2021 Circle of Excellence: Architects Chris Gray & Steven Perce
Co-founders | bldg.collective, Boulder
Three-part harmony: For Boulder’s bldg.collective, that’s one of the keys to great architecture.
“On any project, an architect deals with three ingredients,” says firm co-founder Steven Perce. “First, the context, or the site; second, the formal program, meaning things like the number of bedrooms and baths; and third, the qualities that dictate how a space feels—like when a client goes to Italy and falls in love with a beautiful interior courtyard. The question for us is: How do we bring those three elements together in a harmonious way?”
Perce and co-founder Chris Gray have had their own two-part harmony since launching their firm 12 years ago. “We had a common philosophy,” Gray says. “We both felt there was a gap in the industry between architects who truly listened to their clients and designed the clients’ dreams versus architects who designed their own dreams. We thought: ‘Why can’t you have an architectural design firm that is both creative and also client-focused?’”
“Architects are licensed professionals, just like attorneys or doctors,” Perce adds. “We aren’t just artists generating creative artwork. A professional has a responsibility to provide what the client asks for. We felt we could offer high-level creative solutions that also hit a client’s budget and timeline.”
The name they chose, bldg.collective, reflects their philosophy. “It conveys the sense that we as architects act as the orchestrators to bring all these separate individuals under one tent to help them understand what the goals are and set them down the paths to making a successful project,” Perce says.
Perce, a Bay Area native, came to Colorado in the ’90s to attend CU Boulder, where he graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s in environmental design with an emphasis in architecture. Gray, who grew up in Ohio, received his bachelor’s in 1995 in materials science and engineering from Northwestern University, followed by an MBA at CU Boulder. The two met at CU Denver, while both were working toward master’s degrees in architecture.
Despite what Gray describes as their “different career trajectories,” with each working for a time for other architects, the two came together to found bldg.collective in 2009. Today, they lead a five-person firm that works on everything from residential and commercial design to custom home remodels and interior design and space planning.
Overlaying it all is both a love of design and a sincere respect for clients. “I’m really passionate about design and the design process,” Perce says. “It’s this fantastic matrix of decisions, with the ultimate goal of creating a solution to multiple problems operating on different levels.”
“Even though there is a contemporary bent to all of our work, we don’t have a specific style,” Gray says. “Our projects are different because our clients are different, with different personalities, interests and goals. That’s what the custom residential design world is all about. We’re building one-of-a-kind projects.”
NO ‘I’ IN ‘TEAM’
Perce: “Architecture is not just the result of a sole visionary individual. It takes a true team of people to not only design a house but also get it built.”
Gray: “We’ve always taken a collaborative approach. For a project to be successful, the team members have to really listen to each other and respect each other’s professional opinions. That goes from the client to the contractor to the engineer to us. We see ourselves as the hub of a wheel in that process.”
REMODELS VS. NEW-BUILDS
Perce: “We’ve done remodels of 100-year-old Victorians in Denver, as well as 1950s and 1960s cottages in Boulder, and remodels are far more challenging than new construction. They also entail what we really like about architecture: problem-solving. The aim is to take the best of what’s there and leverage that. Often we have to figure out how to open the spaces up and make the house live bigger than its footprint.”
MERCEDES VS. HONDA
Gray: “Our track record for getting projects completed is very high, which says a lot about our ability to listen to clients. We’re a company where the two principals don’t just show up for the initial meeting and then disappear. Steve and I maintain a presence throughout the whole process. We’re designing what the client wants and can afford. We don’t design a Mercedes when the client can only afford a Honda.”
Perce: “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is how important confidence is. Starting out, you focus so much on just appeasing your clients. But we’ve learned that what clients are really looking for is true guidance and reassurance that they are making the right decisions.”
THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Gray: “For me, success is knowing that a client would recommend us to their best friend or a family member. And I want to hear that the process was enjoyable. I think we’ve done a good job if, at the end of the road, the process is just as good as the design of the home.”
Perce: “For us, a successful project is when the clients tell us that the house is even better than what they’d imagined. In our portfolio, you won’t see one consistent style, because we design to the values of our clients. But all of our projects have two things: an elevated sense of quality and a thoroughness.”