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The architects who are building themselves a new future

Architecture, as much as an art form as it is a precise science, needs the backing of development to transfer it from the page to the concrete realm of reality.

Many of New York’s most iconic buildings required a tag-team combo of talented architects and driven developers to bring them to life.

These teams took grand ideas and morphed them into both fantastical and practical physical structures.
But is there a distinct advantage, perhaps an infusion of efficiency, for architects that have opted to take on the task of developing themselves?

“It’s a more seamless process,” said partner and executive vice president at Alloy, AJ Pires. “It’s not like one side of the project is then stopping to then present to the other side of the table. We’re the whole entity”

Pires manages the acquisition, capitalization, design, construction and disposition for all of Alloy’s projects. The development firm is based in Brooklyn and Fairfield, New Jersey.

“I think my experience is probably similar to a lot of people in our office. I went to architecture school to make buildings,” he said, pointing out that the entire team has an architecture background.
“You could participate more in the process (as a developer with an architecture background) by taking on more risk and taking on more roles,” said Pires.

“For me, that path started in school and I started to take real estate classes and realizing that I should be starting my career in developments.

“There’s definitely consistencies,” Pires said, comparing both fields and noting that it’s cost efficient to be able to accomplish tasks like zoning analysis in-house.

Currently on Pires’s plate is One John Street in Brooklyn, which has about 9-12 months left of construction before it’s completed. Once finished, it will hold 42 residences along the Dumbo waterfront.

Another project in downtown Brooklyn is still “down the road a bit,” but the wheels are already in motion.

“We’re doing one or two projects at a time in different phases,” said Pires. “We’re limited in bandwidth, but we like that, it makes us focused and creatively disciplined.”

AJ Pires

AJ Pires

Principal of Thread Collective, Gita Nandan agrees with Pires that there are advantages to handling both the designing and the development of a project under one roof.

“My partners and I, with our integrated architecture, design, landscape firm, decided in 2006 that it was a good idea to try and explore how we would be able to develop our own ideas and principles around sustainability,” said Nandan during the “Designer As Developer: Building Your Vision, Building New Business” panel discussion, which was hosted by the American Institute of Architects and held at the USAI Lighting pop-up showroom in SoHo last week.

As the residential market continues its boom, more and more architects have been taking control of their own projects and creating design-focused integrated practices which offers not only control over the design and build of a project, but potentially much larger financial gain.

Thread Collective tip-toed into the development arena when they bought an “affordable” lot in Bushwick that Nandan believed they could “handle on their own.”

“The development itself was really a way for us to showcase to both future clients and ourselves how we would explore the integrated design process, how landscape deeply integrates into interiors and how the architecture sort of comes together as one in one single project.”

Gita Nandan

Gita Nandan

Nandan said that developing the spec property allowed her team to “come to the table understanding a wide cornucopia of issues,” and believes that it made them more well-rounded architects.

“I had never sat in front of a banker and made an argument as to why a project was going to be viable,” she added.

The panel’s moderator, Susan Szenasy, the editor and chief of Metropolis Magazine, told the audience, “New York is such a developer town, we think that developers are kings. In fact they have been given that role here.

“I think architects need to get into the action. I think there’s some reason that they’re reticent and there’s all this sort of protecting your creative role, but at the same time, feeling that the money or the development or the kind of nasty reputation of development will rub off on you,” said Szenasy.
“You know, you could do worse,” she joked before praising the panel members for finding a productive way to bridge the two practices.

Charlie Kaplan, principal of Gluck+ said he felt that his firm’s finished products benefit from its versatility.

“We’re always thinking about how do we fill all the niches that need to be filled in order to create a great building,” he said during the panel. “That means not just being an architect but, in our case, being a builder.”

The architects recalled that it was during a slow market in the early 19902 that he and his team asked themselves, “We have all these skills, we design, we build, Why can’t we develop?

Charlie Kaplan

Charlie Kaplan

“As an architect, you approach sites and situations that some may see as difficult and you see them as opportunities.”

The panel, which also included Jorge Mastropietro AIA, of JMA, agreed that when they handle an entire development in-house, conflicts of interest tend to be minimized.

In situations where a more cost effective move is weighed against how it will impact the sale value when potential buyers view a space, architects tend to understand why certain design shortcuts are not worth the economic loss later.

But clearly not all architects delve into both the development and design sides of a project. What of those that stay within the fold of architecture?

GRADE is a full service architecture and interior design firm led by Thomas Hickey AIA and designer Edward Yedid. The firm specializes in curating personalized, luxurious spaces and uniquely articulated lifestyle experiences.

While they typically do not directly develop their projects, Grade’s partners agree that handling more than one aspect of creating a finished product in-house can lead to better overall results.

“It’s managing the balance, that’s what we always talk about,” said Hickey. “Even with the architecture and interior design projects that we have on, I think the success of our projects is because there’s a balance between how much attention is paid between the architecture and the interior design, and how one effects the other.”

“Knowing so much about architecture and interior design and decoration, we are literally able to pull expense from one area to the next while we’re designing to get the best overall look,” added Yedid.
As New York’s various levels of real estate development continue to move forward into the years ahead, it may not be surprising to see more architects playing a larger role in seeing their creations come to life.

Efficiency has always been a cost-effective model in any business, and real estate is no exception.

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