6 Golden Nuggets of Wisdom to Design and Build Large Scale and Premier Projects

 |  Filed in Profiles In Excellence

with Jon C. Bernhard of Swaback Partners

Though he would like to reassure you that his professional title doesn’t really mean much, Jon Bernhard or “Jon B” as he is referred to by clients and peers, has achieved more than enough architectural accolades to warrant his rightfully earned title as Principal Architect, Designer, and Senior Partner of the architecture firm Swaback Partners.

Having led design projects that are now “going big” in hotspot locations such as the Hawaii, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and some of the most coveted and pristine real estate in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jon B has a distinct perspective on what it takes to champion and successfully complete large scale, premier residential and commercial projects.

So when you are ready to take your projects up a notch in size and start building, designing, and crafting for the giants of the world, read on to discover the six golden nuggets of wisdom Jon B had to share with Team DSC®.


Your understanding of the type of project, the people you are working with, and any foreseeable challenges become the driving force behind the success of any premier design. You’re entering into a long term partnership when you sign onto a project that includes thousands of square feet or multiple buildings across several hundred acres. When an opportunity lands in our laps, whether it is big or small, there is an interview process that takes place where the client not only interviews Swaback Partners, but we co-interview the client to make sure we’re a good fit for each other.

This same co-interview process also takes place with all principal contributors like the builder and interior designer. Since our team consists of hard workers who are highly creative and very right-brained, we like to enjoy the design process with our clients and partners while getting the job done at the highest level. Throughout the design process, we’re in this together one-hundred percent. It’s a real commitment. So the important place to begin any premier project is by asking one important question:

“Do I really want to invest the next two to four years of my life in this project with all of its diverse challenges, and opportunities?”


Premier projects don’t just come on their own. Our team has earned the privilege to do big and premier projects by doing exceptional work every time we have an opportunity to work with a client. Every client and every project is different. We do a lot of clubhouses, and the clients routinely tell us, “Well, we’re not like any other club.” Each club has its own unique demands, expectations, and needs. That’s why each project is approached as a one-of-a-kind prototype. Meeting those different requirements and doing an extraordinary job earns us the credentials to get the phone call. Similar to Desert Star Construction, repeat projects are a common occurrence and a high priority, as it shows a great amount of trust in the ability to produce outstanding work. Over time, our projects speak for themselves and grow in scale and quality right alongside our reputation.


What I don’t want to do is design my house for you. I want to design your house for you. To accomplish this, a similar amount of work goes into both large and small projects. Just because a project is half the size of a bigger project, it doesn’t take half the effort to complete. The same questions are being asked and the same attention to detail is necessary.

I never start drawing until we have a clear understanding of the clients’ vision. Beyond the basic questions like “Do you want a game room?”, we need to understand what exactly does that mean to you? Do we put in a pool table or how about an entertainment center? Do you have kids that will spend the majority of their time in there? Depending on these details the Game Room could be 250-square-feet or 4,000-square-feet. Just because we design a pretty plan, doesn’t mean it is the right plan for the client.


The design process begins with a series of conversations and correspondence to determine exactly how big the project will be and the anticipated cost. We gather collateral information from our historic data of analogous projects and synthesize the images and descriptions of what we collectively are looking to accomplish. A projected budget number is then presented, verifying that the client is comfortable with the projected cost. If not, then we collaborate on what should be changed. For example, do we adjust the level of quality and maintain floor area, or maintain quality and reduce the floor area. A great deal of experience was applied to determine the proper size room for the functions described, so reducing floor area requires removing spaces, not reducing room sizes. Simply cutting square footage out of rooms will result in spaces that don’t function as intended. When the time comes to build the project, if the client is uncomfortable with the cost, everybody loses.

There often comes a time where the client will want to understand resale value. Statistics show that investing in an architect to design your home will typically sell for a higher unit price than a home that did not involve an architect. Additionally, if applicable, an architect can work with the builder to streamline the design and make it more cost-efficient. This could be as simple as changing finish materials. However, in the quest for low cost, there comes a point where so much would need to be cut that doing so would do a disservice to our client because we are no longer affording for the architecture that brought the client to us. This is why it is so important to be diligent with budget before starting to draw.

Team DSC® and the Swaback Partners team share the same philosophy that it is our duty to make sure the clients know exactly what they are getting before the first line is drawn.


Builders like Desert Star Construction are critical in the design phase of a project because they can contribute to the detailing, which will ultimately reinforce efficient constructability of our designs. This is especially valuable when the projects are big in size. For this reason alone, we encourage the builder to join the design team early, and review preliminary drawings of the site plan, roof plan, and sometimes even a ceiling plan. At this time we go through the budgeting and feasibility of materials and products we’d like to incorporate into our design to determine the real cost of our ideas as well as the skilled labor required to make it happen. I’d rather not design an intricate roof detail made of copper if the price of copper is off the charts or the engineering is too complicated. The builder provides access to this critical insight, which can ultimately affect our design choices. By the time we break ground, a builder like Team DSC® has had the opportunity to become familiar with the plans, so our designs can be implemented with limited surprises, in spite of the scale and ingenuity.


Another important factor to consider when building and designing large projects is the difference between residential and commercial requirements. With a custom luxury home, there is typically one client – the homeowner. However, with a large commercial project, you have a Board of Directors or Trustees along with a pro forma. The flexibility of a residential client is greater because design criteria can change simply based on their own re-evaluation. However, a formal commercial project involves many decision makers.

The design graphics are as essential to the design process as the pro forma. With residential and commercial projects, we routinely reinforce the design by creating interactive 3D computer models. When the project justifies it, we go so far as to dedicate entire rooms to display multiple phases of a project and their respective plans. The principal decision-makers can follow the evolution of the design process, follow why design decisions were made, and see what they are buying. This method can make the entire process less complicated and more enjoyable for everyone involved.

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“Desert Star Construction has really made a huge mark on the world of building sustainably, and Swaback Partners resonates with these efforts. Our roots are intertwined with the organic design philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright. The firm’s founding partner, Vernon Swaback spent 22 years at Taliesin West prior to forming the firm, including two years while Mr. Wright was alive.

Our designs and what we build inherently have value-oriented, sustainable design features and elements. Unless requested or specifically necessary for unique circumstances, we’re not going to include elements just to earn points for “green” certification. If there is a reason to incorporate details that will add real value to a project and the sustainability of our planet, we’re going to advocate for it. Good design is sustainable design.”