Steve Boyce knew he had to do something to keep his family-owned lumberyard from going the way of so many others. His Boyce Lumber found the solution by showcasing and marketing product–lots of it–on full-scale buildings within its new showroom.

Boyce, general manager and co-owner of the Missoula, Mont., lumberyard along with his father Bob and brother Jack, did not come to the decision to build a showroom lightly. As the big box stores moved in and siphoned business from the traditional yards, Boyce Lumber built a drive-through facility in 2001 to compete. That helped, but the dealer was still just surviving, not really thriving.

Then the consultant who helped them design the drive-through yard told Boyce and sales manager Dusty Boyce, Steve's nephew and right-hand man, how yards back east were profiting significantly by combining drive-throughs with design centers.

That made sense to the Boyces. About 10 years ago, they took a small corner of the store and put up some displays and a few doors, along with some samples and brochures. The result was a jump in sales.

"We have been trying to find a good niche for ourselves ever since the box stores started moving in," Steve Boyce says. In 2006, the dealer decided to take the plunge and began to build a design center. "This is the next level of our lumberyard. It's a professional experience. It's a level we felt we needed to get to."

The new design center shares roof space with the hardware section and warehouse, but it is the 9,000-square- foot showroom that is front and center as you walk into the store.

The first thing a customer sees on entering is a 15-foot-tall house in the center of the showroom, created from two buildings connected by a breezeway. From any aspect, it is a billboard for building products. The side facing the showroom's entrance is sheathed in grayish-green HardiPlank textured lap siding, with a medium-gray trim and brick-red wood clad windows. The Simpson mahogany door (one of a variety of doors from different vendors used on the building) has side lights and a transom.

Walk around the building to the right and its appearance morphs to a more rustic character, with cedar siding and trim and a rock wainscot. And so it goes around the structure's perimeter, with each exterior wall decked out from door threshold to rooftop with a huge variety of sidings, trims, doors, windows and roofing tile.

In addition to this central display, there are three other 12x18-foot buildings, similarly appointed, that pull double duty as product displays and offices for the showroom consultants. Between and around all these buildings are different types of decking and railing systems.

Besides the building exhibits, there are vertical displays of hardware, doors and windows, plus a built-in showcase of stairway components, including the grand staircase at the back that leads to conference rooms.

Since the showroom concept was more common back east than in Boyce Lumber's part of the country, before deciding what to build, the yard's owners headed to New England to tour design centers accompanied by the consultant from Johnson's Design Services of Portland, Maine, who had worked with them on designing the dealer's drive-through facility. They found their inspiration at Cape Cod Lumber in Abington, Mass., where the dealer's Homescapes design center features freestanding buildings that showcase products.

Dusty and Steve liked the idea of using actual buildings to feature products, but they wanted to do it a bit differently from what they had seen at Cape Cod.

"There they did a lot of the same thing over and over again," says Dusty. "On every facade you see in our showroom, you see different products used. We really tried to make sure it was very diverse."

Once the Boyces knew what they wanted to do, they had to figure out how to do it. "It was a major design process," says Dusty. "We had to come down with a floor plan, then what we wanted each facade to look like. Then we came up with lists of the products we wanted to incorporate–there were hundreds of different products."

Initially, the Boyce team worked with a showroom consultant from the East Coast as well as a local architect, but Dusty, in charge of the design process, found the constant conversations back and forth and endless exchange of documents frustrating. "Their ideas were boring and modular and we wanted full impressive displays, not just a few door displays and some crown moulding."

Ultimately, "it was just easier to do it in-house," he says.

Unfazed by his lack of formal training in design or architecture, Dusty ended up laying out the whole shebang, using Google SketchUp, a 3-dimensional modeling program that he found online. "I'm self-taught, but I know building products," says the 32-year-old sales manager, who's spent more than half his life ("for legal reasons, let's says since I was 16") working at the family yard.

Nor did Steve Boyce have any hesitation in letting his nephew design the million-dollar showroom (that figure includes demo of the old hardware area, relocating offices to a new addition and construction of the facility, including facades and displays).

"Dusty is brilliant. He ended up being the creative brains of the whole thing. It's really his creation," says his uncle. "It wouldn't have turned out the way it did without him.

"It probably took us close to nine months to come up with the design," remembers the elder Boyce. The Boyce team worked with architect Jim Decker of the Missoula firm Decker & Sutherland. Though Decker's design suggestions didn't always find their way into the actual showroom's design, he did draw up the working blueprints from the plans Dusty produced using the modeling software.

"We drove him crazy," says Steve Boyce, "but he was a sport about it."

"From talking with them, they are tickled pink with the outcome," Decker says. "My own wife will go into the showroom, look at something, and then tell me, 'now I see what you mean,'" he adds with a laugh.

Once the showroom's design was hammered down, the 18-month construction project began. Boyce threw open the doors to the new showroom in the winter of 2007 with an open house for contractors in the evening.

Because Dusty and Steve wanted customers to able to see and touch the building products they were considering using on their homes, it was important for them that there were plenty of samples of moulding and trim pieces that people could take off a display and hold up to a door or window and see how it would look. "There are about 60 different combinations of trim that people can use to visualize their mouldings. It's a great tool, though sometimes people can get overwhelmed with choice," Dusty says.

He is particularly proud of the spool-shaped door display he designed, which holds 101 doors in just 196 square feet.

"We tried to be really careful with the signage, he adds. "We wanted to make sure people could grab a brochure and shop the displays. We have signs on each facade that identify products and then literature close to it."

The judges most appreciated the whole "package" design offered by the Boyce Lumber showroom. Wrote one: "There is a surprising diversity of design and tremendous vignettes of mundane products." Two judges singled out the decking and railing exhibits for praise, and one called the display of molding "as complete as I've seen."

While kitchen cabinet displays take up about a third of the showroom, Dusty admits he left the layout and styling of those vignettes to the showroom's kitchen designers.

"The comment we usually get is 'Wow, everything is here,' says kitchen designer Kathleen Smith. "We have a lot more people just coming in and looking."

The lumberyard has seen an increase in traffic thanks to the showroom. "We speak a lot now with our contractors' customers, and that's different," Dusty says. The showroom is also attracting a new clientele: interior decorators and architects.

One of those architects is Jim Decker. "I shop there all the time," he says.

The Boyce Lumber showroom has proven its worth over the past three difficult years for the LBM industry and justified its owners' faith in their decision to venture into unknown territory for them.

"I track our special orders, and we have seen an increase, even through the recession, of 25% to 40%, depending on the month," says Steve Boyce. "We feel the showroom has been a great success."