December 2022

Meet Anthony Giannini, a former skyscraper and $10+ million luxury home architect

Product Lead — Design Automation Anthony Giannini tells his story and why he joined Higharc.

Cameron Austin
Cameron Austin
Senior Communications Manager | DC-Baltimore Area
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"We are literally — as cliche as this sounds — going to change the world. Everyone who designs production homes at scale will use Higharc."

Our incredible team makes Higharc a special place to work, helping create the best technology for today's homebuilders. Meet Design Automation Product Lead Anthony Giannini, a former skyscraper and $10+ million luxury home architect. Learn about Anthony's story and why he joined Higharc below.

Tell us about your background: What were you doing prior to Higharc? What kinds of projects were you working on?

I'm a licensed architect in California. I recently moved to San Diego after studying and working in San Francisco for over a decade. I studied at UC Berkeley with [Higharc Cofounder] Michael Bergin, [Implementation Specialist] Martin [Pachaliev] and [Senior Software Engineer] Luis Jaggy. So we have a big Berkeley family here. After receiving my Masters of Architecture degree, I went off into architecture and others ventured off into tech.

I was an architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) for a bit over four years, doing very large commercial projects, multi-use projects across the globe. Eight million square foot projects were pretty typical, across China, Taiwan, the United States. SOM is responsible for the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, and a lot of other iconic projects like the New World Trade Center in NYC. Pretty much every significant invention in terms of skyscraper structural systems was invented by SOM and they've managed to maintained the most consistent and highest quality bar of work in this industry for the past 75 years.

This wasn’t a question I asked myself while at SOM, but in retrospect it’s a fascinating one.  How has such a large firm, with such a diverse group of people spread out across the world in London, New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco and Abu Dhabi maintained such a consistent standard of design and product?  I realized they do it by having a very strong ethos, a set of principles, that is codified across their entire organization. I remember that every year or two those shared values were up for debate and the people would decide if they were still the most relevant or needed to adapt. After decades of interrogation, they still lean onto the same guiding principles which starts to tell you they’re onto something - perhaps some universal truths of architecture and design? They also had their pragmatic set of rules that were passed down from generation to generation, through documentation and word of mouth, almost like the gospel. I’ll never forget one of the first things I learned at SOM, it was “Stay On Module” (SOM).  This rule translated throughout every design at SOM and it helped ensure that everything was as efficient as possible, from structural spans to lease depths to the actual facade and materials on the ceiling.  If you wanted to propose a design that broke the module, you better have had a really good reason for doing so.  Because we had rules to guide our process, I was able to spend a lot of time creating scripts to, sort of, augment a lot of the design processes to generate buildings, facades and structural systems that allowed us to quickly iterate through.  If nothing else, these would result in a placeholder or a starting point for a project.

High-rise towers in China and Australia designed by Anthony at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)

At SOM I learned how to navigate the nuanced and complicated landscape of architectural project delivery, often with dozens of agencies and hundreds of stakeholders, and to manifest those requirements into a real project that positively impacted thousands of lives. More importantly, I learned how to do that quality work, at scale, by leveraging rules.

After a while I was itching to tackle a different type of architecture - something more intimate. So I took a huge leap from massive scale projects and joined a firm called Ro Rockett Design to design single family homes. They are a modern boutique single family architecture firm. I quickly realized that not only were the architectural typologies dramatically different, but so was the approach to design.  There were really no rules to speak of and you got to spend a lot more time experimenting on projects, which in retrospect I think is very important for architecture - to have a place to explore ideas without risking a billion dollar failure. Most of the homes I worked on at RRD were like 6,000sf on the small end, up to 12,000sf, which was pretty typical. These were $12 million to $35 million homes across Tahoe, Aspen, etc.. I was running a bunch of projects there for a few years. So that got me back into the single family home game and then here I am at Higharc.

Homes Anthony was Project Architect on while at Ro Rockett Design. Images by others.

What brought you to Higharc?

I've been conceptualizing what my story was like getting here recently and how much it makes sense. Because if I step back again, the beginning of my career was about systematizing architecture, to a large degree, and then I jumped in to understand the nuances of single family architecture, which has a totally different set of constraints. The necessities of living in a [single family] space and the requirements of the size of spaces is way more constrained.

