At 45, Jonathan Segal has perfected a business strategy that combines award-worthy design with high profit potential. Cutting out the middlemen is key, he says.
Tim Tadder At 45, Jonathan Segal has perfected a business strategy that combines award-worthy design with high profit potential. Cutting out the middlemen is key, he says.

In his sunlit office east of downtown San Diego, Jonathan Segal is working on a model of a mixed-use building that he has named the Q, “for James Bond's widget guy.” As his son, Matthew, an architecture student, applies bits of foamcore board and balsa wood to the building's exterior, Segal jokes about his minimalist approach: “You shake the model, and whatever falls off, you probably didn't need.” Which is as good an architectural theory as any.

For a moment, Segal and his son consider the merits of a large vertical fin next to the building's entrance, before the architect decides he wants a smaller canopy. The fin, he explains with a bit of false modesty, “is too big a gesture for a guy like me.”

Minimalist or not, Segal has never been afraid to have an impact. Since opening his office in 1990, he's designed, financed, and constructed nearly two dozen buildings, most of them handsome assemblages of stucco, wood, and rusted mild steel (which he has dubbed “the poor man's Cor-Ten”). Almost all of the buildings contain rental apartments.

Last year, he sold 141 apartments, in five separate developments, to a group of investors. The price, he said, was just over $300,000 a unit, which sounds modest—until you do the multiplication: Segal's take was about $45 million. And he accomplished that while in his early 40s, a time when many architects feel lucky to make ends meet. (Not jealous yet? Without clients to rein in his aesthetic choices, Segal has also won a slew of local and national design awards.)

Now 45, Segal is hardly hiding his light under a bushel. He is planning a series of seminars around the country—beginning with one in Los Angeles on Oct. 28—for architects hoping to do what he did. In his opinion, young architects facing financial and artistic roadblocks should follow the trail he blazed, becoming their own clients. Of course, the $795 price tag for the one-day seminar may be more than some of those young architects can afford.

But those who do attend may come away surprised. Among Segal's rules is that he only builds rental apartments, because in California, condo owners often sue architects for design defects. (“If you do condos, you get sued,” is his to-the-point formulation.) And he serves as his own contractor. Two new apartment buildings adjacent to his office cost about $95 a square foot to build. If he had added a general contractor, the price would have been $135 or more.

That project, called the Union, exemplifies Segal's approach. The site was a 20,000-square-foot lot, close to the San Diego freeway, containing one small building: a former union hall built out of slump block in the '70s. Segal bid against more than a dozen other developers for the lot. His winning offer was by far the highest, he says, but that wasn't a problem: He knew that he could turn the union hall into an office (for his firm) plus two loftlike apartments.

“Demolition would have cost $100,000. And [the hall] was worth about $250,000.” Which meant that, by reusing the building, he saved himself $350,000. To him, the site was like a Cracker Jack box: “You open the lid and this little building is the prize.”

Segal's office is a stunning space, with storefront-sized windows and custom metal furniture. On a typical day, his staff doesn't have to turn on a single light— skylights are positioned so that work areas are perfectly illuminated from above. Next door is an office for his wife, Wendy, who manages the company's buildings and, he says, weighs in on all design decisions. Between the two offices is a reception area with a single white Barcelona chair. Jokes Segal: “That's the chair for the client we'll never have.”