Credit: Jason Millstein
Our 2012 Custom Builder of the Year, Andy Byrnes.
If you had to choose a place to be a custom builder when the housing bubble burst, you couldn’t do much worse than Phoenix. Fortune magazine flagged the city as a real estate “dead zone” as early as 2006. From that year’s peak, prices proceeded to drop by more than 50 percent. By fall 2011, they still hadn’t recovered to January 2000 levels. Custom builder/architect Andy Byrnes offers a more telling statistic. Before the crash, he says, his accountant had 65 builder clients; now he has six. For Byrnes’ Phoenix-based design/build company, The Construction Zone (CZ), the first hard jolt came in spring 2008, when two major projects disappeared within a month. “It was probably $20 million of work that went away,” Byrnes says. “For us that’s the equivalent of a whole year of work. We went from 115 employees to 40.” But while other builders struggled to maintain a semblance of their former business or quietly folded, Byrnes responded with a flurry of innovation, diversifying his company both geographically and definitionally. Drawing on its ties with prominent residential architects, CZ expanded beyond a shrinking Phoenix market while leveraging its talented, flexible workforce to explore entirely new lines of work. Yes, Byrnes readily admits, the boom years were good to him, but he is adamant in his assertion that they are over. “If you’re a builder in Arizona just waiting for it to go back to the way it was,” he says, “you’re doing nothing.”
Wiry and kinetic at 42, Byrnes seems to idle at higher rpm than your average person. As a kid in Massachusetts, he raced motocross bikes. He attended Tulane University on an athletic scholarship, “for pole vaulting, of all things,” he says. After taking up bicycling as a hobby in 1999, he went on to win his age group in the 2001 Arizona State Mountain Biking Championship. “I’m an all-in kind of guy,” says Byrnes, grinning. “Whatever I do, I overdo it.” Entrepreneurship came to him as naturally as athletics. “I always had my own business,” he says. During high school it was Cruise Brothers Landscaping. “The summer before college, I made like $40,000,” he says. “In greenbacks. I almost didn’t go to college.” Once there, he almost didn’t stay. “I was in arts and sciences, and I thought to myself, ‘This is a huge waste of time. Not only is it costing a ton of money, I’m not making any money.’” Architecture proved a better fit, but true to his restlessly enterprising nature, Byrnes charted his own course in the profession.
Architects who also are builders are nothing new, but very few deploy their construction crews in the service of another architect’s design, and that is precisely the approach that Byrnes settled on. More than half of CZ’s work is for other architects, and the company has created a niche for itself by partnering with Phoenix’s most prominent modernist firms.
Byrnes didn’t set out to become the architect’s architect/builder. “I just sort of followed my nose,” he says. In 1992, fresh out of the Tulane School of Architecture, he arrived in Phoenix amid the fallout of the savings and loan crisis. “This place was a disaster,” he remembers. Seeking a job, he says, “I met a ton of architects. Nobody was very busy. But it was a good opportunity for me because I had a year to hang around and network with all these guys.” And that gave Byrnes the idea for a different kind of building company. “I had always worked in the construction industry,” he explains, and his notion of architecture had always been entwined with the construction process. “I never had a strong desire to just sit and draw pictures.” Putting an architect’s aesthetic sense and design skills out on the jobsite made Byrnes a hit with Phoenix’s top modernist firms. “And that,” he says, “became a really good business plan.” In short order he established a new category in the industry: the architectural construction company.
“Working with Construction Zone is always my first choice,” says Phoenix-based architect Eddie Jones. “The principals are architects, and all their project managers and superintendents are at least graduate architects, so the learning curve is gone. We get to talk only about the good things.” With skilled designers on the jobsite, Jones safely can put less detail on his drawings. “I’ll do what I call a ‘permit set,’” he says. “I don’t sweat the door jambs; I don’t sweat the cabinets.” When he intends minor building components to align, Jones says, “I don’t have to communicate it to the electrician or the plumber or the tile setter. It’s just done.” And having Byrnes on the team expands Jones’ range as a designer. The duo first came to the attention of this magazine in 2006, with a Custom Home Design Award–winning detail: a serpentine, stacked-glass partition wall, for which CZ provided R&D as well as fabrication (see third photo in slideshow). “We’re always exploring new territory,” says Jones, who relies on Byrnes for feedback on constructability and cost. “He’s fearless, and he has the resources to get the job done.”
“We make it really easy for the architects,” Byrnes explains. “We take what they do and run with it, without running over them.” To field a team capable of making good on that promise, Byrnes cultivates architectural talent in his own farm system. “We’re very involved in Arizona State University and University of Arizona,” Byrnes says. “So we get the cream of the crop as summer interns.” Standout interns often have a CZ job waiting for them upon graduation, says Byrnes, who has done well by turning promising graduate architects into outstanding superintendents and project managers. “Unteaching guys is harder than teaching guys,” he explains. “And the old-style superintendent who sits in the trailer and lets the subs run the job is not going to fly with us.” When a CZ superintendent is in the trailer, he’s most likely working at a CAD station, detailing a condition the architect either did not anticipate or simply left to CZ’s discretion.