Jonathan Segal's Design Philosophy

• Avoid standard multifamily features such as underground parking, elevators, and double-loaded corridors. Instead, build to only three or four stories so residents can use the stairs. Locate parking in central courtyards.

• Make sure each project is walkable to retail and offices.

• Allow your design to evolve over time, says Segal, who likens his design aesthetic to the simplicity and elegance of a high-performance car. “If you look at Porsches from 1948 to 2014 and put them side by side, you can see how the original design has evolved to the current design,” he says. “It’s evolved but it’s still a Porsche.”

• Know how local regulations can benefit your practice. For example, Segal participates in San Diego’s density bonus program that allows him to add 33 percent more living space in exchange for providing a few units of affordable housing. This is in line with his own beliefs: “Every multifamily project—by market demand or by code—should provide at least 10 percent affordable housing units.”

• Don’t own any properties that are farther than 20 minutes away from your office.

• Things frequently go wrong when developing a new project, but in a design/build capacity it’s easier to fix issues and tweak the design as you go along. A streamlined approach also appeals to subcontractors.

• Keep projects small and limited to one per year.

Architect Jonathan Segal is revered among his peers for his business savvy as much as his design talent. Colleagues eager to learn his secrets pack Segal’s educational sessions at national conferences, attend his classes at the Woodbury School of Design, or tune in to his “Architect as Developer” online video series. They can even watch a short award-winning documentary that explores his game-changing approach to urban development.

The San Diego-based developer, one of this year's three inductees into the Wm. S. Marvin Hall of Fame for Design Excellence, has crafted a unique practice free of clients, lenders, and city officials that gives him the ability to design when, where, and what he wants. For each of his projects—built on spec in downtown infill communities—Segal acts as developer, general contractor, interior designer, and property manager. Funds come from his company and the sites he builds are small enough that they don’t require community approval or bank loans.

“There is a real distinction between what an architect thinks should happen and what a developer and a banker thinks should happen,” he says. “They look backward to what has worked in the past and an architect looks forward to what really needs to happen, what’s evolving in society and how can I provide the support for it?”

Jonathan Segal Architecture + Development is considered one of the most successful and pioneering residential architectural/development companies in San Diego and is known for providing housing at a lower cost than comparable properties—up to 20% less than a project built using a standard builder/developer model. Its projects range from 80 to 160 dwelling units per acre and the budgets on his rental projects are incredibly tight. The average monthly rent for one of his studio units is $1,300, up to $5,500 for a two-bedroom penthouse.

Segal’s signature look stays away from standard multifamily features such as underground parking, elevators, and double-loaded corridors. For The Charmer, a 19-unit multifamily project in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood, he combined the pedestrian-friendly planning of historic courtyard apartments with restrained modern design, creating such an appealing place to live that it was named the 2012 Residential Architect Design Awards Project of the Year.

Segal’s contribution to residential design reaches far beyond his role as developer. Since his first project in 1990, he has accumulated a wealth of architectural accolades, including several Gold Nugget awards and national AIA awards. He has a gift for crafting creative approaches that transform tricky sites into vibrant urban communities, says friend David Jameson, a Washington, D.C.-based residential architect.

“Many architects wrongly look at Jonathan’s success and consider it only financial success but once you put that aside, his real gift is in his placemaking ability,” says Jameson. “He is talented at identifying the right property, finding the way to make that property valuable, and using his architectural skills to create a desirable place to live, even in a difficult location.”

Segal’s restless personality fuels the bravado needed to successfully pull off his projects, Jameson says. “He can come into an underdeveloped neighborhood and say ‘I’m not only going to use design as a tool to help people dwell here, but I’m also going to create the local restaurant, coffee shop, and bookstore.’”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Diego, CA.