The design/build model is fairly popular with custom builders. But as a design/build firm that regularly competes with the country’s best architects for national design awards—and often wins—Raleigh, N.C.–based Tonic Design represents a very rare breed. Company principal Vincent Petrarca graduated from architecture school and served a 10-year apprenticeship under prominent modernist architect Frank Harmon. But hands-on construction was a part of both experiences, and he had no intention of dropping it when he co-founded Tonic, with architect Heather Washburn, in 2003. The building arts remain so central to the company’s method that Petrarca refers to it as “construction-led design.”

Structured officially as two separate companies—an architecture firm and a general contractor—Tonic occasionally designs projects for others to build but builds only its own designs. That, Petrarca notes, provides opportunities for fruitful site-based improvisational design and a streamlined process. “We can do a design and set of drawings in three months and build it in nine, so we can do a whole project in a year.” Just as important, splitting time between the office and the field exposes designers to a wealth of incidental knowledge. “There are these unforeseen observations, things we learn,” Petrarca says. “Those lessons directly impact our next round of designs.” He values his subcontractors not just for their ability to execute his plans, but also for their feedback on building better and more efficiently. Wired into a group of longtime trade partners, “We’re able to pull off something really economical and affordable and really high design,” Petrarca says. “Our projects are always $160 per square foot or less, and we put a lot of energy and passion into them.”

Passionate as he is about the work, however, Petrarca also can count, and he knows his clients are getting a bargain. In conversations with older architects, he reports, “they all said they never made any money in architecture, but they were really glad they did that rental property. That’s what they retired on.” Tonic developed the building where it is headquartered, as well as some rental property, and Petrarca envisions devoting more of the company’s energy—and that of the summer interns it accepts from the architecture school at North Carolina State University—toward expanding its real estate portfolio. Ultimately, he says, “we want to do half of our work for clients and half for projects we develop.” What will not change for Tonic, Petrarca explains, is “this hybrid profession of architecture and construction. It allows us to implement our design values and get construction results.”

2011 Pacesetter Awards Winners

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

Mark Grassi - Diversification Strategy: Adding commercial projects to the company's portfolio.

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

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

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Raleigh, NC.