Over the last hundred years or so, architects have watched their roles shrink to the point where “master builder” no longer applies. Now they seem relegated to the periphery, edged out of economic and even aesthetic control by powerful developers.
But a few intrepid CAD jockeys are working to take back control as developers of their own projects. While assuming new risks (the possibility of economic disaster) and responsibilities (even more work), they’re also reaping rewards that come with increased artistic and economic freedom. The trend is nationwide, but one of its epicenters is a place not known for architectural innovation. That would be San Diego, where a tight-knit community has developed around this pursuit, producing moderately-sized projects along the edges of downtown, and lending to a city dominated by faux-historic homes and banal high rises a much-needed shot of architectural character and sensitivity.
While architects like John Portman and Rob Quigley both dabbled in developing their own San Diego projects years ago, most architects in the city will tell you that the father of the so-called Architect as Developer movement is Ted Smith. Usually a cautious speaker, Smith loosens his reserve when it comes to his architectural pursuits. Like many, he started his career doing the bidding of developers, but soon decided the only way to do what he wanted to do was to do it himself. He attracted buzz in the 1980s with his first developed project, the Go Home—a revolutionary shared house with individual suites and entrances developed in Del Mar, a ritzy area zoned only for single-family homes. He later built more Go Homes with architect Cathy McCormack in the city’s Cortez Hill neighborhood, and has continued to push the envelope with his infill work such as the Essex, a group of for-lease apartments built over a raised parking structure in San Diego’s Little Italy. Another Smith undertaking, the mixed-use Merrimac, is part of the Little Italy Neighborhood Developer’s project (LIND), a collection of varied structures around a small green, each built by a different architect, among them Quigley. Smith is now working on a similar project, creating a “texture of small buildings,” co-developed with such local powerhouse architects as Teddy Cruz, Quigley, and Robin Brisebois, and called Barrio Logan in Logan Heights. “The reason I’ve developed my projects over the years is to have control and to be the artist, not the decorator. To have a blank canvas,” Smith said. As to the market for his edgy work, he said, “We’ve found groups of people who don’t want the normal thing.”
In Smith’s wake have come several loyal followers—some from within his own firm—who decided to develop on their own. His most successful protégé is Lloyd Russell, a young architect with whom he developed and designed the Essex and the Merrimac. Russell, who was awarded the AIA San Diego chapter’s Young Architect of the Year Award last year, has gone on to build his own unique house/art gallery/office in a structure, also in Little Italy, that he calls the Triangle Building for its shape; defined by its odd and quite narrow site. He is working as well on a development project in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood and also one in Portland, Oregon.
Like Smith, Russell said his favorite part of developing is the creative control and the ability to transform the city for the better with thoughtful infill projects that mesh with, instead of ignoring, the urban fabric. He feels for those still stuck in the architectural treadmill. “It’s a sad thing to watch students get out of school and slam against reality. Their beautiful dreams become a mansard roof on a Safeway,” he said.
The other major force in the architect-as-developer world is Jonathan Segal, who since 1990 has built 15 medium-sized projects downtown or nearby. Using a simple but elegant palette of materials like concrete and raw steel, he designs spaces that feel much larger than they actually are. His projects include K Lofts and The Union, buildings in Golden Hill with rooftop solar panels to help offset energy costs and that combine affordable and market-rate rental housing.
“It’s all about efficiency,” said Segal, who also leads the construction of his buildings, as do most architects/developers (either with their own crews, or in more cases, with sub-contractors). “By doing everything ourselves, we eliminate the grief, the change orders, and the job directives. Not having to deal with all of that takes about 40 percent of the architect’s time and work away, so that we can devote more time and money to the building.”
Working relentlessly, Segal has become the most financially successful of the lot. He said he recently sold 141 of the 171 units that his firm has built for an impressive $45 million. Segal has a garage full of vintage speedster cars, proof that developing your own projects can reap financial rewards. “Ted wants to save the world and Jonathan wants to own the world,” joked Russell.
