Built and showcased in 2008, the HandMade House at the Ramble in Asheville, North Carolina, represents a partnership and a prototype.

The project linked Biltmore Farms LLC , one of Western North Carolina’s premiere real estate development companies, with HandMade in America, the Asheville-based non-profit that earned an international reputation promoting the convergence of commerce and culture.

The partners’ basic concept: Create a model home that incorporates the work of western North Carolina artists and craftspeople, and make it an example worth copying in the region and beyond. What bumped the project, to a whole other realm was its ambition.

The HandMade House wouldn’t be just any house. It would be a multimillion-dollar home on a high-profile corner in Biltmore Farms Ramble community .  It would be as environmentally responsible and as energy efficient as designers and builders could make it. And instead of merely displaying local art as decorating afterthoughts, the project would integrate the work of no less than 100 craftspeople working in concert with Biltmore Farms’ professional teams. The process would offer a model for collaboration, beginning with design before dirt was turned and continuing through each stage of construction.

Done right, the blending of skills and perspectives could create winning results on three levels: The arts community could get increased visibility and credibility in the “real world” of real estate professionals. Builders could build new relationships and learn new approaches to distinguish their work in a crowded marketplace. And the Asheville region could build on its cultural identity and its quality-of-life appeal through the art-commerce connection. What’s more, if this experiment turned out as well as its organizers hoped, then why couldn’t other communities import the idea for their own artists and builders?

All of that was in the back of Becky Anderson’s mind long before the specific idea took shape. “This project is a result of probably 12 years of work,” said Anderson, founding executive director of HandMade in America. “What we always believed is that you can take a region’s culture – in this case, a culture connected to the handmade object – and build a segment of the region’s economy around it.

“The idea took root and helped us grow HandMade in America. Then, along came this wonderful opportunity with Jack and Biltmore Farms to demonstrate how it might play out with a specific project.”

“Jack” is John F.A.V. Cecil, great-grandson of George W. Vanderbilt and president of Biltmore Farms. Anderson recruited Cecil for her HandMade in America board, and the two became friends and co-conspirators in the decades-long effort to better connect Asheville’s economic development strategies with its cultural legacy.

Cecil’s great-grandfather had much to do with that legacy. The designers and artisans George Vanderbilt brought to Asheville to begin work on his Biltmore Estate in the latter years of the 19th century were among the first of several generations of craftspeople who established studios and schools in the region and who have filled local galleries with work coveted by international collectors. Shaping a new model for a 21st century partnership between builders and artists “is something Becky and I talked about for years,” said Cecil.

The challenge would come in coordinating so many artists, architects, landscape designers, and construction teams – all on an aggressive builder’s deadline. All the different voices, including many without backgrounds in day-to-day construction realities, escalated the unpredictability and narrowed the construction pros’ comfort zone.

“Frankly, it had the potential of being every builder’s nightmare,” admitted Bill deBruin, director of product development for Biltmore Farms Homes. “Yet it also had tremendous upside potential for Biltmore Farms and for those who would build the second HandMade House, and the third, and so on.”

Besides, inviting a little unpredictability could be a good thing. Landscape architect Todd Brant, from LaQuatra Bonci Associates, put it this way: “I think one of the benefits of this process is that you’re engaging people who aren’t necessarily trained the way you are, so you’re forced to think about a lot of things differently.”

Thinking from a new angle would be necessary for the artists, too. The idea was not to create a house that would be little more than a gallery for regional art. To be a model worth replicating, the HandMade House had to be a commercially appealing design that would be at home in Biltmore Farms’ Ramble community and successfully integrate the work of the 100 HandMade in America-affiliated artists. Some of the artists’ efforts would be permanently embedded into the house and landscape design. Other pieces would be created or chosen from artists’ existing work to complete the story of the house. But every interior and exterior space would be planned in concert with teams of artists and Biltmore design and construction professionals. The home’s feel, its personality, would be the product of a co-creation.

The HandMade House at the Ramble achieved all of that. On time and on budget.

It’s a work of craft on every level.

-- from The HandMade House: An Experiment in Collaborative Design