In 1997, when boat builder and weekend-warrior remodeler Randy Foster decided to headquarter The Artisans Group in downtown Olympia, he was aware it would be a small fish in a large pond of Pacific Northwest homebuilders.
“I had 10 years of experience, but I also knew the company would need something quantifiable, like a variety of materials or a niche that didn’t exist before,” Foster said. “If you’re going to be a small business, you have to have a niche.”
That niche turned out to be sustainability, also known as Passive House building in today’s design-build standards.
Enter Tessa Smith, Foster’s business partner, bringing a passion for conservation and a degree in sustainable design. “I was raised by a drafting teacher, so our family likes to make things,” Smith said. “But, as an artisan, you really have to consider the value of what you’re making and whether it is worthy to be put on the planet.”
Foster and Smith both believe you have to think about the work you are doing and how it impacts others. It is a belief they’ve kept at the core of The Artisans Group’s mission, driving the firm’s purpose for more than 20 years.
“We have a pragmatic approach to asking if something should be on the planet and what risks it will present,” said Smith. “We want to bring solutions that resonate with people, as opposed to great ideas that have no net gain.”
It is this unwavering commitment to sustainability that has led The Artisans Group down the road to success. The firm has been recognized for its expertise in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), Built Green, and Passive House sustainability, and Aging In Place and Universal Design processes.
Now exclusively an architecture and design firm, the company carries out approximately 100 design projects each year all over the world — projects that continue to earn the company esteem inside and outside its industry and yield environmental awards. Those residential projects include the first prefab Passive House in the Pacific Northwest on the San Juan Islands, a Built Green home in Tacoma, and many others. Commercially, the company has worked on the opening of two new Olympia Coffee Company cafes, one in West Seattle and one in Tacoma’s Proctor District.
Of course, the triumph wasn’t achieved without challenge. Smith and Foster cited scalability as their toughest barrier. “It’s hard to manage the timing of a sale, scaling, and capacity,” Foster said. “You have to always be prepared to do 10 houses, even if there are only contracts for two.”
Product demand and market acceptance also were challenges in the beginning, the owners said, quickly countering to quality, best building science, and a commitment to their business niche as what has helped them prevail.
The firm’s commitment to publicly documenting work also helped them grow. “It can be hard to swallow the costs of professionally documenting work, but it has paid in dividends for our firm,” Smith said. “If a company is doing great work, they have to give it the recognition it deserves.”