It’s not easy to be a great custom builder, able to execute the most challenging handmade detail, and it’s no walk in the park to design award-winning houses for the country’s most educated and sophisticated clients. Each is so difficult, in fact, that it’s extremely rare to find a design-build firm bringing their A game to both disciplines. Typically, one side of the business will outshine the other, revealing the weaker link in the chain. Located in Richmond, Vermont, design-builder Birdseye has been doing both for decades, reaching new heights with each successive project.
The custom building side of the company has been at it for nearly 40 years and the design side for 27. With 70 employees, it’s not a small operation, and yet it manages to stay nimble with a culture of cooperation with other builders, architects, and artisans. Says Brian Mac, FAIA, the company’s head of design and chief spokesperson, “We try to be friends with everybody. We figure if we can build a community with other builders and architects, we’ll be able to take opportunities as they come along. Maybe they will want to use our woodshop. Our market is not that big. We learned a long time ago that if we adopt a competitive attitude, we confine ourselves to a niche market. We are willing to take on anything interesting that looks to add value.”
For the client, that means you don’t have to take the whole Birdseye package. Birdseye the builder will construct houses by other architects, and Birdseye the architect will design houses for other builders to construct. And a client’s builder can turn to Birdseye for anything on its menu of individual services, including site work, metalwork, and the aforementioned woodwork.
So far, this à la carte approach has kept the company, now an ESOP, busy. And its size offers upward mobility in a variety of trade and professional areas. Always reaching for the best execution in craft and design tends to attract the people who care about doing great work—learning more and stretching themselves. Brian sums it up: “We want to work in cool places, with cool people, on cool projects.”
Brian, who grew up in Michigan and worked at large firm Quinn Evans after completing architecture school, made his way east to learn the craft of building. Vermont, with its strong artisan tradition, was a natural destination. “I didn’t want to go back into the office environment—into the monoculture of an architecture office,” he recalls. “I wanted to understand how to build. I wanted my hands acquainted with a hammer. There’s a history of designbuild in the Mad River Valley—a legacy of craft and construction.”
Brian worked for a residential construction company for a couple of years before meeting Birdseye owners Jim Converse and John Seibert while playing hockey. Jim and John had been friends and business partners since graduating from the University of Vermont. “Like everything here, the idea of opening an architecture division was very organic,” says Brian. “So that’s what I did 27 years ago. Right now, we have seven full-time people on the architecture side—five licensed ones, two trying to get licensed, and two interns for the summer.
“We’re trying to establish a strong culture around the workload,” he adds. “We don’t hire for the project, we hire for the workload. Because I’ve gone through so many cycles in the economy, I know that while we’re busy now, there were times when we were struggling to get work.”
And that’s part of the resilience a design-build model offers residential professionals—one side of the house can smooth bumps in business for the other. Birdseye’s construction side also has a property management division to service the houses it builds. Even in recessions, houses need care and attention. This is especially true of second homes, which comprise about half of the company’s project portfolio.
If a local slowdown were to hit Vermont, the architecture division is prepared to work further afield and has designed projects in the Hamptons and Rhode Island. “We have a really cool project going in Columbus, Indiana,” Brian notes. “We’re working with another design-build firm and they’re doing the drawings. I see those types of collaborations as an opportunity. We would be open to taking on a project in, say, California. But, on the building side, it’s difficult to take people out of our region and away from their families.”
Supporting the private lives and diverse interests of its employees has been a priority at Birdseye since Day One. “When I started on the building side, the company worked four 10-hour days and took Fridays off. We’ve been doing it as a company for 40 years,” Brian explains. “It made sense from a construction standpoint, that the painters or other trades could come in on Friday. Then our people have a weekday to go ski or whatever. They have one day they can count on when the kids are in school and they can really get things done. We’re all pretty avid outdoors people here, we aren’t killing ourselves. If you are enjoying living here, you will bring your A game to work.”
