Form, function and delight have been the three fundamentals of design since the ancient dawn of architecture. Beyond the basics of shape and purpose, it is in the definition of delight that each piece of architecture finds its own unique reflection of whoever commissioned it. For the team at Clutch Design Studio, architecture begins with understanding the particular wants, needs, pet peeves and dreams of their custom home clients.
“As a team, our focus is on creating incredible architecture,” says Robin Ault, director of design at Clutch Design Studio’s Denver office. The studio is a low-slung brick building in the Baker neighborhood where a mix of bungalow homes and blue-collar commercial enterprises comingle. When Clutch took possession of a former warehouse building at 309 W. 1st Avenue, they gutted it to the rafters and floors.
They then detailed the space to reveal a material-rich sensibility of exposed brick, rough-hewn timber and time. From this platform, the Clutch team explores purpose and possibility with a combination of commercial, civic and custom home projects of almost any scope or scale, putting the client at the center of the conversation.
“Incredible architecture requires building genuine relationships with great clients,” Ault says.
Since the firm’s founding in 2013, Clutch has been hands-on with projects as large as a 400,000- square foot Denver Tech Center office building and as small as a 1,200 square-foot mountain getaway for two. Regardless of scale, design excellence is achieved by the people doing the work. On Clutch’s high-end custom homes, Kristen Tonsager, head of interior design, is in the mix at every stage of the process.
“I love the hands-on craft experience of custom residential, says Tonsager, who grew up in Colorado before migrating east for college at Drexel University. Her formative years in design were spent in Miami creating luxury interiors. To begin exploring new project types, she took a position at Leo A. Daly working on aviation architecture, where the scale is enormous. After returning to Colorado in 2007, she landed at Denver’s famed Fentress Architects, where she met Ault while working together on airport projects in Los Angeles and Charleston, S.C.
“I found that I missed the personal connection with my clients on those very large, commercial assignments,” shares Tonsager. When Ault and partners Matt Robertson and Christopher Campbell approached her about joining their new venture, the decision wasn’t hard to make. “In a custom home, we are designing down to the doorknobs and drapery. These are the tactile parts of the project. Allowing the client to touch, feel, and choose the materials is paramount to achieving a personal connection.”
For Tonsager achieving a personal connection with homeowners needs to start in the most intimate of spaces, their home. She enjoys meeting somewhat informally, generally in the evening for a glass of wine and a thoughtful conversation about how they live and what makes them happy.
“It’s important to understand their lives and lifestyle. What they like about their space and don’t like as well,” Tonsager says. “We get their wish list and ask enough questions to become slightly intrusive. Then we design.”
Concept exploration is, of course, the fun part. Clutch generally presents three conceptual iterations of a floor plan. Concepts are communicated in person through a combination of digital 3-D models, 2-D floor plans, renderings and a sincere enthusiasm for the process of fine-tuning the direction through client interaction. Tonsager frequently uses mood boards, which combine images of furnishings, furniture, fixtures and finishes as an ensemble to depict an evocative expression of place. The vision boards not only help custom homeowners establish a genuine presence in the finished work but as importantly, it often helps keep them on track along the way.
“Many custom homeowners have never experienced the process of architecture before, which can become overwhelming,” the interior designer says. “We can take them to design showrooms, see and feel countless materials, and even commission artisan pieces of furniture until the home is absolutely unique to their expectations.”
Project material choices need not only align with the design, but also meet cost expectations. Tonsager manages the budgetary boundaries of her work by being organized. Detailed spreadsheets developed for each project tabulate material options, purchase costs, installation costs, maintenance obligations and other differentiators.
“It’s irresponsible to advocate for things the client can’t afford, but we don’t hesitate to propose luxury items that they can afford,” says Tonsager.
As the client’s comfort level and confidence in the emerging design solution grows, for much of their custom home projects, Clutch takes on something of an owner’s representative role. Just like architects or materials, there are a lot of choices for general contractors. In consideration of the design style and building materials, project location and available, qualified, resources, Clutch will recommend three or four contractors for clients to choose from. They will manage a qualifications review, interview introduction process and solicit cost proposals. Once the contractor is selected, collaboration ensues between Clutch and the contractor as the design transitions from the digital realm to reality. Clutch remains involved throughout construction, monitoring the contractor’s adherence to drawings, answering questions and finding solutions to any challenges that arise.
“We’re not designing homes to a builder’s spec,” Ault says. Achieving a homeowner’s dreams is in the details. “Clutch goes full custom on every home we touch because that’s the way we think it ought to be.”
Sean O’Keefe writes for publications, architects, builders and product manufacturers based on 20 years of experience in the design and construction industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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