Interview by Ted
"Everyone was born to do something," says design/build contractor
Andrew DiGiammo. "I was born to build. Even when I was a kid, I
always knew this was what I wanted to do." In high school, DiGiammo
worked for his uncle's construction company. Then he went out on
his own, supporting himself as a contractor while he worked through
the five-year architecture program at Providence, Rhode Island's
Roger Williams University. By his final year at Roger Williams,
DiGiammo was already developing the design/build process that forms
the core of his business today. Now a registered architect in
Massachusetts, DiGiammo owns his own construction company,
Residential and Commercial Master Builders of New England. He
specializes in high-end custom projects near the water in the
coastal communities around Providence, R.I., and Fall River, Mass.,
doing about $6 million worth of business volume a year.
Architect and builder Andrew DiGiammo prefers to create visual
interest with building forms rather than with decorative trim. This
bay-front house in Swansea, Mass., with its multicornered
footprint, offers a choice of ocean views from every
AS AN ARCHITECT WHO IS ALSO A BUILDER, YOU DESIGN ALL OF
YOUR OWN BUILDINGS, AND YOU BUILD MOST OF YOUR OWN DESIGNS. WHAT
ADVANTAGE DO YOU GAIN AND WHAT ADVANTAGES DO YOUR CLIENTS GAIN OUT
OF THAT ARRANGEMENT?
The clients' advantage is that they get single-point
responsibility. They get a seamless transition from design to
construction, they get accurate cost estimates all through the
design, and it's guaranteed that the intent or the spirit of the
design carries through to the construction. That's a huge advantage
for the clients, especially on single-family residential projects,
where the scope is small enough that one guy can really have his
hands around the whole thing.
I like it because, first of all, I save a tremendous amount of
time. I don't have to spend time reviewing and studying someone
else's print to figure out what is going on and then bidding on it.
In high-end custom markets like mine, builders can spend 40 hours
on a detailed bid for which they never get the job. I don't have to
Second, when we start construction, I already know the clients, and
I have a comfort level with them. When you're about to sign a
million-dollar-plus contract with someone, it's nice if you already
know the person — and you really do get to know someone
during the design process.
Also, while I'm building, I know the project inside and out. So I
can eliminate a lot of those things that come up between owners and
builders, or between the builder and the architect, when the
customer starts to say, "Oh, that's not what we really
SO THAT'S WHY IT'S BETTER FOR YOU AS THE BUILDER. WHAT
ABOUT FROM YOUR POINT OF VIEW AS THE ARCHITECT?
Well, I don't have to put up with the builder trying to get extras
off my plans. I am not dealing with questions all of the time. And
I save time on cost estimating, because I create the cost estimate
at the same time as the design. I don't waste time drawing plans
that turn out to be outside the budget. I never even start the
working drawings until I know that I am going to meet the client's
budget within reason. That determination is made during the initial
phase of analysis and evaluation.
ISN'T THERE A PHASE AT THE VERY BEGINNING WHERE YOU DON'T
KNOW WHETHER YOU ARE GOING TO GET THE JOB OR NOT?
Yes, there's a predesign meeting, but that is a modest time
commitment. When new residential clients contact me, I give them
one meeting at their site with no obligation. I ask them to bring
any ideas they have, and the site plan if they have one. After we
view their site, I take them to see two examples of what I do
— one example under construction that is still open and then
a finished example.
My goal at that first meeting is to collect enough information on
their budget, their site, and their needs that I can define the
scope of the project. Then I follow up within the next couple of
days with a design proposal. For residential work, I propose a lump
sum for the design fee, based on the hours I spent on similar past
projects. I can usually prep a new design contract in 15 minutes,
based on a previous project — I just modify it for inflation
or for any particular needs they have, print it out, and send it.
Then I'm done with that client, unless they select me for the work
— and lately, it has been a hundred percent. Typically, I
spend six hours maximum to get the job.
DiGiammo's signature bays and bump-outs make the most of
ocean-front sites by offering homeowners comfort in all weather.
The many-windowed polygon elements help bring outdoor light and
cross-breezes into the home, while also sheltering the locations of
entryways and outdoor decks.
HOW IS COMMERCIAL WORK DIFFERENT?
It's a different ball game. It's not nearly as personal, and you
make a mistake if you try to treat it that way. On commercial
projects, I start with a site meeting also, but the focus typically
is on the overall cost — what the total project budget will
be. The design fee is based on a percentage of the construction
SO MONEY ISSUES PLAY DIFFERENT ROLES?
