Jim Zack has tried not to be a builder. As a teenager he worked on construction sites, learning carpentry and eventually going to architecture school at the University of California, Berkeley. “My interest in architecture evolved out of my background in construction,” he says. “In school, I was kind of a shop rat.” After graduating he practiced as a designer/builder, but eventually felt he wanted to focus purely on architecture. Fate, however, had other plans. “Whenever I turned around, we found ourselves making things,” he admits.
Zack’s wife and partner, Lise de Vito, also has a hands-on background, with a degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design (along with an architecture degree). The couple has practiced together since 1997, but for the first couple of years they spent most of their time designing rather than building. They specialized in custom residential projects in their home city of San Francisco. “The making of things was a side thing for both of us,” de Vito recalls. “I was doing more art stuff, and he was doing furniture and little projects.”
Around 2000, though, Zack and de Vito designed, developed, and built a duplex that started them off on a series of small, for-sale infill projects. They realized the competitive advantage that Zack’s construction background gave them, and began to formalize the “build” side of their business. “We decided we’re not going to keep turning our backs on this,” Zack says. In 2005, they started a general contracting company, BuiltForm Construction, which has functioned separately from the design side, Zack / de Vito Architecture. Zack, a registered contractor, runs BuiltForm, while he and de Vito share leadership duties at the architecture firm.
The pair has faced a constant challenge, though, in the way they market themselves. “It was always a dilemma,” Zack says. “We’d be telling people the advantages of having the design and build sides integrated, but then we’d be presenting ourselves to them as two companies.” He and de Vito have decided to take steps to change the way the firm is perceived. They’re now starting to present themselves as simply “Zack / de Vito,” an architecture and construction firm. “We want people to know they’re getting a seamless integration of services,” he adds. The firm’s architecture staff, which previously had been separate from the building staff, will act as design/build project managers, handling design and also overseeing construction.
As the economy has worsened, the firm has been able to take on more design/build projects than in the past. “In 2006 or ’07, out of 30 projects, we would only build three, four, or five of them,” Zack says. Now as much as 40 percent of its work is design/build. Some of those projects are residential, such as a remodel and addition currently under construction. The firm is designing and building a few restaurant projects, which have helped make up for the recession-related drop in residential work. It’s also open to doing “build-only” projects. Additionally, Zack / de Vito offers “supportive building” services, in which it creates specialized elements like cabinetry or staircases but leaves the overall construction to an outside contractor. Of course, the firm still designs projects entirely built by others, such as a new house under construction in Napa, Calif.
Reasons for Zack and de Vito to keep up the flow of design/build projects abound. Building provides them with another revenue stream. They also believe building a project themselves has the potential to save time and money. “There’s a certain efficiency to the process,” says de Vito. “Our construction team has worked with us for years. We don’t have to describe everything in as much detail.” It’s nice for both the client and the architects to be able to continue the relationship they’ve already established during the design process. And on occasions when the firm develops its own design/build projects, it provides an opportunity to try out new products, building systems, and materials.
At the couple’s own home in San Francisco, for example, they experimented with a panelized wood building system. Completed in 2009, the house has won design honors in multiple awards programs, including the Custom Home Design Awards. “The panel system turned out very well,” de Vito says. “It was an amazingly quick process.” She and Zack are planning to use a combination of wood and metal panels on another two-unit development project that should be starting construction soon. “It’s a hybrid panelization that uses partial wood-frame panels, and also aluminum-skin foam panels, like the walls of a walk-in freezer,” Zack explains.
He and de Vito have enjoyed developing small residential projects, and they’d like to do slightly larger ones—as soon as the market improves. “I would love to take it to the next scale and do an eight- to 10-unit building,” Zack says. He and de Vito also hope that they’ll be able to keep up their current ratio of design/build commissions once things get busier. “In a sense we’ve sort of been forced back into what we started doing,” de Vito says. “We’re hoping that won’t change. We enjoy the process as a whole.”
Zack / de Vito, San Francisco, www.zackdevito.com / Type of business: Design/build / Years in business: 19 / Employees: 11 / Annual revenue: $1.9 million / Average number of projects per year: 10–15 / Project type breakdown—remodeling vs. new construction: 60 percent to 70 percent vs. 30 percent to 40 percent / Project type breakdown—residential vs. commercial (mostly restaurants): 50 percent vs. 50 percent