[Michael Bergin and I] were hanging out 12 years ago talking about just the opportunity… It seemed like there was so much low hanging fruit to take all of these production style homes and make them a little bit better. And so Michael actually reached out to me the day he left his last job a few years ago. I’ll never forget - we met at the top of the new Transbay terminal and he was like, “hey, I'm basically doing it, I'm doing the project”. I knew what “the project” was, and it had been a decade coming. So he planted some seeds and as soon as Higharc was ready to bring on a full time architect, I quickly jumped over because I'd been thinking about the problem for so long and I had the skill set. There's not that many architects that come from a firm like SOM where they're doing very large scale systematic work and doing a lot of scripting around architecture and also worked in single family residential. It's pretty rare. Michael and I are both very lucky to know each other and everything worked out pretty well.

What is unique about working at Higharc?

Architects and architectural firms are kind of like an elitist cult. Everyone’s wearing black, everyone's pretentious - but I admit they are amazing and I do love them. The funny part is when you're at an architecture firm, you're sort of enemies with builders, like you're nice to each other, but you have much different agendas. The contractor and the architect typically have contracts with the owner but not each other, and they have competing interests. Coming into Higharc, one of the coolest things I immediately felt is that we're all on the same team, which is super rare. We've got our team of builders, our team of product folks, our team of architects, our team of marketing folks, our team of world-class software engineers and we're all on the same team. So that in itself is really unique.

I believe that the best way to solve real problems is by truly empathizing with your target audience - to really understand what challenges they are facing. If you only understand or care about architects then you make another “optimization tool” that doesn’t seamlessly integrate with their existing workflows, nor automatically produce takeoffs, if you only care about contractors then you create another siloed CM tool and if you only care about drafters then you make a faster AutoCad or Revit that still doesn’t scale. A significant portion of our team is made up of the most seasoned production builders, drafters and architects in the world, which allows us to empathize and systematically solve real problems instead of replicate them.

Getting to be surrounded by such a diverse group of folks is really, really fun and rewarding. I doubt there is any other place on the planet with such a diverse group of domain experts tackling the same problem, together. This makes us uniquely positioned to truly solve problems that no other company can at the moment.

Are most homes in the U.S. designed by architects?

Something like 90-95% of single family homes in America have no direct involvement with an architect. There's not an architect overseeing the project, designing it, providing construction administration services or anything like that. There may have been an architect that “designed” the home ten years ago, but it was then copy-pasted 10,000 times, out of context. What this means is that 90% of folks in single family homes in America are sort of neglected.

But that is literally the reason why I'm here. I come from a place where I'm working on, honestly, architects’ dream jobs - working on iconic towers and then working on $35 million homes where you basically get to design and create whatever you want. That's nearly every architect's dream to be able to work on that, but you're really only doing it for a small amount of people.

And you realize, with the tools we are creating, if we want to make a bigger impact on everybody, this is how we do it. We're going after the large market, the 80% of homes in America. And the cool thing is you only have to make them a little bit better and you make a massive impact on the livelihood of most people.

What does Higharc do for architecture? Does it change an architect’s job?

This is a wonderful question - and probably the first question I get from my architect colleagues. Without much context, they immediately think two things:  how on earth could you leave your “Architecture” job with a capital-A, to work on tract homes? and secondly, “why are you trying to automate my job away?”.

One thing I want to make very clear to those listening in and especially my architect colleagues - Higharc is not going to replace architects.  As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of homes in America are built without an architect.  The vast majority of these homes are on greenfield sites that have little to no bespoke conditions that require professional architectural services. The specialized skills that architects have to orchestrate thousands of unique conditions and manifest those into a truly unique, one-off and beautiful project will never be out of demand.  However, if architects want to package up their knowledge and deploy it at scale to touch thousands of more projects and lives, then Higharc allows them to also do that if they choose to.

Once I’ve had the chance to explain this to my colleagues, they actually get very excited about the potential here.

Conceptual sketches by Anthony for one of his projects currently being built in Tahoe. Ro Rockett Design.

What is your ultimate dream for Higharc and the product it creates?

If we’re doing our job right, we will enable all stakeholders in the home-creation process to make better homes, more efficiently and at a price everyone can afford. Both the builders and the homebuyers need to equally benefit.

Right now, one thing that's pretty cool about America is that we do have these homebuilders that build a ton of homes at a price that people can afford. That's an amazing thing. But what if we could make those homes even better? What if homebuyers were able to have more agency in the design and price of the home they were going to purchase and spend 90% of their time in? What if the decisions they got to make were not simply about the “curb appeal” and color of granite countertops, but were more meaningful like getting to choose how much natural light they want in their space or how much outdoor space they want to make livable? What if the decisions they got to make were all context-specific, to the exact lot and orientation of the house? What if they could make all of those decisions with real-time feedback on the tradeoffs between price, size and even the environmental sensitivity of their home? Imagine that we could achieve all of this while the builder gets to build a better home, at a lower cost?

