“You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.” So sang Patti Page on a hit record in 1957. And while the lyric may have been corny even then, to this day it expresses something genuine about those who develop an attachment to this singular American place. But falling in love and building a lasting relationship are two different things, and that’s where architect John DaSilva comes in. DaSilva is the design principal of Chatham, Mass.–based Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders (PSD). “Most of our clients are either people looking toward retirement or younger families building second homes,” he says. Because virtually all of them live elsewhere—at least until their house on the Cape is complete—DaSilva and his partners, Peter and Aaron Polhemus, have raised the process of designing and building for remote owners to a fine art.
The approach starts with the company’s fundamental structure. “We consider ourselves to be a high-design architecture firm that is also a craft-oriented construction firm,” says DaSilva, who spent 10 years in the office of renowned architect Cesar Pelli before moving to the Cape in 1998. “We’ve developed an integrated service.” With PSD as the single point of contact, “the owner doesn’t have to be a referee or a go-between among the various players,” he says. Each PSD job includes an architectural project manager, a construction engineer (similar to a conventional project manager), and a field manager (equivalent to a site superintendent). Unlike companies that offer design primarily as a convenience, PSD specifies no point at which the architect hands off to the construction crew and steps into the background. That continuity is vital for clients who may visit the job site only occasionally, DaSilva says, and results in “better control, better coordination, and better results.”
“At any one time we probably have 20 projects in design or construction, ranging from big, elaborate houses to modest additions and renovations,” DaSilva says. “Right now, I can think of only one client who’s not remote.” Because remote can mean as close as Boston or as far as Hong Kong, he says, “we’ve developed pretty sophisticated communication tools.” Each client can access project documents in a dedicated, password-protected space on the PSD website. “Meeting minutes, PDF drawings, photos, change orders, progress payments, invoices … you name it,” DaSilva says. “Whatever documents are associated with the project are visible there.”
With the firm’s minority of local clients, weekly meetings are the rule. To get the equivalent face time with remote clients, DaSilva says, “we do video conferencing. Sometimes we use Skype, sometimes we use GoToMeeting.” Skype’s initially sketchy video performance has improved since its debut, DaSilva notes. And while it’s still not perfect, the view it provides of clients’ expressions and body language yields important emotional cues that are lost in phone and email conversations. GoToMeeting offers the complementary capability of displaying a live document, so DaSilva can sketch out ideas just as he would in a face-to-face meeting. “It allows joint control of the cursor,” he adds, so clients can put their hands—virtually—on the drawing, too.
Product selection is a potential schedule-wrecker, even when an architect can shop with clients in their own hometown. To keep the process on track, PSD uses both its website and the construction management software program BuilderTREND, which can be configured to send clients a reminder when a selection deadline is approaching. For materials best sourced close to the jobsite, such as stone, DaSilva says, “You may have to do all that virtually, so we’ll talk to clients from the stone yard, send them digital pictures, be their eyes and ears. We rely on very good communication to avoid surprises.”
The trusting relationship that results can be equally important after a project is complete, especially for owners whose cherished summer home stands far away and empty much of the year. “The other thing that’s a little different about us is that we offer home maintenance,” DaSilva says, “not for anyone, but for our clients.” When the firm’s one-year warranty runs out, he says, “we’re still the ones who know their house the best, so it’s only logical that we change their screens or check on their house after a storm.” The service isn’t a profit center for the company, but the good will it engenders among homeowners—and in their social circles—translates into repeat business and referrals.
As an architect, however, DaSilva’s most important role is as a liaison between clients and their new community. “They’ve spent time here, and they know why they love it,” he says, but there are still subtleties he can help them navigate. “Is it on the beach or on the top of a bluff? Is it in the village or on the woods? Is it in a dynamic village or a sleepy village? An east-facing, high-sea beach or a north-facing bay beach? All of those things imply different responses.” DaSilva’s depth of understanding gives him broad latitude in meeting his clients’ aspirations for life on the Cape.
“There are characteristics that carry through most of our work: wood frame, shingles, gray or painted wood, brick and stone, divided-light windows. But there’s quite a lot of diversity here,” says DaSilva, who samples from the Cape’s iconic building types to produce work that is grounded in both its place and its time. “I do the best I can to relate to the land and surroundings, without slavishly reproducing the past,” he says. The process involves PSD clients in Cape Cod architecture as an ongoing proposition—and the Cape itself as a living community—while preserving what they fell in love with in the first place. CH