By Cody Worsham
Dylan Jenks sits at a table of reclaimed wood inside Magpie Café on a rainy Friday in March. Arranged before him, from left to right, are tools both modern and antiquated: a wireless mouse, a Lenovo Thinkpad, an iPhone, a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil, and a leather sketchbook with sepia-toned paper.
Today, he’s researching ideas for two outdoor kitchens and two indoors kitchens. He browses Houzz, his favorite website, sketches his own ideas on paper (he’s already filled four pages before lunch), and then plugs them into SketchUp, a 3D modeling software.
“This is my favorite office space,” he says through a thick Southern drawl, equal parts Savannah and Baton Rouge.
On fairer days, however, Jenks is often outdoors, taking his ideas from paper to wood. The designs he conceives, he also constructs.
To pencil Jenks into a single professional category would be a difficult task. His various tools reflect a variety of titles: architect, designer, coordinator, contractor, and – perhaps the best fit – revitalizer.
Jenks, 27, is the co-founder of BUILTdesigns, a design-and-build firm based in Baton Rouge specializing in additions and renovations. Jenks launched BUILTdesigns a year-and-a-half ago with his father, David.
“To be in business a year and a half and be in black numbers is promising for where we’re going,” he said. “We started on a loan and a lot of hopes and dreams, and through word of mouth and good friends we’ve been able to get enough work to get us going. Now we’re learning how to expand and cover more of an area.”
He’s not just speaking geographically, though the team has added experienced crews and is stretching its work sites from Donaldsonville to Lafayette. Jenks is also referring to a conceptual expansion, as he looks to take his rare combination of artistic sensibility and blue-collar craftsmanship to the homes of the city.
“I really enjoy both sides of it,” he said of balancing design and construction. “My end goal is to get my hands on property myself – start buying and selling and flipping property in Baton Rouge.”
Jenks’ is a new dream spawned from an old one. He knew he’d be an architect since he was seven, when his father – whose specialty is finished carpentry and cabinetry – began building a family house off of Coursey Drive.
“I followed my dad around like a shadow, swinging hammers at anything I could,” he said. “That got me hooked on it.”
Jenks’ passion took him through high school at McKinley to Savannah College of Art and Design, where he played soccer and studied architecture. He never questioned the latter until he returned home the summer of his junior year for an architecture internship in Baton Rouge.
There, he observed the reality of the job: high stress and low demand.
“Architects became a luxury, and when the economy hit rock bottom, luxuries were the first thing to go. Only the high and mighty were paying for them, and those architects had to bide their time.
“Being part of our generation, I wasn’t willing to put in that time. I wanted success early.”
So he returned to school, finished his degree, and got his contractor’s license, teaming up with his father to start BUILTdesigns. In a competitive market of local contractors, Jenks feels his father’s hands-on experience and his eye for design are an advantage.
“I’ve got a pretty elite design background from one of the best schools in the country,” he said. “That’s how we’re pushing ourselves. We’ll take you from ideas to the finished product, where other contractors have to outsource work out of house.”
His degree isn’t the only thing Jenks brought back from Savannah. He also absorbed the culture of a city that embraced its artistic college and sees it as something Baton Rouge can adopt.
“What I was spoiled by in Savannah was the idea of community,” he said. “I walked from my house to work to school to go out to the grocery store, to everywhere. You walk past shop owners and get to know the people you see every day. Everyone builds this relationship that Baton Rouge has been missing out on.”
His goal is to help bring it back through design, tapping into the history of homes and bringing them back.
“That idea of revitalizing history and good bones of places is what brought me to renovation,” he said. “I do new construction because it’s an opportunity to get my design bug fix, but ideally, renovation is where it’s at, and a city like Baton Rouge is ripe for it.”
Jenks lives at the foot of the Perkins Road overpass and sees that area as a model for a city that has been historically more commuter than community friendly.
“Here, people get in their car in Prairieville, and they don’t know their neighbors on either side of them,” he said. “They stay in their little house, drive to work in their box of a car, get in their box of an office, and get back in their box to go home to their other box. There’s been no connection between people, but that’s changing.”
Jenks hopes to be central to that change. He spends hours on his bike traversing the city and using it as architectural inspiration. For now its mostly kitchens and outdoor spaces, but homes are on his mind.
“If I can start with residential renovation and change the street face of houses in Old Baton Rouge,” he said, “maybe it will catch on.”
The redevelopment of Downtown Baton Rouge and investment in neighborhoods like Mid City excites Jenks, who effuses with praise for Mayor Kip Holden’s efforts in downtown Baton Rouge.
That emphasis on revitalization brought him back to his hometown, and being a part of it will keep him – and others like him – here for good.
“I’m bringing what I’ve learned everywhere else and trying to impose it here,” he said.
“I came back with not just the education, but the exposure to a different culture of artistic acceptance – the community. Variety is the spice of life. When I left Baton Rouge, there was not sense of that, but in that last 10 years, everyone has seen the swing in the positive direction. I want to be a part of it.”