Hay Runner’s Shannon Richards Embraces Projects of Every Shape and Size

The maker, builder, and artist who built her company from scratch is launching a new school for craft in southern Maine

Shannon Richards stands among greenery from East Pine Plant Shop. The chair was designed and made by Richards in collaboration with Cumberland Ironworks.
Richards stands next to a handmade leather-backed chair at the “breakfast bar” in her office.
In the conference room, above a pink rug from Angela Adams sits under "Triptych with Woman Swimming" by Tanya Fletcher.
Looking at samples in the office library.
“Caleb helped me design this part of the office,” says Richards. The floating mezzanine uses a truss system, which “took some extra engineering.” The pink and white wood panels were custom painted by a member of the Hay Runner team.
Shannon Richards talks with Sadie Bliss, who serves as the executive director for Maine Crafts Association as well as director of special projects for Hay Runner, in a kitchen designed and built by Hay Runner. It was a collaborative effort, with help from Cumberland Ironworks, the People’s Kitchen, and Caleb Johnson. “I designed the chairs,” Richards adds, “and my staff did those great floating shelves.”

Small projects, Shannon Richards admits, are “really effing hard.” After two decades in the building business, Richards was well aware of the challenges she’d face by choosing to focus her energy in this sector. “In 2018, I came up with a plan to start a new company using the name Hay Runner, which I had founded with my partner, Caleb Johnson, years ago,” she explains. “We weren’t using it for anything, so I bought the name from him. The plan was to use small projects as a way to find a place in the market.” 

It worked, partially because, as Richards puts it, “these projects are very stressful.” Renovating a bathroom, finishing a basement, replacing windows in a single room—these types of one-off tasks tend to fall outside the purview of the bigger construction companies. Smaller projects don’t necessarily require less management time. She first realized this was an issue when working at Caleb Johnson Studio, now known as Woodhull. “I had these rotten windows in my basement at my house, and I kept asking for someone to come and fix them,” she remembers. “And one day, finally, this gentleman I worked with looked at me—and he’s a lovely gentleman—but he said, ‘Nobody is going to come fix those windows, you know that, right?’ I didn’t, but he was right.” She didn’t blame her coworkers. Their priorities were elsewhere, and it was understandable. But Richards, like many homeowners, found herself frustrated with the available options. Sure, she could hire “the guy down the road who works out of his garage.” And sure, “he might get to it.” But there’s no guarantee the work will be done well, on time, or even at all. 

“We’re not the cheapest,” she cautions, “but we have a system. And you can always find us. We answer the phone, and we will call you back. We will show up, we will do a good job, and you can count on it.”

In the beginning, that’s what built Hay Runner’s reputation. For the first few years, Richards and her team of craftspeople devoted most of their time to minor works. They built a modular outdoor dining set for Portland Hunt and Alpine Club’s patio, renovated an East End kitchen, constructed a tiny home by the ocean, and staged condos in Portland. “After doing that for three or four years, I acquired Phi Builders, which is a 20-year-old company in Rockport,” she says. “Our biggest challenge right now is combining two companies that are roughly the same size but in different locations.” However, Richards is also excited about how this new influx of talent will enable them to grow, taking on more work around the state. “It’s an incredible privilege to build something from scratch,” she says. “It represents so much fresh, new opportunity.” (Perhaps this is why she also enjoys helping broker land sales, since unlike some realtors, Richards isn’t going to discourage you from buying land and building new. In fact, Hay Runner can help with the entire process, from scouting sites to interior decor.) 

In some ways, Hay Runner is a tricky company to wrap your head around. They’re not just builders—they have all sorts of subcontractors, artists, and designers affiliated with the brand. This is a reflection of Richards’s own sensibilities. She is, first and foremost, a maker. “When I was a little girl, I told my mom that I wanted to be an artist,” she recalls. Her mother wondered, as many of our parents have, how this dream would play out in reality. Would she become a starving artist? “I told my mom, ‘Well, it looks like everyone wants to make things on computers now. I am going to work with my hands.’ She looked at me and said, ‘That sounds like a good plan.’” 

Her desire to zig where others might zag led her to art school in New York state (Syracuse, where she received a degree in sculpture with a minor in ceramics), then back home to Maine. She started attending Haystack Mountain School for Crafts in 1993, and in the past decade, she’s become a regular at the program. Playing with a new craft each year has become a tradition. She also serves as the president of the Maine Crafts Association (MCA), a position that allows her to share her business experience and knowledge with the local maker community. “It feels like I’m doing something there that really matters,” she says. “When I was younger, I didn’t have a firm understanding of all the parts you need to be a self-employed artist. You have to be a saleperson, a marketer, an accountant, a schlepper, and a maker. And when I was going up in the ranks, nobody ever told me that people will try to get you to do stuff for free.” At MCA and Hay Runner, she tries to help ensure that all craftspeople are treated with the proper respect and compensated fairly for their work. “When I’m selling my business,” she explains, “I’m selling two things. Yes, I’m selling it to the people who are clients, paying us. But I’m also selling it to the people that I want to spend my days with. The people who work with me. If they are not passionate and interesting, there’s not a whole lot of point to this work.” 

All of these intersecting passions have come together to create Richards’s brand-new endeavor: a school for craft in southern Maine. With her partner, architect Caleb Johnson, Richards purchased an old school building in Lyman that they plan to transform into artist studios. “I’m developing a ceramics studio there now, which I’m calling Cone Six,” she reveals. “Ceramics is a type of making that people need to do together, and I want to make a space for that.” Directly inspired by Haystack, construction on the Lyman School Studios will be completed in early 2024. 

For Richards, this type of work is nothing short of a calling. Making, working with our hands, and contributing to the community—these are methods for thriving in an increasingly hostile, isolated world. “In the future history books, I predict people will look back on this exact moment as a time in transition,” she says, comparing our current moment to the early years of the twentieth century, which birthed modernism and the Bauhaus. “There’s so much confusion and strife, but I think beauty will be born from it. And at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. We’ve got a few minutes on this planet to make our mark.”