Credit: Jeanne Stack

zack | de vito architecture
San Francisco Architect Jim Zack got his first taste of construction when he was 16. He liked it so much he continued to work as a carpenter for five years before heading off to the University of California at Berkeley. “Architecture was a natural extension of what I had been doing,” he says.

As head of his own firm, Zack | de Vito Architecture, Zack doesn't get his hands dirty much anymore, but he's still building the occasional project that he's also designed. His wife and partner, Lise de Vito, has a pedigree that's pure design—she's a Rhode Island School of Design graduate: “I didn't come from a construction background,” she says, “but I've always been interested in it.” Depending on what's on the boards, the firm varies in size from four to 10 employees, with a portfolio that's about 70 percent residential. To date, it's designed and built about 15 residential and commercial projects, much of it whole-house renovations and interior work.

The firm's approach to design/build is deliberate and discriminating. “We do them on a case-by-case basis or when the opportunity is appropriate,” Zack explains. Instead of taking on the easiest construction jobs, he prefers to tackle the difficult ones. “The flexibility it provides us if we are doing creative, unique detailing is much better if we're the builder,” he says. And it allows the firm to include those complex details other builders might value-engineer out of the project. He also maintains that the seamless integration of the design/build process saves the client money. Still, there's an obvious economic benefit for the firm as well, and that ultimately feeds its creative agenda. “Contractors make more money than architects,” Zack says. “And in a smaller firm, that helps. If we can make money building, it can help us be more selective about the projects we choose.”

The firm’s hands-on skills incorporate custom metal fabrication (top) as well as custom millwork, joinery, and other detailing.
Credit: Jeanne Stack

The firm’s hands-on skills incorporate custom metal fabrication (top) as well as custom millwork, joinery, and other detailing.

The formula is so satisfying, Zack | de Vito is establishing a separate company, BuiltForm Construction, to help build more of its design work. At the moment, BuiltForm is working on its own speculative two-unit residential building and negotiating an infill deal in the city. Because most of the architecture firm's work to this point has been rehab, liability hasn't been a serious concern. But the partners realize that intensive design/build commissions will bring more issues and exposure to consider. “We are still kind of developing.” Zack says. “I don't really have all the answers yet.”

cho/broady residence

One of Zack | de Vito's early design/build projects, the Cho/Broady residence exemplifies the firm's multidiscipli-nary capabilities within the confines of a condo. “We built everything,” says Zack. “We built all the cabinetry and all the concrete counters, and did all the carpentry.” The condo building was done by a developer who, caught in a financial squeeze, cheaped out on the materials and construction. “It was not a fabulous place, except for the view,” Lise de Vito says. “So the owners wanted to do some interesting stuff.” The team ripped out all the builder-grade finishes and started with fresh space.

Credit: Jeanne Stack

They opened up the main living area, installing modest detailing and shelving. Vertical-grain Doug fir cabinets line the renovated master bath and kitchen; poured concrete for the countertops and a fireplace hearth add an understated chic. The architects also designed and fabricated the custom metal staircase. “Maybe we get too involved in some things,” Zack jokes. “We try to do everything because we like the craft of it.”

project: Cho/Broady residence

architect / contractor: Zack | de Vito Architecture

project size: 2,200 square feet

site size: 0.06 acre

construction cost: $260 per square foot

photographer: Jeanne Stack