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The rise of the architect-developer

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A closer relationship between architects and developers is unlocking creativity in the built world

In New Orleans, architect Jonathan Tate served as his own developer in order to build an experimental multifamily residential infill project.
William Crocker

In the Irish Channel area of New Orleans, 12 new homes cluster on a former warehouse site. Angular, covered in corrugated metal, and painted white, the homes are jigsawed in a way that makes room for patios, courtyards, and parking. Inside, they have polished-concrete and wood floors, energy efficient fixtures, and soaring ceilings. But what’s most special about these houses isn’t just their modern design: it’s the creativity that went into building on a site where the law, at first glance, only permitted three single-family houses.

In a bid for density, sustainability, and affordability, architect Jonathan Tate conducted legal alchemy and found ways to subdivide the land and use multifamily zoning ordinances to construct 10 fully detached homes and a duplex.

“I tried to push the land as far as I could,” Tate says.

Tate purchased the land and developed the project himself—an unusual scenario for an architect. Using design to maneuver complicated zoning and ownership laws, he was able to build an experimental infill project that adds high-quality, much-needed housing to New Orleans. Though Tate considers his firm to be a traditional architectural practice, this isn’t the first time he’s served as his own developer. In 2016, he designed and built the first of his Starter Homes—compact single-family houses built on inexpensive and oddly shaped infill lots—which helped establish his reputation as an experimental and forward-thinking designer.

St. Thomas and Ninth is composed of 12 residential units. Tate found opportunities in zoning code, insurance laws, and ownership rules to build more homes on the land than would have been immediately obvious.
Courtesy Office of Jonathan Tate

“If anything, our idea of developing was just to implement an idea. It was also a form of advocacy for the discipline so architects can engage in projects and possibilities that precede [the traditional design process],” Tate says.

A closer relationship between architects and developers—and sometimes a blending of the two—is unlocking more creative construction and problem solving in the built world.

The design-development duel

Buildings can be constructed by a number of different entities: architects, engineers, developers, contractors. One scenario—common for custom homes—is that architects design a building, then bid it out to a contractor who subcontracts to tradespeople. Sometimes architecture firms develop their own projects and call themselves “design-build” firms.

Architects design buildings, so the assumption goes that all buildings are designed by architects. That’s not always the case, especially when it comes to multifamily developments, tract housing, high-rises, and master plans. Developers, along with engineers, come up with the program of a structure, using guidelines from zoning and building codes to shape the size of rooms, number of floors, footprint, and setbacks. Sometimes a developer requests proposals from many architects and chooses one. Sometimes an architect is brought in in the middle stages of a project to style the building’s envelope or to address a particularly sticky problem. They’re not always involved after something breaks ground. And the builders aren’t involved in the design process, which has led to some high-profile blunders.

In Brooklyn, SHoP Architects, the developer Forest City, and prefab builder Skanska worked on a residential high-rise, which was the world’s tallest modular building when it was proposed in 2011. The 32-story building was plagued with stop work orders, delays, leaks, and lawsuits. The builder sued the developer, alleging a bad design, and the developer sued the builder over faulty construction.

Meanwhile, the lack of design in development—particularly in multifamily residential projects—has led to a proliferation of the same bland and boring buildings in cities across the country.

Developers often perceive architects’ contributions as expensive, unnecessary, and time consuming. Architects often worry that developers will value-engineer the “design” out of a project or focus too much on practicalities. “There’s an antagonistic relationship because the sense is [architects] don’t share the same values and goals as other disciplines involved,” Jonathan Tate says. “Builders don’t care what it looks like, developers are looking at the bottom line... it’s a financial transaction versus a design and experience. And that’s a really poor way to see the world.”

Michael Samuelian—an architect who has spent much of his career working for developers and who led the Hudson Yards megaproject and post-9/11 reconstruction of lower Manhattan—believes architects and developers need to learn from each other. Recently appointed to lead the Trust for Governors Island, Samuelian is taking a design-lead approach to preserving and redeveloping the historic site in New York’s harbor. And this fall, he is teaching an advanced design studio on developing Governors Island at the Yale School of Architecture.

“Each profession shares optimism,” Samuelian says. “Architects believe design can solve everything. Developers believe the world will be better with their building in it. … Architects should be more sensitive that they exist in a project for a very limited time: A project starts well before they’re involved and lasts well after. Developers can benefit from valuing design, but knowing it’s not equal: Just because a building is well designed doesn’t mean it’s expensive, and, vice versa, just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s well designed.”

