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Modern Mogul

If you’ve ever caught yourself staring at a stunning modern abode nestled into a block of three-flats and Victorians, chances are, Ken Brinkman built it.

Brinkman stands in a Bucktown home completed earlier this year. Its clean lines and open floor plan are trademarks of his firm, Environs Development.

As president and owner of Environs Development, a full-service design-build-decorate firm, Ken Brinkman has built more than 150 homes in Chicago since opening his business in 1991. He’s so prolific, you’d think he didn’t have a life outside the office. But you’d be wrong. Two words: car racing. Make that three: wanderlust.

You build new homes for a living... What’s yours like?
My home was built in 1912, but I’m the classic builder run amuck. I’ve put an addition on the addition. With our newest addition, we strove to make it very open and engaging with the outdoors, providing a real sense of an indoor-outdoor space, which has become kind of a key element of many of the homes I’ve designed.

You started your business in 1991. What has remained constant over the years, and what has changed?
Our floor plans have always been very well designed and user-friendly; they maximize the use of the space, and that’s something we see over and over that our clients appreciate. What’s changed are the price points. My business has grown hand in hand with how the city has become so much more popular and desirable to live in. We’re building much more expensive homes now, but there’s a demand for those homes.

What are clients asking for right now?
The biggest trend that we’ve seen over the last five years is a desire for increasingly more contemporary designs. While it may not be extremely modern, it’s certainly far less traditional. We’re seeing people want more open layouts, more flowing spaces, less decoration in their home and more use of organic materials—rich materials and textures.

Has anyone ever asked for something that was totally nuts, or new to you?
Every single day. Right now we’re working with a client and their design aesthetic is, as I termed to them, ‘severely austere.’ They want the most minimalist interior and exterior that can possibly be built. The exterior is black brick, black mortar, black windows, black fencing, black light fixtures. Every surface of the interior is white. They have a very strong sense of style, of what they want. We’ve had to keep up with them, but it makes for a fun project.

What do you do when you’re not building houses?
I have two different race cars that I race on different racetracks around the Midwest. I’ve always had a profound car obsession. I was an instructor with the BMW car club for about 10 years, teaching at tracks, and have been racing a spec Miata race car.