DeStefano Architects celebrates 20 years
PORTSMOUTH – Lisa DeStefano’s office is in the heart of downtown at 23 High St. It’s nestled among Portsmouth landmarks – across the street from Rudi’s restaurant, in the shadow of the parking garage, just around the corner from Federal Cigar.
It is a fitting setting for DeStefano, principal at DeStefano Architects. She is Portsmouth born and raised. And she has left her mark – in the form of major development projects she and her team designed – on the city she holds in her heart as “a wonderful community to work in.”
Lately, there’s been a stretch of important mile markers on the professional road that DeStefano has traveled. In October 2013, DeStefano celebrated its 100th project downtown, the redesign of a new upstairs bar at Ristorante Massimo. And this month, she celebrates the architectural firm’s 20th anniversary.
“It’s a great Portsmouth success story,” said Doug Bates, president of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and one of about 200 people who attended a birthday party with DeStefano and her team at their offices on May 7.
Her downtown work can be seen in such projects as the 300,000-square-foot Portwalk Place mixed-use development, the waterfront residential condominiums currently under construction at the former Pier II site at 10 State St., the Hilton Garden Inn, and the Porter Street townhouses to name a few.
DeStefano started on her own 20 years ago out of her apartment after working for a couple of local architects once she got out of school. “One of the things I learned, I realized early on, was that I was a leader, not a follower,” she said.
She learned a lot from her prior employers, “but I had the desire to do things a little differently,” she said.
Through Portsmouth elementary, junior high and high schools, DeStefano was encouraged by her mother, Martha, a hairdresser, and her late father, Don, who worked for the city of Portsmouth, to be whatever she wanted to be. “They were both very supportive in anything that I undertook,” she said.
She got from her mother the mentorship of being a woman in business. She got from her father the keen sense of community that she holds dear.
According to DeStefano, she knew in junior high that she wanted to design buildings. She took an art class that included instruction on perspective – how, using drawings on flat paper, to make objects appear three dimensional.
“What I could see in my mind’s eye was a little different from what others seeing next to me were seeing,” she said.
Graduation from Portsmouth High School in 1981 was followed by New Hampshire Technical Institute and Boston Architecture Center, where she earned a degree in architecture engineering in 1991. She worked with the local firms as she became a registered architect in 1994, then started her business in 1995.
Her first job was with a residential home developer in Amesbury, Mass. She designed cape- and colonial-style houses. As she continued to work for the developer over the next several years, she said she layered in other work that included custom-designed homes.
As she did more work, she grew the business, moving it out of the apartment to her first office in the Kearsarge Building on Congress Street. She bought the space she occupies now on High Street in 2001.
The first downtown project she was involved in was the development of 100 Market St. in 1999 and it grew from there, in part because of the professional relationships and contacts she fostered.
“People in our community know us in our community,” DeStefano said. “And we have the huge blessing of repeat clients.”
Those relationships helped her survive the commercial and residential housing collapse and recession in 2008. “We still found work,” she said. There were vacancies through attrition, some layoffs and a mutual agreement among everyone that they’d work and get paid for a four-day week “so that we could hang on.”
They, like the region, rebounded from the recession as Portsmouth has become the “it” place to live and work.
She’s heard the criticism that Portsmouth is being developed too much, too quickly. She sees it this way: “We’re very fortunate to have pent-up demand,” she said. “We have property owners who are willing to invest in their property.”
From her perspective, her work involves “people spaces.”
“The work we do in the heart of Portsmouth is not so overwhelming that you can’t feel comfortable with them,” she said.
As the business grew, so did her team: From three to nine to now 15 with the hope of adding a few more jobs as she looks ahead. She will foster in the newbies what she has fostered in all her employees, what was fostered in her by her dad: A sense of community.
She and all her employees are involved in community service work and volunteering. At DeStefano Architects, if you need the morning as part of what you do to give back to the community, you do it, no problem.
“We reinforce that with every member of the team here,” she said. “There’s a fine line between giving and getting.”
Other big projects are on the horizon for DeStefano Architects, not only in Portsmouth but elsewhere. With her business about evenly divided between commercial and residential, according to DeStefano, she is now registered and licensed in 20 states.
A new day care center in Newmarket is on the drawing board for Great Bay Kids Company. DeStefano did the design for the current facility at Pease International Tradeport.
Construction is ongoing in Durham on a 97-bed, 86,000-square-foot private student housing project. Scheduled to open by the fall, the project was designed by DeStefano Architects as a partnership between DeStefano and Orion Student Housing.
And groundbreaking could come in a few months on a mixed-use development project at 111 Maplewood Ave., next door to the existing renovated office building designed by DeStefano that once housed the Portsmouth Herald.
“We get a lot of joy in the before and afters,” said DeStefano.
Dan Monfried, president and CEO of R.J. Finlay & Co., the developer for the upcoming Maplewood Avenue project, was one of the many people who attended the anniversary fete for DeStefano.
“One of the great decisions we made was partnering with DeStefano Architects,” he said. “She and her team have been outstanding to work with.”