Of course, Segal and others warn that development is not for the faint of heart. Any project can go awry, causing the architect to lose his or her shirt; and with the market taking a downturn, the risks have only increased. Russell said his bank account sank to $20 when he worked on his first project, the Merrimac, although things are much easier now. Securing funding and making insurance payments can make things difficult to get underway. And the amount of work and stress in managing everything from obtaining loans to cozying up to assessors can be a grind. Segal admitted that he now recruits more help than he did in the days when he worked seven-day, 80-hour weeks, handling everything from drawings to electrical work.
“Sometimes you’re dealing with bills and the bank and with the appraisals and doing other stuff where you’d rather be designing,” said Segal’s former employee Sebastian Mariscal, who is himself now developing the most high-end projects of the group. Mariscal’s Six, an ipê-clad condo project in La Jolla, has units that range in price from $2.3 to $2.9 million.
But Mariscal likes the life. Aside from the chance to maximize his architecture, he said he savors the opportunity to get a comprehensive view of the building trade. “It’s an amazing mental exercise. You really go from A to Z in the whole process,” he said, concluding that “you just have to be organized and you have to give yourself some parameters. You can’t obsess over a detail that will cost too much. It’s all about creating efficiency in construction and design.”
Indeed, these practitioners all claimed that hands-on development brings phenomenal lessons, insights, and benefits. These range from cutting out the middle man to learning when contractors are pulling a fast one, knowing how high to bid on a property or the most efficient means of welding. Mariscal, who has his own crew of contractors, has learned to order materials for multiple projects at once to lock down prices. Russell said that familiarity with the construction side has given him inspiration for design. He constantly gets tips on detailing from his builders; for example, the uneven concrete facade of his Triangle building, a nod to the staggered wooden formwork, he said, was inspired by a suggestion from one of his construction workers.
Such lessons are being passed on by Smith, Russell, Segal, and Mariscal. Together, they teach a Masters in Real Estate Development at Burbank’s Woodbury University. Classes are held in the Merrimac Building. The twelve-month, three-semester program is entirely studio-based. For the thesis, students develop finished presentation packages for a project, including market analysis, partnership agreements, funding proposals, architectural designs, and sales and leasing strategies.
Already, several new architect/developers have emerged from the class, including Mike Burnett, who is working on a Golden Hill mixed-use project; Ginger Reyes, who is breaking ground on an infill project in Riverside; and Dominic Chemello who is starting a house addition in Escondido. This adds to a growing number of practitioners in the area, including Kevin DeFreitas, who is working on several lofts and rowhouses around downtown; Graham Downes, a successful designer of local hotels, lofts, restaurants, and offices; and Public Architects (who are actually in the process of moving away from development to design larger projects). Even Kirk O’Brien, president of AIA San Diego, develops his own projects, and is a major proponent of the movement. “I’ve traveled around the country for my AIA duties, and I’ve never seen a community like this,” said O’Brien. Others point to scattered pockets in Portland, Chicago, New York, even Omaha, Nebraska. But nowhere does the phenomenon seem as focused and energized as it does in San Diego.
Ron Radziner, principal at LA-based Marmol Radziner, has developed some of his projects, and his company, which employs over 70 people on its building side, constructs most of them. But he admits that there’s really nothing in LA like the community in San Diego. “There’s a culture of do-it-yourself,” said Radziner, who credits the strong influences of Smith and Segal for pushing the movement.
Russell hopes the culture will continue to thrive, even while the economy slips and downtown development continues to push smaller projects further to the periphery.
He, like others, relishes lower costs for lots, but also feels that the hesitancy of banks to lend money for projects will weed out all but the savviest developers. But regardless, he noted he’ll continue on a path that he not only loves, but thinks could become the future of architecture. “For me, it’s intoxicating to have that connection to the building and the work,” Russell said. “I couldn’t imagine being in my position in life just being a normal architect.”