Designing your own home just might be the ultimate form of small-scale development. Think about it: You own the property and probably intend to sell it at some point. You're responsible for getting permits, dealing with neighbors, handling contractors, and making the design meet your budget. It's not much different from developing a larger property, according to San Diego architect/developer Kevin deFreitas, AIA. With a handful of multiunit projects to his credit, he recently designed and built a home for himself, his wife, and their four children.

DeFreitas had the foresight to purchase a warehouse loft building in a now-gentrified section of downtown San Diego back in 1996. He and his wife sold it in 2003 and eventually invested the proceeds into the construction of their new house. An interest in innovation led him to investigate sustainable design principles, although he didn't consider himself an environmentalist. “I'm not a tree hugger,” he insists.

But a look at the completed residence might suggest otherwise. DeFreitas devoted hundreds of hours to researching green products and energy efficiency, translating those efforts into the building's design. And he approached national and local manufacturers for discounts and donations on green building products. Forty-five of them complied, making the house a veritable showcase for sustainable technology. Three elements in particular—low-E window glazing, spray-in insulation, and an array of heating systems ranging from solar hot water to radiant-heat floors—account for 70 percent of the building's energy savings.

In October 2007 deFreitas opened the brand-new house for a series of tours, hoping to share his hard-won environmental-building knowledge with other design professionals. “I thought it would be stupid to learn all this and then just bury it,” he says. “This is the future. I will never go back to the way I did things five years ago.”

project: deFreitas Residence, San Diego

architect/developer/general contractor: Kevin deFreitas Architects, AIA, San Diego

landscape architect: Leslie A. Ryan, Landscape Architect, Eugene, Ore.

project size: 3,400 square feet (house), 480 square feet (attached office)

site size: 0.22 acre

construction cost: $265 per square foot

photography: Harrison Photographic

the art of the deal

what was the hardest sacrifice you had to make to do this project?

“The sacrifice was definitely on a more personal level. By general contracting it myself, I took it from a 12-month project to a 24-month project. It was very hard for my family and my wife. My head was so full, I felt like I actually lost a year of my life.”

how are you protecting yourself from liability on this and your other development projects?

“I'm lawyered up like there's no tomorrow. For this house, I took out regular Course of Construction Insurance but also a $3 million umbrella insurance policy. We carried as much as we could on our credit card. It had fraud protection and created a really great backup tracking system for receipts.”

what delights you most about the project?

“The master bedroom has an L-shaped window that faces the entry—you can see airplanes landing every two minutes. It feels like we're in a treehouse. I'm more aware of the environment outside than I've ever been. It's almost like an IMAX movie. The kids absolutely love the house. They're really proud to have their friends over. I really enjoy that they enjoy it. The best part of the house is the raised courtyard with the built-in table. Leslie Ryan, the landscape architect, really got it. For us, our house is very important. We're homebodies; our home is where we entertain and live and where I work. It does a lot for us.”

would you develop again?

“I love single-family, but I really like multiunit development too. I'm open to where things will take me. Architect/developers are the most logical thing ever, because we have so much knowledge. If we can learn about the construction side, we can develop a project that is much better than that of production builders. I think communities could be improved in many ways if more architects were developers.”

what was the most valuable lesson you learned?

“My general contracting added a lot of time. Working for me, the subs didn't have much incentive to respond quickly. Things were so busy during the building boom, it was hard to get people to show up. I now take the value of a good general contractor more seriously. I'm much more empathetic to clients than ever before. This was so humbling. I learned I couldn't do it any faster than anyone else.”