Readers may remember housebrand partner John Brown discussing his approach to the single-family home in the October 2002 issue of Canadian Architect. Today, Brown has transformed his firm into one that has developed a specialty of addressing the needs of an entry-level clientele and the firm has positioned itself as an alternative source for the production of single-family housing in Calgary. For roughly the same price, a young couple can have housebrand design their home in an established central neighbourhood, or they can move to the suburbs and purchase a stock home from a developer.
housebrand’s philosophy of the everyday begins with a core architectural practice that has evolved to include the functions of real estate broker, contractor, interior designer and wholesaler of furniture. The firm is also experimenting with limited production of household items and architectural elements such as customized address numbers, doors and mailboxes. housebrand believes that its approach allows the firm to increase the quality of the final product with fewer mistakes, as there are fewer opportunities for miscommunication and cost overruns. Additionally, the relationship with the client is strengthened as a result of the comprehensive role that housebrand offers throughout the design process.
Walking into the housebrand office, one is reminded of being in a design showroom filled with sofas, lighting and laminates that describe a particular aesthetic. The approach is useful as it allows the client to become more conversant with a variety of aesthetic and material options and expectations. On any given week, Brown may receive thirty-odd walk-ins, of which two to three become clients. And while this might cause some of his colleagues to become concerned about reducing architecture to a common retail experience, he is accessing a segment of the house-buying market who may not otherwise feel comfortable hiring an architect.
housebrand’s process of working with a client begins with a Residential Profile. The firm evaluates the client’s needs and develops a series of options that include a list of priorities focusing around lifestyle and desired neighbourhood. The concept of working with existing buildings offers a modest and sustainable approach to architecture. There are many neighbourhoods in Calgary that are already sufficiently developed to offer mature landscapes, large lots and close proximity to existing restaurants and amenities. housebrand looks for homes in these established neighbourhoods and then examines a cost-effective way of renovating them through appropriate architectural and interior design services. The client need only decide on how extensive the renovation should be.
This is where the Tailored Home concept begins. As housebrand’s brochure explains, “When we go shopping for a suit we don’t expect to find perfection hanging on the rack. Instead we look for something with the right combination of price, cut and fabric and then have it altered to fit the specific nature of our body.” The Tailored Home concept is dependent on determining the client’s needs and living expectations. housebrand’s Residential Profile asks a series of questions that are meant to determine the client’s priorities: number of bathrooms, bedrooms, spaciousness, lighting, and storage are all legitimate questions as they translate into price.
The Residential Profile is an essential guide for housebrand to select an appropriate property that will undergo renovations. Then, from the Residential Profile, a Target Criteria Worksheet determines the characteristics of the neighbourhood that the client finds important. This worksheet is used as a basis to streamline the extent of the subsequent financial package.
Once the client decides on a desired property, the third step involves the actual design and implementation of any necessary alterations. Depending on the closing costs of the house, budgets are re-evaluated and consequently reflected in any changes to design upgrades and finishes. At this point, architectural plans are created and a material palette is developed to determine the flooring, fixtures and furnishings. Extra items such as fireplaces and custom doors are added to the mix.
When Brown’s practice began, he met with clients in restaurants. Ten years ago, he moved to his present location which had a standard meeting room and the look of a traditional office. It was only in 2003 when housebrand shifted its practice towards a retail model that the office added its own presentation centre. When working with larger clients, the presentation centre simply evolves into a more comfortable form of a boardroom. Brown’s larger commercial projects include a health club and Flat 17, a recent development featuring condos starting at below the $200,000 price point.
housebrand may have to adjust its business plan in the future to accommodate its shift toward designing larger project commissions while maintaining its competitive advantage of providing mid-priced homes for clients unaccustomed to working with architects. While the two streams of practice are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the challenges of maintaining and preserving a clear identity for the firm will have to be addressed.
Within the profession, there are some architects who might feel that housebrand is selling architecture short and presenting itself in an overly commercial manner. To this, Brown responds that any social or ideological agenda in his work is not lost, as housebrand speaks to the many aspects of architectural design and sustainability that are implicit in its work. Brown believes that ultimately, what is holding back the production of architecture is the architects themselves when he claims that “If we can get off our high horse and engage in the world around us without losing our principles, then our profession will be that much further ahead.” To this end, housebrand is learning how to respond to the needs of the Calgary market.