For jobs in outlying areas, especially those without a budget for shipping in materials and labor, Shipley thinks locally, tailoring custom design elements to the capabilities of nearby craftsmen. “We might be doing masonry work, and the masons have an idea for how I'd like to do the stone. But when they get out there and you see that they have their own way of doing things, you have to make adjustments to achieve a quality you want without driving them crazy,” he explains. Other times, the availability of materials calls for hands-on ingenuity. On a recent job, Shipley had speced a frameless stone wall, only to discover that the local stone wasn't sized for the full width of the wall. The adaptation involved building two walls against each other, with an occasional large stone tying the two together.

Alter views such surprises as part of the game—and a condition that often leads to serendipitous results. Part of the fun is seeking out idiosyncrasy. “I have an ear to the ground,” he says. “I found people doing terrazzo, so we're doing a house with terrazzo in it. The clients had a collection of old mother-of-pearl button stock that we considered grinding up and putting in.”

time and materials

Indeed, for many architecture firms, working with craftspeople isn't just about fleshing out their own ideas; it's also about gaining entrée to esoteric worlds. Shannon Rankin, a principal of Seattle-based SkB Architects, notes that talking to one of her firm's woodworkers—the go-to guy for exquisite finishes—is like speaking a different language. “Because of his knowledge of different cuts of wood and finishing recipes, he can tell us, ‘If you like that, try this.' It's like attending a wine tasting,” Rankin says, “and it gets us into trying new things above and beyond the typical spec.”

Like Alterstudio, SkB continually seeks out talented niche artists. “We've asked people to show us things they've done lately, looking at the finishes, weld quality, and connections,” Rankin continues. “They're always happy to oblige. We ask how they get from here to there. The ones you really love to work with can show you how they went through the process, making sketches and models. They're kindred souls graphically, and they're verbally adept. In the end, we're counting on them to help enlighten us.”

For other firms, fabricators are the inside track to getting an early grasp of possibilities and costs. Marlon Blackwell, AIA, Fayetteville, Ark., and his eight employees typically bring in specialty subs during the schematic phase. “That's very different from the old way, where the architect does everything in-house, draws up all the details, and gives it to a GC to bid out,” Blackwell says. “By the time you hand something off, the head-scratching factor is alleviated, and that helps you manage costs, as well as quality.” Current projects include developing underwater skylights—hollow columns that distribute light—for the Indianapolis Art Center. In the process, Blackwell's firm evaluated several materials and methods (including plasticized concrete), analyzing the costs and life-cycle performance of each. They settled on a metal substructure coated in plaster as the best way to get the effect they wanted while overcoming the difficulties of the site.

Blackwell sees this approach becoming more popular in the years ahead. “We haven't even done construction documents yet,” he says. “That's the kind of thing architects do today. You can't just draw something that falls outside the realm of conventional thinking and expect it to be built willy-nilly.”

Working out the logistical and technical challenges of materials is a speculative enterprise—and no small investment of time and money. “You can't understand proportions until you see an object full-size—that's something a Danish furniture builder drilled into me,” says Nils C. Finne, AIA, who designs some of the fixtures and furniture for every residential project he accepts. But he believes it's worth the trouble, and his clients seem to agree. “It's interesting how small details, especially ones you're touching and interacting with every day, can really make a difference in your environment,” he says. Finne regularly works with a metalsmith, a cabinetmaker, and a glassblower. “Often my initial idea is greeted with scorn and they say, ‘Maybe we can do this,'” he jokes, “and then they make the thing that can't possibly be made.”

The big hurdle is prototyping. It would be cost-prohibitive if the meter were to start ticking the minute an architect walked in the door. But in Finne's case, a long and productive working relationship with his cabinetmaker eases an arduous process. For example, his Lofot dining table—originally designed for a client—is made with two sinuous interlocking pieces of bent wood on top. It took roughly four weeks of steady shopwork to construct, and several months prior to that in incubation. In its maiden voyage, the table swelled in the middle, sending it back to the drawing board. “It's amazing the number of issues that pop up on you,” Finne says. “But we've been working with these fabricators for 14 years; they try to bend over backward for us.” And sometimes, the rewards multiply. Based on inquiries he's received, he hopes to produce and sell about 20 of the tables.

Is custom craft expensive? Yes. As Kundig points out, moving six tons of glass will be more expensive than not moving it. But, he reasons, these gestures need not be the exclusive domain of patrons with super-high budgets. He counsels clients that if they pay $40,000 to make a wall move, they will have to take out $40,000 somewhere else. “Some custom homes have $40,000 in marble in a bath,” Kundig says. “Or the moving table, including the wheels and big piece of wood, might cost $15,000. But if you were to buy a 26-foot table out of a store, you'd easily be spending that much money.” Likewise, an Italian couch—a commodity—can cost $25,000. “To say that craft is more expensive than commodity is simply not true,” he insists, “and it's unfortunate that the assumption continues to be thought of as legitimate.”

The handmade qualities of good design can be achieved at virtually any budgetary level. Harmon puts it succinctly: “Working with craftspeople is the most efficient way to get things done,” he says. “We just leave it off the contractor's drawing and say ‘supplied by architect.'”