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A Collective Effort

How to Build a Community in Two Places at Once

Zane and Lauren Ellis moved home to Knoxville from Nashville in 2015 with years of construction and design experience under their belts. Driven by a passion to fill the gap for custom-built homes, they started Ikon Homes, built their first spec house in Bearden in 2017, and sold it almost immediately. Word of mouth spread, and soon the pair hired a superintendent and an office manager to keep things moving efficiently.

By 2022, the Ellises decided to rebrand their company to better reflect their values. Now called Collective Build, the company is focused on two main missions – building thoughtful, creative custom homes with local craftsmen and putting the same love and energy into building homes for people in need in northern Uganda through the Homes4Homes program.

“It felt right to have a fresh start. The Collective name was the idea because it is a collective effort among local craftsmen and tradesmen. We work with a lot of local businesses, so we have a real sense of community effort here. We’re building new homes and developing new areas of town where we can add interesting architecture,” says Lauren. “The other part is that we have a collective trust in our employees and encourage them to be a part of giving. One way we do that is by giving to Homes4Homes in Uganda. We want to make an impact there and here.”

Lauren had been to Uganda several times before marrying Zane, so when the pair visited the country together, it didn’t take long for the idea to brew. By 2019, they knew they wanted an important and impactful philanthropic arm for their company. The couple commissioned Walter Oketta, who grew up in the African bush, to conduct a study to see if there was a need for homes and what that project might look like. Months later, they learned about Homes4Homes, an organization already doing work on the ground. The partnership was a natural fit.

For every home built in Knoxville, the Ellises donate a portion of their profits to Homes4Homes which translates to a home built in Uganda. It’s a one-for-one model that has helped people in dire need.

“These homes are smaller, about two or three rooms, but they’re built to be safe and secure,” says Lauren. “This is something we take for granted. People were living in huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors before, so for them, it’s life-changing. It impacts the community beyond a home for a single family. It’s putting money into the economy through skilled labor, and by providing their home, they can use their money for other things, like school or health care, which aren’t free.”

Homes4Homes was established in 2015 as a nonprofit to supply funds for housing needs to those living in impoverished countries. Driven by the Biblical command to care for widows and orphans, the organization partners with individuals and companies in real estate to fuel the process.

“They aren’t using mission groups or flying anyone in to build these homes,” says Zane. “They use local labor to make the bricks, so they’re teaching others to do a skilled job. There’s no big box store or hardware store to go to for supplies.”

For the Ellises, their sense of purpose drives their work, leaving footprints in both their hometown and in communities in Uganda. A home is more than a building. It’s a place of refuge and comfort, and for everyone at Collective Build, a sense of community is integral to the process.

“We always offer a closing gift to our homeowners. We have a local artist [Britton Sharp] do a watercolor painting of their new home here plus a painting of the home built in Uganda,” says Zane.

Collective Build is currently working on new properties on the riverfront in South Knoxville and planning new customs for local homeowners. As the company grows, so does its impact, both locally and internationally. Over the years, the Ellises have learned that when purpose is placed over profit, the possibilities are endless.

For more information on Collective Build, visit CollectiveBuild.com or follow them on Instagram @collectivebuildco

"We have a collective trust in our employees and encourage them to be a part of giving. One way we do that is by giving to Homes4Homes in Uganda. We want to make an impact there and here.”

  • Special thanks to Jesse and Mallory Lehn
  • Homeowners are gifted watercolor paintings by local artist Britton Sharp
  • The Okumu Family in front of their new home