The dichotomy of architecture and development exists partly because of how these professions are traditionally taught.

“The culture of architecture is that of a high art and being careful not to get too sullied and dirty with reality,” says Chris Calott, an architect, developer, and chair of Real Estate Development and Design master’s program at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. “Particularly in architecture school, it’s a mindset and tradition that’s hard-fought. I always say you can ignore [the realities of development] but you do so at your own peril.”

UC Berkeley’s program welcomed its first students this fall. It teaches people with an architecture background how to better understand development, and encourages design appreciation in people approaching development from a real estate perspective. The inaugural class of 16 students is composed of designers, house flippers, and people working in affordable housing and policy.

A handful of architecture schools offer graduate degrees in real estate development, which is typically the purview of business schools. Columbia University’s GSAPP launched its master’s degree program in 1985 and has graduated 2,185 students since then. Woodbury University also has a master’s program, and so does Pratt University. MIT offers an interdisciplinary course of study. Before establishing UC Berkeley’s program, Calott led Tulane University’s master’s program in sustainable real estate development. Teaching design and development together fast-tracks the appreciation and expertise each side needs to really understand the other, he says.

“The best development companies are doing the best projects by working with very good architects and solving problems together,” Calott says.

The business case for design-led development

If architects and developers collaborate closely, both sides see advantages. But architects who have embraced development work say they’ve experienced windfalls creatively and businesswise.

When Lightstone, a developer of residential, hospitality, and commercial projects, embarked on 40 East End Avenue, a forthcoming 29-unit, 20-story boutique condominium on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it integrated design, development, and marketing from the beginning, betting that the approach would assure the project’s success in a fluctuating market.

Lightstone enlisted Deborah Berke Partners to design the building and Corcoran to create the marketing strategy. The three worked together to make sure the building would be unique, desirable, and, ultimately, financially successful. They conducted detailed demographic research about the target market for the building—which informed structural detailing and interiors—and examined New York City zoning code for opportunities to increase buildable space and therefore profitability.

The team ended up selecting energy-efficient mechanical systems, using thermally resistant walls, adhering to “quality housing” rules like maintaining neighborhood character architecturally, and including amenities like landscaping. The end result? A residential building that’s stylistically distinctive and structurally ambitious.

The building—with its a masonry facade, punched windows, terra-cotta detailing—references historic structures found around the neighborhood. Inside, marble floors set in a black-and-white herringbone pattern and a sweeping staircase greet residents and visitors. The interior palette of natural materials and richly textured textiles appeals to the senses. The architects also added extra storage and a coworking space to appeal to prospective buyers.

San Diego-based architect and developer Jonathan Segal has constructed over 245 buildings, like the Fort, a mixed-use apartment building.
Courtesy Jonathan Segal

The financial boons of becoming a developer aren’t just in the rates a building fetches. To Jonathan Segal, becoming an architect-developer made sense creatively, as well. “We can do what we want and answer to no one,” he says. “I feel bad for architects that get pummeled and hammered and work cheaply and become bag boys when they could do this.”

In the more typical business structure, in which a separate owner, architect, and contractor work on each project, creative differences or rising costs can quickly sour relationships. When things go wrong, it’s the architect who gets blamed.

“The triangle is problematic from the start,” Segal says. “If you remove two of the points and I’m the architect, owner, and contractor, when I do mess up I’m able to fix the issue on my own. If something doesn’t turn out how I wanted, I can fix it.”

Trained as an architect, Segal worked for two firms before launching his own. For his first solo project, he tried shopping a row-house development, which he designed for his thesis, around to different developers until one of them encouraged him to develop it himself. “He told me: ‘You’re an idiot. Don’t be an architect; develop it yourself.’”

Segal found some inexpensive land and constructed his row houses. The profit he earned the first year exceeded his expectations, and he continued on his trajectory as a developer who designs his own projects. He specializes in mixed-use residential and commercial infill projects.

Because his firm is essentially the sole point of contact for a project, his subcontractors receive swift responses to questions and issues that arise on projects. He has strong working relationships with them as a result, which leads to faster construction and more leverage in cost negotiations for future projects. There are also legal benefits, Segal points out, that ultimately save time, money, and creative energy. He says he’s only been sued three times in the past three decades of business, which he claims is a low rate for the construction industry.

“We have control and we’ve utilized it to keep out of trouble,” Segal says.

