Design-build: Dynamic duo heat up Zocalo

Walk through Zocalo's glass doors, and chances are you won't believe your eyes. With its clean lines, concrete bar, sleek woodwork, and interesting lighting, it's hard to believe the space, in the Downtown Mall's Central Place, was once home to the darkly atmospheric Moondance restaurant.

Zocalo co-owner Peter Castiglione says the eye-popping transformation prompts patrons to ask the same question again and again: "Who designed the space?"

The answer: Justin Heiser and Michael Savage, two UVA Architecture School grads and college buddies who are now two of the four partners in a new firm challenging the traditional divide between architecture and contracting. STOA Design and Construction offers just what its name suggests: architectural design and construction services.

Zocalo represents their largest commercial project to date for Heiser and Savage, both 29. And both agree that one of their challenges was convincing subcontractors to take them seriously. "Sometimes you feel like they don't really trust you or have confidence in you," says Heiser, who, like Savage, looks more like a surfer than a suit.

 In the end, however, hard work and professionalism trumped scruffy beard and shaggy hair.

"They added stateliness to the building," says Central Place owner Ludwig Kuttner, who describes the design results as "outstanding."

But when Savage and Heiser first signed on for the project, they weren't sure how it would turn out.

"We were trying to give the space new life after having such an ugly atmosphere," says Heiser.

To make the space "warm and inviting," he says, the duo added color, knocked down a wall that bisected the Moondance space, and exposed the brick behind the eastern wall, which is actually one side of the Paramount Theater.

Next? Removing the drop ceiling to expose duct work to provide what Heiser calls an "industrial ascetic."

Since Heiser and Savage did much of the construction work themselves, they say they were able to design as they went, changing their plans to accommodate an ever-evolving vision, as well as some serious budget constraints.

"There was no Coran Capshaw behind this," says Castiglione, whose partners are Andrew Silver and Ivan Klevans-Rekosh, "just three guys who leveraged themselves to the hilt to do something nice."

The renovation began in July, and Savage and Heiser say they had hoped to finish by mid-fall. But when demolition alone took a month, they realized they might need some extra time. Six months later– after 14- and 16-hour work days– the project is complete.

Castiglione says he and his partners are thrilled with Heiser and Savage's final product.

"They overachieved," he says.

Michael Savage and Justin Heiser