It seems like everyone—novice and pro—became a real estate speculator during the housing boom. The go-go momentum inspired a number of residential architects to try their hand at investing as well. Most started small. They expanded their own house or built a new one. Or they found some office space to redo for themselves and a tenant. A few bolder ones located an empty lot or a teardown for a speculative building. And a handful took on larger townhouse, single-family, or multifamily developments. You might think this combination of enterprise and good taste would strike pay dirt in areas starved for high design. Depending on the timing and the location, it has. Let's just say that Jonathan Segal, FAIA, drives some of the nicest cars of any residential architect I know.
Segal is perhaps the best known of the architect/developers within the professional community. And for good reason. His work—mostly townhouses and apartments for rent—is both beautiful and lucrative. Design rigor and profit are terms we've rarely seen side by side in the residential marketplace. Segal brought them together and, in doing so, took home scads of design awards as well. And even more astonishing, he's shared the wealth of his experience. He has opened his books and revealed his lessons learned at this magazine's annual symposium, at local AIA chapter events, and even at AIA National's convention. And he now has his own “Architect as Developer” road show under way.
Segal has inspired others to reach for similarly lofty professional goals. Our cover subject is one of them. Designer Sebastian Mariscal worked for Segal and then, with Segal's full support, went out and competed with him in the same San Diego market. Architect David Trachtenberg, AIA, of Berkeley, Calif., is another. He attended our 2004 Reinvention Symposium in Los Angeles, where Segal appeared, and then went home to design the speculative development.
We don't profile Segal or show any of his projects in this issue (we've covered him before and are up-to-date on his work), but as a guru of the discipline, he's a kind of silent partner in a number of the projects we're showing. So it's important to acknowledge the trail he blazed.
The other silent partners I'd like to mention here are the spouses and relatives of the intrepid young developers you'll meet in these next pages. The investments made in these projects are often a family affair. Even if they didn't bet the farm or tap the kids' college fund, they surely sacrificed leisure time, restorative vacations, and a certain amount of sangfroid to the endeavors.
Ahead of us is the real test. In a slow housing market, will architect-designed and -developed properties do better than those with lesser pedigrees? Some of the projects shown in our feature well have already faced a round of value engineering to keep pace with declining prices. Can architects find a way to preserve the delight in their buildings and the margins they need to survive? What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? Jonathan Segal's taking a little breather right now. Then he's planning to jump head-first into his most ambitious development yet.
Comments? Call: 202.736.3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.