“No problem too great or too small.”
If you want your new, custom indoor pool to feature a glass pyramid like the one above the entrance to the Louvre, whom do you call? Michael Dommenge, founder of the New Jersey-based design/build firm, Aspen Associates, who always says Yes! to a challenge.
By the time Dommenge founded Aspen Associates in 2000, his more than 30-year career as an executive in construction and allied industries had earned him a reputation of being a world-class problem solver. Delighting in accomplishing the seemingly impossible, for clients including; The Limited, Exxon, The Gap and Macy’s, he’d acquired in-depth management skills, a vast network of technical resources, and comfort in dealing with top-tier people, since many were corporate executives or wealthy individuals. Clients came to Aspen Associates for his proven ability to get any job done, no matter the stress and to anticipate their needs, both business and personal.
In 2007, his reputation earned him the attention of a man in need of a monumental glass pyramid. A wealthy industrialist, the client knew exactly what he wanted and would accept nothing less. All he needed was a man who could deliver his vision, without making demands on his valuable time. Could Dommenge first demolish an elevated, 6,000 square foot granite terrace whose lush landscaping included waterfalls, ponds, and a free-form pond? After excavating the entire area 20 feet down, could he then landscape another three acres, build new terraces, fountains, and a foundation to support an indoor pool crowned with an 18-ton glass and steel pyramid, a 1/3-size replica of the one at the Louvre? Most importantly, when could he begin?
Having just been offered the greatest challenge of his career, Dommenge answered, “I thought we’d already started.”
Dommenge was confident that his in-house architect, trusted teams of engineers and builders could perform miracles as usual, though this time on an immense scale. The only snag was an architect already under contract with a design that seemed headed for catastrophe. The terrace’s waterproofing membrane was destined to fail after a few years. Other design elements relating to structural underpinning, included the pyramid and the pool which were in similar disarray.
“To solve these problems,” says Dommenge, “I had to take the design-build concept to a whole new level.” He notes that in traditional building, where design and construction are performed under separate contracts, any problem brings the work to a halt until the architect and builder can draw up new plans and get the client’s written approval. “Typically, the owner gets caught in the gap between the architect and the builder, while the service providers generate more work, expenses, and delays.”
Like other design-build firms, Aspen Associates manages both design and construction under a single contract to streamline delivery and minimize costs.“But for clients on this level, who know what they want and for whom money is no object, additional steps are required,” says Dommenge. “I become the client’s trusted gatekeeper. I serve the client exclusively and personally manage all aspects of the work, from dealing with attorneys, local officials and regulators to overseeing everything done on the job site and making every decision needed. If I don’t, the project will never be completed properly. I also assume all liability for the project, which often is considerable.”
For his first client of this caliber, Dommenge became not only a gatekeeper but something between a loyal knight and super-concierge for the next four years. Essentially living on-site, he oversaw the purchase of an adjoining property and demolished the homes on it to allow for new construction. As for design and construction, he personally managed all property maintenance tasks, from hurricane protection to sourcing a white rabbit with blue eyes to replace one that the family German shepherd mistook for dinner.
“In the end,” says Dommenge, “the successful design and construction of the glass pyramid allowed my client to realize his vision, of a unique and magnificent focal point for his property. Based on the cost and complexity, this was a project that may never be equaled in my lifetime.” Unless, of course, Dommenge comes across a comparable, or even more extraordinary challenge, to which he must again say, “Yes!”
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