Some master craftsmen are good designers and some are good builders. Rare is the person who is skilled at both. It’s hard enough to acquire one skill, but mastering two of these disciplines represents a high degree of difficulty.
Phil Kean is one of those rare individuals. This Harvard-educated architect has amassed an array of awards for his design work, but his construction acumen is equally impressive with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) naming him 2013 Custom Builder of the Year.
Kean is the founder and president of Phil Kean Design Group (PKDG), a highly respected design/build firm based in Winter Park, Fla. specializing in high-end residences. Unlike many leading architects that force clients into a particular design aesthetic, Kean is a customer-focused designer who is all about his clients.
This ability to connect on an emotional level is one reason why Matt and Kelly Russell, of Deland, Fla., hired Kean in 2011 to design their dream home. “I liked his personality, and I loved how he listened to us and didn’t try to inject his own ideas on us immediately,” says Kelly.
The NAHB award merely validated what everyone in Florida already knew. Last year alone, Kean was named Orlando’s Best Architect and Best Interior Designer by “Orlando Life,” Orlando’s Best Architecture Firm by “Orlando Business Journal,” and Builder of the Year by the Master Custom Builder Council, among other well-earned awards.
Mike Payne, Jr., a member of the NAHB Award Review Group, says the committee typically reviews about 12 to 15 entries every year to choose the recipient, considering key criteria such as company culture, quality and customer service.
“As we review the entries, there are always those who stand out in certain areas and a few that really stand out in many or all,” says Payne, whose company, Payne & Payne Builders, in Chardon, Ohio, won the award in 2009. “Phil was the one who stood out in all.”
Kean was born in Miami but his family moved to central Florida when he was a toddler. Drawing houses was his passion, so it came as no surprise when, at the age of seven, he announced to his family that he would one day become an architect. “From a very young age, I had a knack for drawing houses and designing them,” he says.
With a contractor father, Kean also learned how to build houses early. “When you’re the son of a builder, you often end up sweeping and doing miscellaneous things,” Kean says. “I did drywall, finish carpentry, tiling, a little bit of everything.”
After high school, Kean went to Washington University, St. Louis, where he earned an undergraduate degree in architecture. A scholarship sent him to the vaunted Harvard Graduate School of Design for his master’s. He then returned to Washington University, where he graduated with an MBA in 1992.
Ever the entrepreneur, Kean ran a wholesale manufacturing company he had started with his college friend Brad Grosberg. “I was doing design work on the side and producing a line of art craft rubber stamps and stickers, but I felt I could do that from anywhere, so I moved back to Florida and bought a little house in Cocoa Beach,” he says. “Five years later, I got tired of Cocoa Beach and moved to Winter Park.”
At first, Kean merely dabbled in designing and building. He’d buy a property, renovate it, and sell it. Then 9/11 happened, encouraging him to take a chance to go full time. “It was sort of this moment in time for me, and I decided that I have to do it now,” he explains.
It took Kean about a year to set up his business, and then he was off and running. “My first project was a little spec house in 2002, and then the next year I did two spec houses. The next year I did three,” he says. “Then one of my friends asked me if I would build his house, and one thing led to another.”
What began as a one-man operation with Kean working around his dining table is now a 29-person firm staffed with various disciplines, including architects, interior designers, technicians and engineers. Kean’s friend and business partner Brad Grosberg now handles the finances.
Phil Kean loved the home he built and designed so much he decided to keep it and live there himself
High-end residential is the firm’s niche business, with projects starting at $500,000. Most of the firm’s houses fall into the 6,000-square-foot range but can go as large as 12,000 square feet. Ever the committed architect, Kean discourages clients from building square footage they’re not going to use.
A Kean house may be on the smaller side but it’s still high-end because of the well-appointed outdoor spaces and use of luxury products. “On a 4,000-square-foot house, for example, the average builder might spend $30,000 on windows and doors but I might spend $90,000,” he says.
Like all good architects, Kean starts almost every home with a site visit to get a sense of the topography and context. He then determines the client’s goal, which is key to the most important step: the floor plan. “I think that having a wonderful floor plan that really works for your lifestyle is more important than how a house looks from the street,” he says. “Elevations are easy; the floor plan is the challenge.”
One of the advantages of working with Kean is that his clients understand design and construction. The model has many benefits: issues get resolved quickly and budget concerns are largely eliminated. “We’re really good at making budgets because when you’re the builder and the architect, you know what things cost,” he says. “And you can design things for people’s budget.”
Almost all of the firm’s local work is for design/build, but out-of-state commissions – from diverse places such as California, Canada and Africa – are typically design only. And though he has a penchant for “warm modernism,” he also accepts commissions for classic homes.
No matter the home’s style, Kean has developed a reputation for being open-minded. When the Russells requested a courtyard and pool in the middle of their traditional Deland, Fla., home, the architect obliged. And he didn’t blink when they constructed a model of the house using cereal boxes. “He didn’t laugh at us or snicker or anything,” Kelly explains. “He loved the fact that we had such a definite idea of what we wanted.”
Kean becomes friends with most of the clients he builds for, and maintains those friendships. Jim Blumenfeld, who met the architect when they were in graduate school, hired Kean to design his family’s house in Winter Park.
“We knew Phil’s work very well and loved it,” says Blumenfeld, a marketing consultant. “We spoke with another builder but decided it would be best to have Phil build what he designed.” Blumenfeld and his husband subsequently hired Kean to do their vacation home in Cocoa Beach.
PKDG usually has 12 to 20 homes under construction but is often managing up to 80 projects in various stages. One of Kean’s crowning achievements was designing and building the 2012 New American Home, the NAHB’s annual showcase project. Measuring 4,181 square feet, the mid-century-inspired house features an open floor plan, large floor-to-ceiling glass and ample outdoor spaces.
Kean loved the design so much he kept it as his private home and lives there today. Personal recommendations don’t come better than that.
For more information on Phil Kean Design Group visit philkeandesigns.com or call (407) 599-3922
Image Credits: Photos by James Wilson, Uneek Luxury Tours and Timberlake Cabinetry.