At the end of the day, every human is really unique and every site in the country or the globe is unique. Therefore, every home should be different. We are creating the first tool to enable this to happen.

To me, the long term vision and how we get there is very clear.

What is the biggest pain point for homebuilders today?

It’s the fragmented pieces of the puzzle, if you will. There's different tools out there for every different piece of the process and every time you go from design to documentation to estimation to marketing, there's a data translation problem where some third party has to transfer some data to another third party to import it and refactor it to get a project from start to finish. But every time there's a transition that takes place, there's a broken link, and instantly the project is out of sync. So you get a problem where the marketing material doesn't match the actual latest design and ultimately, none of these downstream derivatives or assets match what the buyer is actually choosing. This makes it really hard for builders to scale their product offering.

Homebuilders have a tough enough time recycling the same exact plan across different regions, let alone to be able to offer more customization to their homebuyers or respond to a rapidly changing market. The complexity of the project is logarithmic and it gets way too out of hand. We're solving that problem for them.

Coming from the high end design world and learning more about the aspirations and challenges facing the real men and women trying to build single family homes at scale, I’ve been quite humbled.

How does Higharc bring better home design to the masses?

Rules. I talked about this earlier, but rules are the key to maintaining quality and consistency and deploying them at scale.

It is completely unnecessary to experiment on every single new home. We have architects and builders who have passed down traditions and rules-of-thumb, from generation to generation, for thousands of years.  We know, to a large degree, what great architecture is, what types of spaces enrich peoples’ lives and how to build effectively. However, at every architecture firm in the world today, people continue to reinvent the wheel everyday. At production builder firms, drafters will draft the same exact bathroom a thousand times or copy-paste the same eave detail for decades when it’s not even buildable. At every building site, each superintendent builds the same exact house differently. Why not take the best of what we’ve all learned, all that institutional knowledge, and then capture it into a set of rules that nobody has to ever reinvent again?

For scaling design and processes, I am a very firm believer in a principles-based method. For the most part, timeless principles tend to be rational.  If they’re rational, they can be translated to code. At Higharc, we’ve built a tool that allows homebuilders and architects to capture all of their principles, standards and rules and deploy them to an infinite amount of homes that follow their standards, but are ultimately uniquely different in response to varying building sites, municipal codes and homebuyer preferences.

Rules force people to have conviction in their ideas and I believe that people deserve to live in homes that were designed and built with intention.

Over the past couple years one of the most significant silent events has occurred, which more people should talk about. Millennials now make up the largest share of the home buying market. This is the generation that grew up with the internet, access to high-fashion, mass customized products, “influencers” and 2-day delivery. If you couple those social traits with the current economic conditions of an inaccessible housing market, I believe we are at the apex of a perfect confluence of conditions ripe for disruption. Those that embrace the power of simple rules-based systems will be able to create home designs that the people of today expect - that are more functional and beautiful while being more efficient and affordable.

I would argue nobody is more perfectly positioned to embrace this technology than production homebuilders, who already build thousands of homes a year, but still struggle to create a single product that can adapt to various regions and rapidly-changing set of economic conditions and homebuyer preferences.

The gap between the level of care that architect-designed homes get, which includes many architects working full-time for multiple years, raking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, and the attention that each individual production style home gets is no less than monumental. The economics are quite obvious why we can’t have a dedicated architect for each home built - but we can significantly bridge this gap by leveraging a scalable, principles-based approach.

I believe it’s time for everybody to start dreaming of a better home again and any homebuilder that embraces the simple power of rules-based systems like Higharc will be the one to fulfill those dreams.

In what ways can builders design better communities? How is the idea of community impacted by good architecture?

Such a good question - I really love it. I’m a firm believer that architecture should reinforce “community”, but architecture and an individual home does not itself create “community”. In fact, I would argue that community-design is far more important than any individual home. During my time at SOM I spent years working on master plans designed for hundreds and thousands of people to live amongst each other. We would spend years researching historical precedents and creating design guidelines, “rules”, that would not just connect people with each other, but with the natural ecology of the landscape and the fabric and grain of the city around it. We would do this while maximizing the value of the project for the developers, homebuyers, the environment and the local neighboring communities. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to approach community-design with just as much, if not more, rigor that any high-end home gets. It’s a field of expertise that I’ve grown to respect greatly and not take lightly.

