The partners at BUILD LLC, Kevin Eckert and Andrew van Leeuwen, can't complain. For a custom design/build firm in the midst of a slow-as-molasses real estate market, the Seattle-based company is faring relatively well. “It's certainly been very challenging,” van Leeuwen says. Unlike many similar businesses, BUILD has managed to retain all four of its employees. It's just finishing construction on a new house and has a whole-house renovation under way, as well as several smaller design projects. Clearly, van Leeuwen and Eckert must be doing something right.
The two met as undergraduates in 1993, on a study abroad program in Denmark. They worked at the same structural engineering firm in Seattle during the late 1990s, before van Leeuwen moved to New York to get his master's degree in architecture. Eckert, who holds degrees in structural engineering and architecture, took a job as an on-site project manager for a custom home by local architect Eric Cobb . He started BUILD in 1999, and two years later van Leeuwen returned to Seattle to join him.
Since then, BUILD has established a niche designing and building contemporary houses and small commercial projects in and around the city. Eckert manages the construction and business side, while van Leeuwen oversees design and marketing. Bart Gibson serves as on-site project manager, and architect-in-training Thomas “Duff” Bangs also spends time in the field.
In 2007, the company started a blog (blog.buildllc.com) to help spread the word about its modern designs and conscientious building strategies. The blog now receives 500 to 1,000 hits per day and generates many user comments. According to van Leeuwen, it's served as a powerful marketing tool. BUILD uses Twitter and Facebook to publicize it, and has even started a spin-off travel blog, The Modern List (www.themodernlist.com). The company's blogging efforts also have earned it an invitation to guest-edit the fall 2010 issue of ARCADE, a design journal that covers the Pacific Northwest.
BUILD's blog follows the conventional wisdom that successful blogs stay away from overpromoting their creators. It features posts on the company and its projects, but it also includes entries on other architects, buildings, and people the firm admires. According to van Leeuwen, the blog's main writer, one of its purposes is to create a public dialogue within the design and building fields. “We got tired of how secretive the architecture industry was,” he says. This openness often leads to spirited and productive online conversations among practitioners, such as a flurry of comments in response to a February 2009 post on construction costs. (To read the thread, visit blog.buildllc.com/2009/02/residential-construction-cost-cheat-sheet.)
Along with their online presence, the partners broadened their physical reach by opening in 2008 a subsidiary fabrication company called Special Projects Division (SPD). SPD's primary partner, David Hentzel , is a veteran woodworker who studied under the furniture master Sam Maloof. Hentzel makes custom cabinetry, furniture, and other pieces for many BUILD projects. SPD takes on outside clients, too, if they seem like a good fit. It even produces its own line of for-sale furniture, called the Kerf Series after the metal kerf joint that graces each piece.
Having this woodworking arm has helped BUILD keep its staff busy during the downturn; Eckert, van Leeuwen, Gibson, and Bangs all have taken turns in the shop during slower times. The 1,500-square-foot space is located in the city's Ballard neighborhood, a few miles away from BUILD's office in the University District.
This main office sits inside Park Modern, a mixed-use project that BUILD developed, designed, and built in 2007. The four-story building—which includes three retail spaces on the ground floor and 12 condominiums above—is home to van Leeuwen and his wife, as well as Eckert, his wife, and their two children. “It was one of the most satisfying projects we've ever done,” van Leeuwen recalls.
Park Modern embodies BUILD's ethos of practical sustainability. The company has investigated active technologies such as solar panels and geothermal heat, and although it doesn't rule these options out, it tries to lean more on basic, low-tech solutions. “If you can just build a building that lasts a hundred years, it's better than all of these technologies that could go out of fashion,” van Leeuwen says. The handsome Park Modern is a dense infill community made of durable materials such as steel, glass, and—in covered areas—wood. Its radiant heat floors, daylighting, natural ventilation, and high-efficiency appliances help lower energy use while keeping up-front costs manageable.
Currently, BUILD is concentrating on finding the best projects it can. In this economy, those tend to be remodels. “Over the next couple of years, with people's finances being tighter, our focus is more on taking the gems out there that just need some love and updating them,” van Leeuwen explains. 1950s-, '60s-, and '70s–era split-levels, in particular, could prove a rich source of future renovation work.
BUILD also intends to remain small, so that both partners can stay intimately involved with each project. And no matter how the market evolves, they plan to stay true to the one-page Design Manifesto posted on their website. It reads, in part: “We believe that if you do something, do it well.”
BUILD LLC, Seattle
Type of business: Design/build
Years in business: 11
Annual revenue: $450,000
Average number of projects per year: 7
Project type breakdown—remodeling vs. new construction: 60 percent vs. 40 percent
Project type breakdown—residential vs. commercial: 75 percent vs. 25 percent