Well, they are two different markets. The cost of residential plans
can be all over the place, starting at $600 for stock plans from
the Internet up to $150,000 for custom designs from upper-echelon
architects. And how you get high-end coastal residential work is
based on much more than lowest price. In that market, shopping by
price is the exception, not the norm. But in commercial work, often
the primary questions are time and money: "How soon can we have the
plans done, and how much is it going to cost?"
An exception to this is some waterfront commercial work, however.
Occasionally, a light-commercial project in a nice coastal
location, such as a public waterfront, may call for exceptional
design work, and that could change the way the clients approach
choosing an architect.
THAT FOCUS ON PRICE IN COMMERCIAL WORK SOUNDS LESS
ADVANTAGEOUS TO YOU AS A DESIGNER/BUILDER. IS THERE AN UPSIDE TO
Yes. For one thing, usually the rate for design work on commercial
is higher, based on the work you have to do and considering that
the building forms are usually simpler. Usually nonprofessionals
can't compete — the drawings in commercial work always have
to have a stamp. But then again, in coastal areas these days you
are going to need a stamp for a residential foundation and probably
for a lot of other parts of the house. So that's all
IS ONE TYPE OF PROJECT — RESIDENTIAL OR COMMERCIAL
— MORE SATISFYING?
It's usually the residential work that really allows me the
opportunity to produce unique, site-specific designs. That's what
residential clients are looking for. Also, in residential design
you are free to do a lot more, without all the codes that can
determine so much of the form in a commercial building —
accessibility, egress, fire codes, and all that stuff.
With its less restrictive codes, residential work offers
DiGiammo the most leeway to play with interesting forms and shapes,
like this whimsical bridge to an over-the-garage guest
HOW MUCH OF THE ACTUAL WORK ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR OWN
CREW, AND WHAT KIND OF WORK ARE YOU SUBBING OUT?
For the homes, I use my own crew, but a lot of the commercial work
I sub out — even the framing. That's because commercial
buildings usually have simpler building forms — it's more
production-type stuff, and I don't have to be there all of the
time. That's also easier for a sub to price; a framing contractor
can price a simple rectangle for you easily, but maybe not a
rectangle with five octagonal bays.
A lot of my homes get their uniqueness from their form. I use
elements like bays and bows to make them interesting, both on the
inside and on the outside. I think it's a better use of the
client's money to create those shapes to take advantage of better
views, better breezes, and to provide a more interesting shape to
the room rather than spend it on, say, custom window trim. When
someone looks at a beautiful bay, the trim doesn't really matter
— people aren't even looking specifically at the trim at that
point. They are just seeing the beauty of the shape and its
proportions and, of course, the view beyond.
A framing crew can really stumble on those bays and bows if they
don't do them very much. My guys know how to do these frequently
used details almost by memory. It's kind of like having CAD details
in your computer that you can pull in and use in various designs.
My crews have been building my designs for 15 years. So by now, the
memories of my crew members have become like those details in the
computer that you can just pop in. If I draw a detail, usually my
foreman already knows that detail. It's a big advantage over a
separate architect and builder who don't have that shared
Crew members discuss a framing detail on one of DiGiammo's
waterfront condominium projects in Fall River, Mass. On complex
residential projects, DiGiammo prefers the efficiency of a crew who
knows the more intricate details by heart.
IT SOUNDS as if THE CREATIVE DESIGN PART OF YOUR WORK IS A
BIG FACTOR FOR YOU.
That's what keeps me going. I like the construction process, too,
in a crazy way, and I like seeing the design through to the end.
But building is such a tough business. In my area, at least, the
general contractors on smaller jobs make a lot less money than the
plumbers, the electricians, and the other subs they use. And when I
take on a building, all the responsibilities fall on me. I may get
three headaches — from the carpet guy, the plumber, and the
electrician, you know — all on one day. There is just so much
involved when you have sole responsibility.
But when I get out there on a design interview, it's like the
greatest thing in the world. It forces me to reflect, and it kind
of breathes some new life into me. Whenever I drive away from an
interview, I feel refreshed, because I've been back to a finished
project, and I've seen what I did.
The process of building that house may have been more of a headache
than anything. But after the dust settles and you go back to see
it, you've forgotten all the headaches. That dormer or bay that you
made to capture that beautiful view — maybe at the time it
was something that went over budget, and you hated it for a while.
And let's face it; going through a long project with people, even
with the best clients, may be rocky at times. But when you bring
other people back to a finished house, all that seems to be
forgotten. And your old clients meet the prospective clients, and
although they might not otherwise say it to your face, you hear
them praising you. So those client interviews are a really
uplifting thing. If I were building other people's plans and trying
to hold the line every day on cost, without the design process and
that interaction with the owners, it just wouldn't be the same for