For years people have phoned the Blue Hill, Maine, office of Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture (EENa) asking to buy the plans for the firm's widely published custom houses—to no avail. "Our feeling has been that we like the one-off nature of these custom homes," says staff architect Eric Reinholdt. But as the economy changed, principals Libby Elliott, Matt Elliott, AIA, and Bruce Norelius and their team started to think seriously about developing a series of for-sale plan sets. Building on their long-standing interest in barns and other vernacular structures, they've created a program called "rural ARTIFACTS" that offers their own award-winning residential architecture skills at more affordable price points.

According to Reinholdt, who serves as the program's point person, there are three different levels of participation in rural ARTIFACTS. The most basic stage is a $35 book, put together and published by the firm, which provides historical background on vernacular building types such as barns, meeting houses, grist mills, woodsheds, and other agricultural structures. "We're interested in a concept," he says. "We wanted to have it be more than just plans and elevations." The book acts as a source of inspiration for readers and as a possible springboard to greater rural ARTIFACTS involvement.

The program's middle level provides a complete set of drawings for a house based on one of these classic archetypes. The plans come with four hours of consultation time to discuss siting and infrastructure requirements, materials and fixtures, and construction options. This intermediate package will cost about $5,000. "Ideally, the design consultation is a window into what we do as architects," Reinholdt says.

EENa is particularly eager to move forward with rural ARTIFACTS' third level—a built house, chosen from the firm's pre-designed plans. (Reinholdt calls this option "a completed artifact.") Pricing is still being finalized, but the goal is to establish a range from $250,000 to $500,000, depending on the house type and materials and excluding site and infrastructure costs. Clients will be able to make choices from a pre-selected list of interior materials, fixtures, and finishes, but many of the typical decisions—on which general contractor to work with or what exterior materials to use, for example—are made by the firm. "It's not a huge time commitment for the client, relative to a custom home," Reinholdt points out. "The idea is, after making that [interior] level of decision, they'd show up to a turnkey home."

This third tier of participation offers other potential advantages. It taps into the currently burgeoning interest in locally produced goods and services and could invigorate stagnant local economies by supplying builders with work. "This is about building high-quality, authentic buildings using local labor forces," Reinholdt says. "The builders we've talked to like the idea. The materials list makes it easy for them to figure out the price." He sees the program as a regional effort that leverages the firm's strong relationships with Northeastern builders and its intimate knowledge of the area's architecture and climate conditions.

The initiative launched in May and has generated considerable consumer interest so far, but no buyers just yet. In time, rural ARTIFACTS could turn out to be an important new model for treading the vast middle ground between production housing and custom homes. Adds Reinholdt: "It's a more affordable way to work with an architect and get good design."