India Basin - a mixed-use community development in San Francisco. Anthony spent a year on the master plan, architecture and design guidelines alongside his team at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). Image by others.

Needless to say at this point, but communities that are designed in two days by copy-pasting a whimsical wormlike community plan from Arkansas onto a tract of land in Louisiana, are really missing out on a wonderful opportunity. The status quo “community” ignores the most fundamental truths that the giants before us have discovered, created and documented for us over the past dozen centuries.

Why is it that any time you travel to a new town in America to visit friends or family, they take you to Main Street and not the box-chain strip mall or “Whispery Springs” community a few miles over? It is no secret. It’s because the buildings all work together to define a space that is perfectly scaled to create a comfortable and walkable place for people. The vehicle is no longer more important than you. Also, the stores tend to be more interesting, they are boutiques owned and ran by your local neighbors. This is what community used to be about.

The great news is that we know how to design great communities. Much like with homes, homebuyers of today expect to live in a community that is thoughtful and supports a higher purpose.  A community that simultaneously allows one to feel safe and get lost in their private garden oasis but also allows them to connect with the people around them and nature. A community where everyone can walk to Main Street.

Pretty much everything I said earlier with regards to how home designs should be more intentional and respond to different sites, codes and homebuyer preferences, is relevant for community-design. Every community designed and built should be different. Everywhere you go the landscape is different, the climate is different, the codes are different and most importantly, the people, their culture and values are different. These differences are beautiful in my mind and should be embraced. Once you embrace them, you get a true community with what us architects would call “genius loci”, or a “sense of place”.

So we have to change how we design these communities. We know how to. It's been done for centuries across the globe. The next frontier for Higharc will be taking our rules-based platform and allowing developers to deploy good principles, at scale with real-time data, to create community designs across the country.

Anthony holding a physical model of a design he created for an 8 million sf community in Beijing, China, next to the google earth construction progress image. 2014 at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM).

What do you enjoy about your day to day work?

The days I love the most are days where I'm just solving problems. We're trying to train the robots how to think like an architect. That's what gets me really excited. The days I get to sit down and look at a problem and say, how on earth would you automate this? I think deeply about the mundane things that architects reinvent at the office every day across the world and how I can translate that rule-of-thumb into a heuristic, or rule, that can be deployed across every conceivable site and condition. You translate those ideas into requirements for a software engineer to interpret and they in turn ingeniously translate your conceptual framework into real code. That moment when it’s like oh my god it worked! or it didn’t, but you learned a lot, you pivot and try again.

Not a lot is more exciting than when you’ve gone through a process of discovery, trial and errors, testing out ideas and you finally have an epiphany that seems to work. It’s pretty magical because we took something that people are reinventing every day in the office, every day across the globe, and we just automated it, instantly. I feel like we just saved the world thousands of hours of work that nobody wants to do anyways. That's pretty magical.

Anthony often creates diagrams like these at Higharc to clearly represent how certain data translates to a real building.

What’s a specific problem you’re proud to have solved?

When you are trying to automate something, you really have to sort of invert the way you look at the world. So for me that means looking at buildings from the inside out. I may have very strong feelings about how the final form of a building should look, or how to document a home - but when you’re trying to automate that you must look deeper, at the most fundamental elements. It’s similar to how the genomes work in the body, which form the fundamental building blocks of the human species, but depending on the variation of the environmental context, you get billions of unique phenotypes, or “humans”.

For me, my journey has been about discovering and defining the genome of a building - defining the core fundamental principles of architecture and buildings. Being able to abstract every home you could ever conceive of in the world into a series of rules and datums allows us to now generate buildings in a way never before possible. Once you’ve defined these fundamental building blocks and the relationships between all the parts and systems, you can then throw a million different variables at it and you’ll get a million different viable homes. It's sort of this invisible skeleton of a home and I think it’s pretty cool.

What would you tell someone interested in joining Higharc?

We are literally, as cliche as it sounds, going to change the world. Everyone who designs production homes at scale will be using Higharc and anyone who joins the company right now gets to have a huge impact on what that means. So that is why you join the company. You believe in the mission and you want to make a difference.

Fun fact?

Every month I think of one, then I'm like, that's a good, fun fact… This one's kind of lame, but I do not dye my hair gray. Everyone thinks I dye my hair gray, and I don't. My beautiful grandma turned 100% gray by age 40, and I'm pretty sure I'm right behind her.

Watch the abridged version of Anthony’s interview below, and check out the rest of our employee interviews at Higharc’s YouTube channel.

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