For much of his career, builder Mark Grassi specialized exclusively—and happily—in custom homes. When a client asked him to build a winery in 2002, he wavered at the idea. But he eventually took the commission, a decision that started his company on a path it’s still traveling today. Boutique wineries and restaurants make up about 40 percent of Napa, Calif.–based Grassi & Associates’ workload, with the balance going to custom homes. “When you get into more high-end commercial work, there’s a carryover from the high-end residential work,” Grassi says. “It takes the same kind of discipline.”

He and his three partners are careful to accept only the types of commercial commissions that fit their skill sets. “It wouldn’t suit us to do a huge industrial building,” Grassi explains. “We wouldn’t be competitive. Our specialty is commercial that has a more residential aspect.” The wineries they build, in particular, tend to be designed by many of the same architects with whom the company collaborates on custom homes. And the winery projects often feature houselike detailing and finishes, while restaurant work tends to have somewhat less in common with residential projects. “It’s a pretty hectic pace compared to a custom home,” Grassi says. “We can adapt to it pretty well—it’s just different.” Grassi & Associates has built three restaurants over the past two years—all relatively small spaces with high-end finishes.

Diversifying into commercial projects has helped the company maintain a busy schedule, even while the past few years have been slow for most custom builders. While Grassi and his partners did stop turning down work for a while, they haven’t experienced a truly serious drop-off during the downturn. Grassi credits the wineries’ longer build-out time, as well as the fact that many clients end up having the company construct both their homes and their commercial buildings. Also, he notes, “Our experience building wineries has helped us with getting more complicated residential projects, and vice versa.”

Sustainable building plays a major part in the company’s work. “Just about every job we do involves photovoltaic systems,” Grassi says. “But we and our clients are getting more interested in passive green building techniques.” In 2008, he and his team built the LEED Gold–certified CADE Winery, and Grassi was happy to learn that many LEED requirements were items he would have included anyway. “We didn’t do things that differently,” he says. “It was just being thorough and incorporating responsible building practices.”

2011 Pacesetter Awards Winners

John Abrams - Diversification Strategy: Establishing an energy services division.

Talli Oxnam and RJ Cooper - Diversification Strategy: Launching a services division.

Vincent Petrarca - Diversification Strategy: Bringing cutting-edge architecture to the design/build model.

Michael K. Walker - Diversification Strategy: Serving as an expert witness.

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