Is the best architecture determined by how recognizable the architecture firm is that designed it? Must it reflect a singular style or point of view that advances and innovates over time? Birdseye’s design work has certainly evolved over the course of its nearly 30 years, but it also shows a willingness to explore different ideas and, gasp, different precedents. And then, sometimes, a client just wants something that looks like a barn.
For Birdseye Architecture’s part, they are on board for any project that will challenge them professionally and put them in the path of creative clients intent on building something meaningful. Maybe that barn will turn out to be a live-work studio, as was the case with the 2009 Music Barn, made from a reclaimed timber frame structure fitted out with professional recording equipment and acoustics.
Or maybe it will become the 2019 Bank Barn project, a Net-Zero retirement home for a cosmopolitan couple returning from a lifetime of work abroad. The Bank Barn garnered numerous regional and local awards and attracted extensive national press coverage. Its timeless, iconic shape resonates with nearly everyone, while advancing the discussion of what modern life can and should look like.
The 10 years between the two barn-inspired projects shows a big leap forward in Birdseye’s confidence as architects. Although it’s always tricky to discern why the recipe of architect, client, builder, site, and budget results in such a marked departure from prior work, it’s still possible to follow various breadcrumbs along the way that led to this point.
Brian cites the 2017 Woodshed project as a personal and professional epiphany, while graciously crediting the clients for setting the bar high. “The clients were from Boston and were well versed in architecture,” he recalls. “They had a bigger library about architecture than I did. Their knowledge made me understand I don’t know everything about architecture. They gave me an opportunity to come up with an idea that we may not have thought of. They became great collaborators. The project got a lot of press and won a lot of awards. And it settled in my head that there is an artfulness to what we can do—connecting the familiar with the unique. It helped give me a language around what we’re doing. And it gave me a clearer path for how to move forward and how to talk about what we’re doing.”
From Woodshed and Bank Barn in rural Vermont to the 2020 Lathhouse in the Hamptons—another multiple award-winning, agrarian-modern house—the design language has grown more fluent and melodic each time.
But just when you think you know what to expect from the firm, they come up with something completely different. The 2021 Terrapin house is nobody’s barn—instead, it’s a full-on machine for immersion in the verdant Vermont landscape. Look more closely at the portfolio, however, and you’ll find its DNA in Mural House and Vista House.
“I look at our portfolio as our datum for where we are,” Brian explains. “What are the common elements of what we are doing, and how do we take those and not make it look the same? How do we get to the unattainable level, while always trying to get there?
“By building a team around you that can allow you to think that way,” he says, answering his own question. “We have extraordinary talent around here that can take on the blocking of incredible ideas. And it enables a much bigger stance in taking on more ambitious projects.”
Yes, it’s critical for an architecture firm to learn how to talk about its houses and to find a language for how it turns ideas and concepts into reality. The skill is important for speaking with clients, the press, building departments, and skeptical neighbors. And just as a house is a story of the family who lives there, the firm’s portfolio is the story of its trajectory in architecture.
Part of Birdseye’s success derives from its eloquence with words and visual language, of course, but a key element has been its commitment to documenting its portfolio with top-notch photography. It shines the light on what the firm has done and is doing, connecting all the dots into a sophisticated continuity.
“We typically will go into the project telling the client that we have to photograph it,” Brian says. “Because in the end, all we have are the drawings and the photographs—they are the archive of our work. You walk away with a photograph, and that’s all you get. And I love working with photographers, because you see the work through others’ eyes and you see the art unfold before you.” It, too, tells the story of the house.
When skilled, dedicated players are involved, design-build can result in a virtuous circle, bringing out the best in all and keeping the endeavor authentic—in service to the client, appropriate to the place, but always with the goal of lifting everyone a little higher.
“Rather than just being stylistic about architecture, we think about the craft of it,” Brian says. “We try to make sense of the vision, and how architecture can play into the art of living and really inspire people in the way they live. People long for the familiar but also something of this moment. It’s all about our editing process and how we bring that concept to life.”