How one design expert intuitively channels client dreams into reality.

When Bradley J. Butcher, AIA, Senior Project Manager of Sidock Group, sits down with a potential client, there’s no book of plans or past projects to flip through, no computer renderings, no walkthroughs of Parade of Homes winners.

Instead, he starts with what he calls the first-and-foremost question: “Where are we building?”

This is the beginning of a collaborative design process that Butcher has honed over the last 978 builds and remodels in his career, one that recognizes and captures the individuality of each project above all.

“No design work is considered until we’ve seen the site to understand what opportunities and obstacles might be in front of us,” he explains. “Sight lines, topographic features, orientation to views or the sun, zoning requirements like distance from bodies of water. These are prescriptive issues related to design that we tackle long before we get into aesthetics.”

Understanding where and how the home lives and breathes in the surrounding environment is a critical first step to help create the most foundational expectations and design choices.

Butcher admits it’s sometimes a challenge to get clients to start here; after all, many come in with a vision firmly in mind or come in not fully understanding what the architect can bring to the process.

“Occasionally clients will say, ‘I already know what I want, all I need is for you to draw it,’” Butcher says. “And I can tell you with extreme confidence that 99 percent of the time, what they think they want changes—because as architects, we present enough of the big picture to give them far more opportunities than they were aware they had.” Others may not understand an architect’s fees when they feel like they can get a house plan on the internet for $650. To that, Butcher says, “Well, sure you can, and God bless you. But does that plan know you, your family, your site, how you separate public and private space? If that’s not important, then we’re not the firm for you.”

Taking the Long View

Once they’ve established a connection and expectations, Butcher likes clients to come in ready to talk—about likes and dislikes, must-haves, want-to-haves, don’t-want-to-haves. A must might be an attached garage or a wraparound porch; a don’t want may be vinyl siding or a metal roof. Knowing this helps an architect make other design and budgetary accommodations to suit.

This yes/no list building becomes what he describes as the recipe: you know what’s going to be in the home, and—just as important—what’s not.

With a good working list of priorities (aka recipe), Butcher helps guide the client to think long-term. “A lot of dream-home builds are intended to be final homes,” he explains. “So we need to look into the future to make sure that home is going to work for our clients over time. We want clients to avoid that ‘if only we had…’ feeling.”

Say, for example, the client doesn’t have the budget for a bonus room now, but it’s a wish list item. Butcher can help guide them to create an unfinished space above the garage, adding windows and having it ready to expand into.

The goal, Butcher says, is to end up with design choices that hold up for 40 years or more, not just the immediate future.

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Putting It Together

As Butcher listens, he sketches in front of clients. “It’s our way of communicating—pen in my hand, tracing paper in front of me, a way to show my interpretation of what’s important to them.”

It’s a way that works. One client recently came to him for help with a Christmas gift. She wanted to give her husband the first sketches of their new home, because she said that was the moment their dream became real.

The benefit of the sketch-and-talk approach is getting real-time collaboration with clients about ideas when they are flowing. Instead of “thanks for the info, see you in three weeks with sketches,” Butcher likes to sketch as they talk, letting visions take shape in a way that helps springboard further ideas. This is the brilliance an architect brings to the process—the ability to hear a description of the feeling of a place, say, the airiness of the high ceiling, the daylight streaming in at the height of summer, and then translate that abstract image onto paper in such a way that the client can put themselves into that space in their imagination. “It helps them understand that while they might have known what they want, what the deeper knowing is how they want to feel in that space.”

He also asks clients to bring in any piece of inspiration that’s important to them. Some will bring a three-ring binder with magazine pages, and in one photo they like just the mantel or the doorknob in the background. Some will have snapshots or sketches or pages grabbed from internet sites like Houzz. All those things are critical in conveying what’s important.

From there, he’ll begin to gather resource images and create idea books for materials, colors and more to create final designs.

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Sweet Success

Butcher knows his collaborative, in-depth process works. He sees evidence of it in his clients’ reactions and the way they live in the spaces he creates. One story in particular is a favorite. A client was bringing his fiancée from the bungalow neighborhoods of Chicago to Gaylord to live with him in an old chalet-style house in a neighborhood full of cookie-cutter chalets just like it. The flat, one-note facade had little Swiss-inspired shutters and trim and not much else for charm, and the fiancée? Well, she wasn’t feeling the love.

With plenty of collaboration, Butcher was able to transform the home into a vision of Northern Michigan-inspired Craftsman character—an eye-pleasing blend of gables, columns, river rock and shake siding, with a welcoming front porch and soft green color. It wasn’t just about a house, but a transition, and creating a shared environment where two people would feel at home. “And you know what? She smiles every time she comes home,” he says. “That’s how I define success.”

It’s due in part to the intimate relationship an architect can form with the people for whom they create. “Think about it,” says Butcher. “I know what they sleep in, where they want to sit, what they want to look at, if they have cold feet and want radiant heat. We create a space that reflects that. In all of our work, there is no design based on a previous design. People will call and say ‘I saw one of your designs on the home tour, I want to buy those plans,’ and I say, ‘Sorry, that home was for John and Carol, and I designed it for them.’”