Remember playing with sticks, rocks, leaves, some water, a cardboard box or two, and good friends? Children experiment naturally with built environments, working with resources at hand and usually whistling all along. As adults, we’re not much different. We create and re-create our living and workspaces, inspired by imaginative vision, facilitated by collaborative design and chosen materials, and realized through old-fashioned hard work. By Alethea Schaus

As summer returns to the Flathead, what is different about the built environment? According to local professionals, major economic changes over the past four years have definitely played a large role in different choices for financing (or non-financing), shrinking building footprints, different tastes in structural and aesthetic amenities, greater demand for efficiency and green design on a budget, and an increase in renovations and remodels. Is the market improving or simply changing? It looks like a little of both.

Exclusive to inclusive

Since the market downturn in 2008, tastes have increasingly shifted from exclusive, large-scale, trophy-style constructions toward more contemporary, minimalist, cottage-like designs and remodels. Homeowners, designers, construction and landscape professionals, and lenders have all surfed some wild economic waves and the built landscape reflects new priorities. As challenging as it has all been, there seem to be many up-sides.

Regional professionals echo the same overall message – the market is steadily improving and people are tending toward designs that are smaller, simpler, and smarter.

“Some still want Montana Traditional and we see a rising interest in the mid-size luxury home,” says Travis Denman, Architectural Designer with Denman Construction. “Smaller homes still have all of the amenities as the large, but with a smaller footprint and increased efficiency, appropriate use of space, and a shift towards more contemporary design. Folks are willing to give up the grandeur in the living spaces to make them more cozy and livable.”

Many are choosing to remodel older properties, or downsize, rather than build new. This has kept many local builders afloat, and allowed them to round out their offerings. “The remodel market has played a huge roll in pulling us through the downturn, and we are grateful for that,” says Denman. “We have continued to build that side of our company further and further.”

Innovative efficiency

As necessity breeds invention, it also requires efficiency. As many homeowners choose to reduce the footprint of their homes, there are certain elements and amenities that are essential to any good design. For most, those include the places where everyone naturally gathers to eat, share stories, and relax together.

According to Reedstrom, a certified Green Builder, energy efficiency and indoor air quality are also high on the list. Travis Denman and Hunter Dominick concur that customers still want efficiency and many benefits of green building, but don’t necessarily want to pay more for it.

People still want green, but are not willing to pay the high prices associated with the label,” says Dominick. “Most people are doing more things local and therefore are green without the recognition.”

While efficiency becomes more relevant today via green building practices and product choices, it also is more important than ever during the planning and design schedules of any project. “One big change we see now is in inventory supply and lead time,” says Reedstrom. “Manufactures are not carrying the inventory as in the past. Selection schedules need to include longer lead times.”

“Clients are putting more thought into the building process to better understand where their money is being spent,” says Landscape Architect Johnny McDonald of White Cloud Design in Whitefish. “During the initial planning and budgeting stages, our services are more important than ever. We are able to help projects save time and money, without compromising quality, and actually improve the finished product by fully understanding the design and budgeting parameters.”

CREATING SUSTAINABILITY

It’s not always about how much we have, but what we do with what we have. In a changing economy, being adaptable and part of a supportive community are key. Changes in lending practices have altered the pace and scope of many projects in the past few years, whether residential or commercial. Strong relationships with trusted colleagues, within various trades and professions, never go out of style.

“The financing world has made it rather difficult to get some of these projects to fruition over the past couple of years,” says Denman. “With the mass influx of foreclosures, it has been tough to get a good appraisal on any new construction. Thankfully, we have some creative people in our local banking industry that made some of these projects pull through.”

Many are choosing to pay with cash rather than finance. Yet, even when budgets are tight, most folk still seek out the best quality for their dollar. “Quality is always a must, but it seems like budget has taken a step up in the rankings, so it’s now a matter of being creative with the budget we’re given to produce as quality of a product as we can,” explains Denman. “Thankfully, we have a great pool of resources and relationships from over the years to work with. Together we can come up with good solutions.” “We almost always have clientele whose main goal is to create a low-maintenance landscape,” says McDonald. “This is easy to say, yet, to successfully accomplish this, there needs to be a certain amount of time, planning, and involvement with the design and building team.”

McDonald suggests thoughtful planning from the outset for any project. “When putting together the financing for a project, it is recommended to put a realistic number on the landscape line item. This usually means rethinking other details and shifting funds around in order to end up with a successful outcome. All too often, clients regret later the shortcuts taken at this stage. We are seeing more clientele who understand this, as many have been through the building process before.” Casey Malmquist, President of Malmquist Construction in Whitefish, sees the economic shift and changes in the field as ultimately headed in a positive direction.

All-in-all, creative enthusiasm and overall morale in the architecture, design, and construction arenas seem to be definitely on the upswing along with summer’s return to Northwest Montana. Shared resilience, creative innovation, and an ongoing spirit of community are contagious. Perhaps it could be said that when times get tough, the tough get creative – and that might be one of the most truly sustainable things going.

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