Segal is currently developing micro-unit apartments in Downtown San Diego.
Courtesy Jonathan Segal

Since launching his company in 1988, Segal constructed 245 buildings in San Diego and concentrated much of his work around the city’s Little Italy area. His projects include micro-unit apartments, luxury lofts, adaptive reuse, and more. His business structure has allowed him to build a cohesive, intentional body of work.

“My goals are to influence and change urban San Diego,” he says. “It’s not about making money or creating an object; it’s about creating change and a legacy. If you made a shit ton of money on bad things, who cares. But if you have a legacy on improving something, that’s great. It’s important that happens.”

Creative problem-solving in a world where it’s harder to build

For architects to create measurable change, scale is needed, which is where either becoming a developer or partnering with a like-minded developer becomes essential.

The building industry is facing a number of challenges, including labor shortages, a volatile materials market, and escalating construction costs. Meanwhile, bureaucracy has slowed new development and land is becoming prohibitively expensive in areas where new structures are needed most. Macro issues, like climate change, are also affecting the characteristics of buildings and neighborhoods. Developers and architects have to get more creative with how—and why—they build.

Allison Arieff—an architecture critic, editorial director of the urbanism think tank SPUR, and lecturer at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design—sees a real mismatch between the buildings being built and what people need from their buildings, particularly as it relates to housing. Most housing in the U.S. is designed and built by developers, and that’s led to generic homes and neighborhoods tailored for investment rather than livability.

“Ultimately, there are a lot of deeply ingrained concepts of what homeowners want that have a lot more with the building industry and realtors than the reality [of what homeowners desire],” Arieff says. “You’re not thinking about what’s useful to the person in it. In a resale-obsessed market, they build to perceived future value versus what meets someone’s needs.”

She advocates for addressing sustainability head-on in housing, designing homes for community, and making spaces that will work for different genders and age groups instead of an archetypical buyer. Architects’ input on residential developments could go a long way toward improving the quality of life.

“If you look out at developments across the country, there’s homogeneity and repetition and lack of appreciation for context and planning for creating neighborhoods. It’s pretty stark,” Arieff says. “I think we’re suffering from the results of not doing that... For example, a development might have a shopping center next to it, but you can’t walk to it. It’s tiny little details like that that are super frustrating and don’t have to be that way.”

By working closely with developers, David Baker Architects has constructed distinctive buildings, like micro units at 388 Fulton (left) and the Richardson Apartments (right), a supportive housing project.
Bruce Damonte

David Baker Architects, which specializes in multifamily residential projects, leverages strong relationships with like-minded developers to construct affordable and environmentally minded housing, including collaborations with Bridge Housing, a mission-driven nonprofit developer, and Holliday Development, a for-profit company known for mixed-use projects and rehabbing industrial buildings into live-work spaces. The firm has become nationally recognized for its civic-minded body of work, much of it in San Francisco, amid an unprecedented local housing shortage and stringent construction regulations. The architecture firm usually sticks with a project through construction to make sure the most important elements endure the inevitable value engineering.

To Daniel Simons, a principal at the firm, having that strong working relationship with development partners and a willingness to see the bigger picture helps ensure a project will be successful, even if it has to be redesigned due to cost.

“Projects get messed up for lots of reasons—it’s like death by 1,000 cuts,” Simons says. “Sometimes it’s because of a big decision at the beginning, but a lot of times it’s little things that get lost on the way, from a bad choice or a lack of vision. It’s really important to stay involved and keep involved at all stages.

“As architects, we have the opportunity—and I think the responsibility—to always be advocating for the things we think are right for a project—like sustainability, livability, thermal comfort or whatever it is,” Simons says. “It’s easy for developers with lots of experience to say ‘We don’t do that,’ and for architects to say, ‘Okay, we don’t do that here’ instead of saying, ‘Things change.’”

The Union is a forthcoming modular mixed-use building in West Oakland, California. David Baker Architects collaborated with Holliday Development on the experimental design.
David Baker Architects

David Baker Architects learned how to be a good development partner through years of experience and trial and error. Jonathan Tate was able to build his infill projects because his curiosity about zoning and insurance regulations led him to building opportunities most architects and developers would overlook. At Hudson Yards, Michael Samuelian created a high-rise neighborhood on top of active train tracks by taking a design-led angle to development. The marriage of design and development is creating some of the most exciting built work today.

“Real estate development needs to take design seriously because it can add so much value, solve problems, and make better urbanism,” Calott says. “[Architects] naturally think about cities and development. We are inherently working in the real estate industry already. Why not be mindful and be better?”