REAL ESTATE FINANCE PIONEER and philanthropist James Z. Pugash died on Sept. 20 at his Sonoma Valley, Calif., estate, following a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 55.

Revered as the co-founder and brain trust behind Hearthstone, the nation's largest institutional investor in residential development, Pugash developed the concept of using pension fund money to finance moderately priced, for-profit housing. “Jim was one of the most energetic individuals I've ever known,” says Frank Anton, CEO of Hanley Wood (parent company of BUILDER). “He made several hundred calls on pension funds before the first one said yes. Few people have that kind of perseverance.”

Since its inception in 1992, Hearthstone has financed more than 450 communities in 80 markets over 25 states, representing 40 builders and nearly 90,000 homes and lots. Its current funds committed to the home building industry exceed $11 billion.

Yet Pugash's most enduring legacy may be his role as philanthropist. In 1999, his firm became the lead sponsor of the Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award, an honor given to builders demonstrating outstanding community service. Pugash was also founding chairman of the Home-building Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes charitable giving by builders through a donor-advised fund.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1951, Pugash received his undergraduate degree in economics from Yale College, followed by graduate degrees from Harvard Law School and Oxford University. “Jim was, without a doubt, one of the smartest people in the building business,” says Larry Webb, CEO of John Laing Homes. “Conversations with him were never just about costs per square foot or absorption rates. He was a true intellectual.” A quintessential bon vivant, Pugash was a wine aficionado and an accomplished pianist. He is survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter, and two sisters.