Pride of Place
Architect Stuart Debowsky’s boutique design firm makes every house a home
By Michelle F. Solomon
Photos by Justin Namon
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but plenty goes into making a space the pinnacle of personalized style. Sometimes it’s difficult to create that certain look solo. You need a helping hand.
“I think of myself as a tour guide on the journey of improving your home,” says Stuart Debowsky, who founded Debowsky Design Group during the “height of the recession.”
It was September 2009; Debowsky remembers that it was just before his son, Ben, was born. “I entered the Pinecrest community at a time when my average clientele was a 50-something couple who had lived in Pinecrest since its inception,” he recalls. “These were folks who had plans on downsizing from the home in Pinecrest where they had raised their family. They would sell the nest egg and invest those dollars in a little place in Coconut Grove or somewhere else for their next stage of life.”
Recessionary times, however, changed life plans as home values plummeted. So Debowsky approached these same potential clients with a different plan, pointing out the equity they already had in their house and working with the homeowners to “refresh their style.” The idea was twofold.
“When the market would eventually come back,” the architect surmised, “they’d be able to engage a buyer with a more marketable property. In the meantime, they could live in the house and enjoy it more.”
Today, Debowsky covers all the bases, which means working toward not only immediate satisfaction but also something that increases property value.
“I tell my clients to really think about resale,” he says.
There are also architectural decisions that will have value in the long run. “When you’re doing renovations, it’s good to look ahead,” Debowsky says.
Anyone can hire a general contractor, but having a layer of what Debowsky calls “advocacy” has its advantages. As a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, a program of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in collaboration with Home Innovation Research Labs, the NAHB 50+ Housing Council and the AARP, Debowsky recommends modifications to increase access and maneuverability in homes as clients mature. These range from the installation of bath and shower grab bars and adjustment of countertop heights to the creation of multifunctional first-floor master suites, according to the NAHB.
“It’s an awkward conversation to have with able-bodied people, because you don’t want to think of yourself as being debilitated,” Debowsky says. “A big shower is appealing to everyone, but when you look at it from a perspective of not having to step into a deeper tub when your mobility is limited … that’s already been taken care of.”
There is another level of advocacy Debowsky instills in his business that everyone on his team follows. “If there’s an overarching theme that we’ve built the business around, it’s ‘pain avoidance,’” he says. “Construction projects are difficult, expensive and messy, but we’re going to walk you through it and get you to the other side. Every detail of the project is handled by the team. We usher clients through the architecture, design and construction administration steps of a project. They get a personal experience where they know they have had involvement and access during every phase of the work.”
To remove the anxiety of the process, each member of the team, which includes Debowsky and six others, brings experience to the various phases of the project.
“We also set expectations that things will go sideways, as they always do,” Debowsky says. “If something doesn’t go right, we know how to improvise.”
There’s a constant process of checking—a standard that guides a client through turning a dream into a “new reality.” What isn’t reality, Debowsky says, are the do-it-yourself shows on television that give homeowners a false idea of what can be done. “We’re basically in the business to save people from themselves when they believe they can do it all,” he says.
The architect believes that in home design, it is imperative to take a comprehensive look at the entire mix, from the interpersonal—“Are you a female executive who has 75 pairs of shoes or a family man who has a dozen relatives you host each weekend for Sunday dinner?”—to the resources he and his team can access, from designer discounts to a roster of contractors and other reputable remodeling and supply businesses.
Steeped in the Pinecrest community, there’s a connectivity with clients through the family’s professional and social circles, especially affiliations through Temple Beth Am, where Debowsky’s wife, Shari, works, and their children, Ben, 6, and Elizabeth, 4, attend school.
The architect, who graduated from University of Miami with a degree in architecture and received a master’s from Florida International University in construction management, also cites his five-year membership in the Pinecrest Business Association as instrumental to building his client base.
“We get such satisfaction that we are able to connect with the close-knit community of Pinecrest and are able to improve the way people can enjoy their home, regardless of size,” he says. “What it comes down to is pride of place. Design is not a luxury; it’s about loving where you live. If you don’t have that, then I feel you are merely existing.”