Charles Di Piazza and Brett Greig
By Hannah J. Phillips
Portraits by Andrew Bennett
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Charles Di Piazza grew up in France before studying at the University of Texas School of Architecture. After working for Peter Marino in California and Norman Foster and David Chipperfield in London, Di Piazza moved back to Austin in 2012 to found his own firm and teach at his alma mater. Di Piazza previously taught a course with builder Brett Greig, a licensed architect who moved to the building side of the industry in 2014. Working as project manager for Wilmington Gordon, Greig completed her first construction project: Michael Hsu’s office. She now works with Rauser Construction.
Charles Di Piazza: You have an unusual background, being trained as an architect and now being a builder. How does that set you apart from other builders?
Brett Greig: Our entire firm are registered architects, so we understand how to tailor the building experience to clearly translate the architect’s intent. What motivates us is making those really strong relationships between the builder, architect and client.
CDP: So typically, do you get involved early on with projects?
BG: I think the earlier you can set up that team, the more successful the project will be. You can even run quick budget calculations on design ideas. We had an instance where the intent was an all-marble bathroom. The designer wanted it to be big slabs, but we looked at the same material in 12-by-24-inch tile and the cost difference was staggering.
CDP: I think that’s a great example of how bringing in a builder early can get more of a focus on the cost, but also with the advent of technology, you can pretty much visualize every space, every joint of stone. I think that lets the owner make a more informed decision based on the delta and quality.
BG: Yeah, we’re working on a project where that model has been so useful, not just for the owners, but for the steel fabricator to see a supplement to the very technical, architectural drawings. What kind of work are you working on right now?
CDP: I’ve become very interested in remodels where you have to come up with a synthesis of what was there and what you are proposing that is new. I’m very interested in the intersection of how we build up our history and how we dialogue with what’s happening in our neighborhood.
BG: Absolutely. We talk so much about placefulness in architecture and the fact that, especially in this neighborhood [East Austin], so much has been wiped, but I think it’s really critical to preserve our urban fabric. Doing so through renovations is really important, especially if there is a character worth saving.
CDP: I think that’s where thinking about culture is helpful because sometimes it’s our job as architects to point out the connection to other buildings or focus on an elemental characteristic of the house and use a material to emphasize that.
BG: Absolutely. I’d love to talk more about how you educate clients about the building process. When do you like to bring in a builder?
CDP: I like to go through a pre-concept design where we explore various ideas. Once a client likes a particular option, we reach out to a builder to see if what we are proposing is in budget. One of the hardest questions I get asked is how much it’s going to cost. I can base it on what I’ve done previously, but the fluctuation of the market, the labor force and the materials is very difficult to predict.
BG: Yes, I think that the biggest thing I have to overcome is the client’s idea that the builder is there to beat down the subcontractors, to pull the lowest price out of them and really push them. But we’ve found that the best way to control costs is through really good project management. We’ve got long relationships with the subcontractors, so we can’t necessarily control the cost of materials, but in terms of labor costs, we try to overthink everything behind the scenes so those subcontractors can collaborate well.
CDP: So a big part of project management is the sequencing and scheduling, and that makes for a more smooth process?
BG: Absolutely. We’re in communication the whole time, talking through any issues or conflicts that we can foresee. There may be something that comes up on-site, but if you have that relationship, we’re not burning the client’s money and blowing through subs.
CDP: How can an architect be more helpful in that construction sequencing?
BG: Well, I love working with architects who are—and I hope I was this type of architect, where I never stopped being curious and never stopped pushing the details, pushing the design. So if there’s this hint of an idea but the architect’s not quite sure exactly how they want that to work out, I think having that collaboration with the builder makes for some really exciting outcomes.
CDP: Yes, I think great design is one that encourages creative dialogue and critical focus. My challenge as a teacher is to open minds to the cultural happenings around the world and the history of architecture, but I’m very impressed by how quickly students are able to work and present their projects very confidently. I think we have a bright future.
BG: I agree. I think in this most recent set of final reviews in the spring, it was really evident to me how ambitious and optimistic this generation of designers is. They’ve got a lot of issues to take on now as they enter the design world, and I feel like they’re curious and excited to tackle those issues.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.