Halfhill’s Silent Rivers combines his love of art, sculpture
Chaden Halfhill left Des Moines at the age of 14 to attend a New Hampshire prep school, where he was able to nurture his lifelong interest in the arts. After earning degrees in sculpture and architecture at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Halfhill returned to Central Iowa and struggled through more than a year of unemployment. He taught art part time for organizations such as the Oakridge Neighborhood, worked for the Iowa Arts Council as an artist-in-residence and delivered newspapers for The Des Moines Register. He began doing odd construction jobs around the city, which he turned into a business opportunity in 1993 in the form of Silent Rivers LC, incorporating his loves of sculpture and architecture. The custom design and construction company has received awards for everything from decks to home remodeling projects. Most recently, the company was honored in the Qualified Remodel Master Design Awards contest for its work on Meredith Corp.’s Brown-Camp Lofts Showhouse, which Halfhill said has been one chance to get Des Moines on the map for custom design/build work. He focuses his work on the company’s slogan: the art of building… the building of art.
You left your hometown of Des Moines at age 14 to attend prep school in New Hampshire. Was that an intimidating experience for you?
It was really only intimidating in hindsight. I don’t remember being all that nervous about it. I’m kind of an adventurous spirit in general. I just saw it as a great opportunity, and it was exciting and by far challenging.
When did you develop an interest in the arts?
I’ve been interested in art since I was a young person, and had always excelled in art. I took classes at the Des Moines Art Center and did a lot of competitions when I was a kid. When I went into high school, I had an opportunity to really look at lots of different variations.
Did you enter Wesleyan University with the intention continuing your art studies?
I had intended to study photography. But the photography program at Wesleyan was small, and they only let so many people in every year, so my professor decided that I needed to take other courses. So I ended up studying sculpture and architecture.
What was your next step after graduating from college?
Unemployment. I came back to Iowa and couldn’t find a job. I’d make it to the second interview and never get hired. It’s really hard with a fine arts degree in a slow marketplace to convince an employer, who is looking for a specific set of skills, that you’re valuable.
What types of jobs were you applying for at the time?
I got offered an opportunity to interview with a guy who was starting a manufacturing company for signage. He asked me to design a cube. I just had a ball and came back with a ton of ideas. Then I started thinking about how to market those things. He offered me a job, so I resigned at the Register in June with the idea that I would start that job in October. But then the business never manifested itself. I tried to get hired on at some construction firms, but I could never get paid enough to cover my school loan debt and make a living. I tried to get hired on at architecture firms, but without drafting experience, no one had any interest in looking at me. So I just started doing odd jobs and did teaching on the side.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I had to justify buying sculpture tools, because they cost money and so does making sculpture. But the reason that I’m actually in the business that I’m in is because I have always believed that architecture and sculpture are very similar and designing a space is as much about the ideas as about the making of the space.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
One thing that helped my business more than anything was that a guy at the old Payless Cashways once gave me an estimating book, a guide to estimating. Having this book of data allowed me to make sure my numbers were fairly accurate. It’s so easy to lose money in construction. It can be a very rewarding business. But it’s also got a lot of ways to lose money, to make mistakes that are very costly.
What was the turning point for Silent Rivers?
We had built a reputation as a company that did design for outdoor environments. But this house project in Truro was a yearlong project that pushed my boundaries in terms of design as well as scope. And I needed so many people at that time to be able to accomplish that project, plus work on other projects simultaneously.
Do you have one or two projects that you are extremely proud of?
So many of our projects don’t repeat themselves, so it’s hard to say that any one project is the best because they’re all distinct and that’s what’s so cool. When you put your heart into a project, when you put everything you have into a project and you’re behind it with your spirit, then you know that project is going to turn out well. That’s hard to convey when we’re looking at line drawings and numbers.
Have you taken that into your own home, too?
I had to do my own house just to prove to people that we could do this. My house has been an ongoing exercise in exploration. It is a place where I try things that are different. I also used it as a marketing tool to show that we can do high-end remodeling. There’s not a part of my house that’s not been touched. It’s got a lot of soul, but it also functions very well.