Interview with Architect Jim Zack, Founder Zack/de Vito, San Francisco
What made you decide to found Zack/de Vito? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?
I have always been very independent and self-motivated, a leader, not a follower. I was never a ‘good employee,’ preferring to forge my own path since I was quite young. I had my own small construction company when I was 20. I started my own office right out of graduate school, it was not a ‘decision’, it is just what I did.
I rented a studio with some friends to have a place to work and build things. I spent about one month looking for a job. The second interview I had was for a young architect I knew. Instead of offering me a job, he asked me if I could build a custom table for an office. It was my first commission. I never looked back after that. In addition to my independent streak, I was an obsessive maker, I had to build things. I set up a small workshop and started fabricating objects for other architects.
What is your firm’s core specialism?
Over the years we have done a variety of projects but the mainstays of our work are custom, modern residential, and restaurants. We do an occasional commercial project, offices, stores, etc., and a few private educational projects, but these days 75% is high end, modern houses, small multi-unit or mixed use and restaurants.
Our ideal project is a new one- or two-unit urban building where we can do both design and construction, and a client who appreciates modern design and a high level of craft.
Your company has now been in operation for 25 years. Did you have to adjust your business strategies over the years?
Yes and no. On the one hand, I feel we do more or less the same thing as usual, but of course we adapt to the times: more digital, more sophisticated clients, higher budgets, etc.
One thing that never seems to change is that we are bad at marketing; we never do enough so we always seem to need more work even when we are busy. Based on my conversations with colleagues, we are not alone in this!
Looking back, what was the best decision you made for your practice?
It would have to be to embrace design/build on our own terms, doing what we know, and to trust our business instincts. For 10 years, I fought the idea of doing construction work; I wanted to be a cool, mod designer, not get my hands dirty. Perhaps in the early 90s design/build was not cool like it is now. I tried to stop building a few times and fortunately failed in that effort, and now we embrace design/build 100%.
An equally important decision was to have my wife, Lise de Vito, quit her job and join my firm as a partner. Working and having a family has been easier and more successful because of her involvement.