventilation,” Vetter says. “Right there it starts to exceed the production model.” A fully custom floor plan is still less time-consuming than starting from scratch. The firm worked with one client to incorporate an elevator lift and penthouse artist studio. “It's a unique floor plan that only worked for them,” Vetter says. On the other hand, “someone can say, ‘I love your base package,' and doesn't have to spend a penny more.”

Not far away, David Salmela is offering something similar for suburbanites. Working closely with a developer and a landscape architect, he's designing a community of freestanding homes at Jackson Meadow in St. Croix, Minn., and Mayo Woodlands, in Rochester, Minn., ranging in price from $250,000 to several million. Each house is designed for an individual client, yet they all share common materials and proportions that are rooted in the local culture. “The biggest impact is what people see as they drive in,” Salmela says. “Everything is in harmony, but nothing is duplicated. It's like one family where you have a lot of kids. They all come out of the same gene, and it cuts the design fee in half.” The homes have predictable costs, and they've grown in value because they're well designed. Homes built for $350,000 four years ago now appraise at $650,000.

Yes, good architecture is ambitious, but most of all it's optimistic. “It's the broadminded people who realize what we're trying to do, and they're the ones who come in and buy,” Salmela says of his clients at Jackson Meadow and Mayo Woodlands. “When we're done, everyone will want to be here.”

cheryl weber is a contributing writer in severna park, md.

the 10 best reasons for hiring a residential architect

  • The house can be tailored to fit the current and future needs of its occupants.
  • A space-efficient, smart house is better than a big dumb one.
  • Architects are inventive with materials and details.
  • An architect safeguards a home investment by observing its construction.
  • A one-of-a-kind house plays up the best qualities of its environment and culture.
  • Sensitive siting saves energy and resources.
  • It's a way to explore many different design options quickly.
  • There's greater potential for the house to increase in market value.
  • The house's owners get to live in an original piece of art.
  • Building a house should be fun.