The economy since 2008 has been unkind to architecture. Most businesses have suffered from the recession, but between 2008 and 2010 architecture firms in the Princeton region lost about a third of their workforce.

Cathy Knight, who has operated her own residential architecture firm at 76 Stetson Way since 1991, felt it too. Whenever the economy takes a sharp turn architects and builders tend to feel the effects later than most. “It started to get slow last summer,” Knight says. “And it’s not like people were looking for smaller jobs, the phone just didn’t ring.”

Though things have picked up, last year’s doldrums cemented the need for Knight to expand her services. In April Knight Associates launched a subdivision, Knight Classic Homes (www.knightclassichomes.com), which features a line of pre-designed houses built to suit. Like the parent firm, Knight Classic will concentrate on the Princeton area for its business.

Knight has made a comfortable living doing renovations and refurbishment for Princeton-area clients. And though she plans to keep doing that (in a built-out town like Princeton, additions and renovations are a mainstay, she says), Knight has come to understand the value of dollars spent on home projects. Knight recently completed a 10-month, $700,000 renovation to a Princeton ranch home. “It looks great, but for pretty much the same money we could have given them a new house with new everything,” she says.

Most of Knight’s clients are in the $500,000 to $800,000 range, she says. Higher prices come when fancier materials show up — marble and ceramic, for example.

Some projects go higher still. Another recent job was a $4 million renovation on a 7,500-square-foot home. The custom modular homes Knight Classic offers come in five sizes, from 1,900 square feet to about 3,800 square feet and cost from $600,000 to a little less than $1 million.

The units, named after Princeton streets (Witherspoon, Nassau, Mercer, and Cleveland), are 80-percent built in a factory in New Hampshire, then trucked in. All of them are environmentally built, featuring amenities such as bamboo flooring and low-emission glass, and come with a two or three-car garage (attached or unattached) factored in. Construction takes about three weeks. Once on the lot, the house is hooked up to the utilities systems and set into place over the next eight to twelve weeks.

Knight will host a free seminar and open house for the units on Saturday, May 14, at 10 a.m. at the Updike Farm, 354 Quakerbridge Road. Call 609-252-0474.

Knight is aware of the horror stories homeowners tell about renovation jobs. Some just take a long time (remember, the ranch Knight just finished renovating took 10 months), but most revolve around the lack of knowledge homeowners have. This in turn leads to bad decisions and wasted time.

It should be no surprise that Knight recommends homeowners hire an architect when considering major work on their houses. Most people don’t, and Knight believes it is because they think it will be just another cost. In truth, Knight says, hiring an architect can save a lot of money (not to mention time) because architects know how to navigate the permits process with municipal governments and which contractors can get their jobs done on time and on budget.

Besides, she says, architects know how to draw up plans and how to not get bogged down in the minutiae. Knight still remembers a situation involving the Waldorf School, 1062 Cherry Hill Road, that occurred 15 years ago. The school needed some expansion work and had turned to the parents for help. The parents, Knight says, were so focused on the design that they never stopped to consider the costs, the legalities, and the bid process. She stepped in to help and got three bids ranging from $204,000 to $335,000.

The school went with the low bidder, of course, but Knight says she was able to work that contractor down to $180,000 — something a non-architect is unlikely to be able to do. “There’s a lot more to it than just knowing which side of the room the chalkboard needs to be on,” she says.

Permits can be the biggest bear in the process, Knight says. One client originally questioned the need for an architect when he wanted to do an addition. The addition, however, involved a load-bearing wall. Knight says the township would never have given the homeowner permission to do the job. But she got it for him.

Knight, who grew up in Massachusetts, studied architecture at Syracuse and first worked in Boston. Her father was a Brown-educated electrical engineer and her mother was a business administrator at her own alma mater, Wellesley. Knight’s husband, radiologist Donald Denny of Princeton Radiology, moved the couple around New England (he worked at Harvard, Yale, and Brown) before coming to Princeton Radiology in 1991.

When they got here Knight told her husband “That’s it, we’re not moving again.” She set up her own architecture firm over their garage and has been gainfully self-employed ever since.

While in New England Knight did mainly commercial work. In Princeton she has overwhelmingly dealt with residential architecture. Her firm partners with 10 contractors (mainly women), from construction companies to decorators, to provide end-to-end service.

“We try to limit the unexpected,” Knight says. “But there are always unexpecteds.”

#b#Knight Associates#/b#, 76 Stetson Way, Princeton 08540-7310; 609-252-0474. Catherine Knight, owner. www.knightarch.com

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