Drawing a shy crowd

Architects: A different sort of firm, HBF Plus Architects, attracts clients who might recoil from the prices of a typical architect.

May 23, 1999|By Gary Hornbacher | Gary Hornbacher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Almost a decade ago, H. Bruce Finkelstein began tinkering around with a new way to use his architectural skills -- to reach more consumers.

His Baltimore-based firm -- HBF Plus Architects -- was known for its commercial design projects such as the St. James condominium and fire stations, but he was working on a way to develop a niche that was largely disdained by his peers. His goal was to capture consumers who were planning small- to medium-size residential projects -- who might never have considered using an architect.

The premise was simple -- to deliver high-quality architectural services on an affordable, as-needed basis without requiring clients to buy into an entire package of architectural services. He would offer to jump-start the planning process for customers and give short-term help and support as well as offer access to other building resources not normally available to them.

Instead of having to pay for full architectural service, consumers could go a la carte. And thus was born Design Reach.

More than 750 clients later, Finkelstein and his partner, Kitty Daly, have succeeded in carving out a unique, small-market niche with a highly personalized, consultative approach that has drawn kudos from clients and contractors alike.

"A lot of people are boxed in, limited by what they think can be done," Finkelstein said. "Our role is to free them up and show them other options. I guess you could say my method of working in Design Reach is to go in and empty my head out on the table."

Today, the 17-year-old architectural firm, with headquarters in Commerce Center in Pikesville, offers residential clients and contractors three levels of services -- Design Reach, design development and the preparation of construction documents, including full structural detailing, materials specifications and necessary documentation.

Their projects span the design gamut -- from small jobs such as fitting a powder room into the first floor of a renovated rowhouse to a recent major effort that turned a concrete and concrete-block horse stable into a $1.4 million home. But, while there are the big full service projects, the majority of the firm's 50 to 60-plus annual projects involve far fewer dollars and far less square footage.

And that is just fine as far as the two partners are concerned. Even the smallest proj- ect, they believe, can benefit from the general building knowledge and objective viewpoint of an architect.

"The classic Design Reach projects," Finkelstein said, "include kitchen or bath renovations, the addition of a family room or master bedroom suite, porch or garage additions, even the addition of a second floor, which is something a lot of clients end up not doing because we find a more appropriate way of getting them what they want."

A lot of people, it turns out, shy away from architects because they think that their remodeling project is too small, the fees may be too high or the project itself isn't feasible.

Concerns addressed

Design Reach addresses all three concerns.

Typically, clients -- usually referred by contractors or friends -- meet for a two- to three-hour working consultation at their home or the HBF Plus offices. Armed with floor plans or designs previously done with graph paper and materials provided by Daly, Finkelstein leads clients through a free-spirited discussion of their plans and goals.

Finkelstein then draws free-hand sketches or overlays with notes describing basic design concepts and will provide information on contractors, materials selection and other factors that go to the heart of design and cost options.

"We were at an impasse on a specific design for a sun room," said Bruce Kyle, a Sykesville resident.

"Bruce came out, sat down with us and worked out a solution to our problem in several hours.

It worked so well that my wife later went back and worked with Kitty in [the firm's] library before we actually consulted a kitchen designer.

"We really liked the fact that they worked with us to come up with practical solutions and didn't push their ideas on us."

The freehand drawings Finkelstein produces allow participants to work through design options and strategies and obtain preliminary bids and comments from contractors.

"We help assess their needs, get them together with their contractors and give them the information they need to make good choices," Daly said. "That's all most resourceful clients with relatively uncomplicated projects need."

All Design Reach clients have unlimited free access to the firm's library, which contains literally hundreds of binders and specialized magazines, anticipating just about every design and sourcing need a client or contractor might have.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for many clients," Daly, who has a nonarchitectural background, said.

"Their projects represent an emotional as well as a financial investment. They love the opportunity to educate themselves and some will come in and spend hours in the library poring over catalogs and binders."

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