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Building Hugger: woman builder, home preserver, job creator


People who spot Amy Swift on a construction site are just as likely to see her wearing a pearl necklace as holding a hammer and nails.

The owner of Building Hugger, a preservation-focused construction firm, is hands-on with her work. She puts in long hours in clothes that are more likely dirty than not. Like most construction workers, these sorts of days mean that showering isn’t an everyday occurrence. The pearls help her strike a balance between maintaining her femininity and working in construction.

"It's been a challenge and a half on some days," Swift says about being a woman in construction. "Other days it’s really rewarding."

The pearls are part of her identity -- a subtle reminder that she is a woman making her way in a male-dominated industry not known for its political correctness. The reminder is more for everyone else. A statement that Building Hugger is growing quickly because of its quality work while a woman is running the show.

"Once you prove yourself in the field you are accepted in the field," Swift says. "But there are still some social dogmas that make it hard to feel comfortable."

Comfort is becoming less and less of an issue for Swift, mainly because Building Hugger's business model is blowing up. Swift hired her first employee in January. She now has five full-time people, along with two part-timers.

"It would be more but I lost two people this month to other opportunities," Swift says. "We are starting our biggest month yet (for workload) and I need to add more people."

Which is quite the change for Swift. She had a bachelor's in architecture from Lawrence Technological University, a master's in historic preservation from Columbia University, and no job when she launched Building Hugger in 2012 in Detroit during the Great Recession. She initially hustled a variety of part-time jobs in the local built environment to make her way, such as teaching architecture at Lawrence Tech, writing for Curbed Detroit, and giving tours for The Detroit Bus Co entitled, "Paradise Paved: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Detroit Land Development."

Swift found a niche with window restoration in the last year or so. It led to more work in the lost arts of construction, like plaster repair and wood working. Window preservation, however, has turned into Building Hugger’s cash cow. Today it accounts for 90 percent of the firm's revenue. The company works across the city in neighborhoods like Rosedale Park, Woodbridge, Palmer Park, Boston-Edison, and Indian Village.

"We just pulled 22 sashes out of a house in Midtown," Swift says. "We used the whole crew and brought them back to the shop."

That shop is Building Hugger’s new home, which Swift affectionately calls the Hug Factory, in Islandview Village by Belle Isle. Swift moved Building Hugger into the 2,000-square-foot space this summer. The shop is big enough to help the business keep growing and allow Swift to perfect her business model. She wants her window restoration work to be competitive with other local window options like Wallside Windows.

"I am focusing on the process," Swift says. "I want us to be very good at what we do."

Souce: Amy Swift, founder & principal of Building Hugger
Writer: Jon Zemke

- Photo of Amy Swift courtesy of Francis' Fotos.

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.
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