Story and photos by Srianthi Perera
A thriving Gilbert business credits its inspiration to Hollywood’s spy movies.
Creative Home Engineering founder Steve Humble creates customized secret doors disguised as bookcases, armoires, mirrors and stairs that disguise rooms, allow hiding for safes or create a grand entrance, among other uses.
The mechanical engineer found a niche market for his intriguing products and ships them worldwide. To date, his most expensive customized door cost $200,000. On the other end of the scale, he offers standardized products that are priced at a mere $1,500.
Think Pierce Brosnan as James Bond scanning his iris to rotate a secret fireplace, Val Kilmer as The Saint demonstrating special powers at a moment of danger or author J.K. Rowling’s famous wand-waving fictional protégée, Harry Potter. These maneuverings were made possible by a secret switch.
“A secret switch in any movie, I guarantee I’ve made that for a client before,” said Humble, who moved into a commodious 10,400-square-foot building in northwest Gilbert recently to accommodate his booming business.
Humble’s clients have included a Middle Eastern king (secrecy was paramount here), a few in the entertainment industry and some commercial establishments, but 95 percent consists of homeowners.
Out of those, about 75 percent are high-security applications: “They want a secret door for a panic room or a vault room, a place to go if someone breaks into their house,” he said.
“Even an expensive safe attracts attention from a burglar; they’re not that tough to break into, and you can use a tool to get into it,” he added.
The balance percentage of orders is leisure- or fun-oriented, such as movie rooms, smoking rooms and kids’ play rooms.
“A lot of people want it for fun, and that’s reason enough for them,” Humble said. They also add to the resale value of a home, he noted.
Humble’s Gilbert home, which he shares with his wife, Krystal, and three kids ages 6, 4 and 1, features a secret play area.
It had to have one, he said, because his children think that secret passageways “are something totally normal.”
Play the James Bond theme song on the family piano, and it opens a secret door to a playroom, but it works only if the notes are correct. So it doubles as an incentive to learn the piano.
“My 6-year-old daughter has learnt how to play the introduction to James Bond; she plays the notes,” Humble said. “My kids are always in there.”
In 2004, the Mountain View High School, Mesa and Arizona State University graduate began his career designing robotic parts for medical equipment.
“I was working in a cubicle, as most people do, and I just wasn’t cut out for it. I was stir crazy,” he said.
At the time, he was renting a large home with a few others. One day, he watched a movie that featured a secret door and was inspired to build one in one of the unoccupied rooms. Online research revealed that there weren’t many businesses offering secret doors. He floated the idea with architects and builders and got positive feedback.
“Maybe there’s a niche for me,” he thought at the time.
Humble gave notice to his company, moved in with his parents and began constructing secret doors in the garage.
“It just naturally grew. Once I got a website, there were people who were looking for doors, and they found me,” he said.
Nowadays, Creative Home Engineering employs 10 and averages 50 customized doors and six times as many standardized doors annually. The founder said it had its best year in 2017.
“We are doing so much business that we had to buy this building,” he said. The new office has an extensive, high-ceilinged workshop. The new space also enables him to purchase high-end equipment such as a plasma torch to cut material precisely.
Most high-precision jobs had been outsourced until then for lack of space and insufficient volume to justify the expense of buying the equipment.
Humble introduced a standardized line of secret doors to reduce the pricing and attract more customers. With a standard design, a machine can cut pieces more economically.
For custom orders, he has to spend hours on the phone with the builder, architect, interior designer and customer and exchange multiple revisions of drawings.
“It’s a very, very time-consuming process to make one secret door for somebody. But if it’s a standard design, they go onto our website, click, click, click and hit buy,” he said. “We never have to talk to them, and by doing that, we can offer them big savings.”