Design is in the Details
by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Irvin Serrano
Michael Roy and his team at Phi Home Designs build homes, furniture, and relationships
Right around the time The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, was seemingly being debated and analyzed around every watercooler and dinner table, Michael Roy and his former business partner Dyke Messler were tossing around names for their new company. In honor of the famous golden ratio that Brown elevated to a household word in 2003, Phi Home Designs was born.
After partnering with Messler until 2007, Roy is now the president of Phi, which he co-owns with CFO Kathryn Matlack and his wife, Jill Roy. The Rockport-based company builds everything from high-end custom homes to furniture, cabinetry, and casework. Phi’s beginnings with Messler—who, as an adopted member of the Gamble family (of Proctor & Gamble fame), grew up visiting the architecturally acclaimed Gamble House designed by the brothers Charles and Henry Greene—are still echoed in the company’s work. The Arts and Crafts fundamentals of the Greene and Greene style are evident in the detailed joinery and complex woodworking that Phi executes today.
It’s the somewhat unusual service the company provides—caretaking—that is perhaps most indicative of Phi’s commitment to the details. Above the hum of saws in their 2,800-square-foot shop, Roy explains: “We’ve started taking on smaller projects for clients—like closing and opening up their homes for the season, taking trips to the dump, delivering and hanging artwork, checking in during a stor
m.” Why would a high-end home-building company want to get involved with a client’s trash? Roy has a simple explanation: “We don’t just build a house and leave. We build, then maintain relationships with our clients.”
Roy may spend his days in the office or on the road, handling marketing or serving as the primary client contact, but he is no stranger to the shop. The 39-year-old has twenty years of woodworking experience, starting in Connecticut, where he was a self-proclaimed shop rat in high school who filled his schedule with as many shop classes as he could. He even taught fellow students during his senior year. “I always tinkered. I liked to put things together,” Roy says. Right after high school, Roy went to work for formerly Nantucket-based furniture maker Stephen Swift, who had relocated one town over from Roy in Connecticut. “I went to the interview with Norm Abram’s book The New Yankee Workshop and my portfolio under my arm and got the job,” he recalls. Roy started in the finish room, but was soon being tasked with larger, more sophisticated projects, including beds and other furniture.
It was in 1989 that Roy made his first trip to Maine. Jill had family on Megunticook Lake, and the couple visited the state every summer. “I fell in love with this area. I didn’t have an opportunity to travel very much, so I looked forward to Maine every year,” Roy says. After attending boatbuilding school in Rockport one winter, Roy moved back to Connecticut and got work with a carpenter who did renovations of early American homes. For about three years in the early 1990s, Roy had his own business. And when he and Jill finally moved to Maine, he worked for a local furniture maker and builder until he founded Phi with Messler in 2003.
In addition to its three owners, the Phi team consists of 19 staff divided among the company’s immaculate shop, its office, and a site crew. Roy can’t talk about the success of his company without crediting the people he employs. “Everyone here wants to come to work. They all have backgrounds in the field and are passionate about it,” he says. Roy works to maintain that passion and morale by keeping communication open; in addition to formal meetings, every week his crew has more casual meetings with clients on-site, complete with refreshments, to build team camaraderie. Roy uses the word “team” often when he talks about Phi, a nod to his lifelong love of sports and healthy competition. As a father of two, Roy also coaches hockey and basketball and races mountain bikes in the summer. “Sports drive me. So the team aspect is strong in my eyes. There’s not just one person; there’s a group.” At Phi, of course, Roy is the captain of the team. “Leadership has always been a part of my life. Whether through sports or through work, I had confidence to make decisions.” Recently, Roy organized an office bowling tournament that, he jokes, “got a little competitive.”
Roy’s competitive spirit is the foundation of the Phi philosophy, and it’s a quality that trickles into all of the company’s endeavors—the most recent of which is the goal of becoming a leader in green building and design on the midcoast. “We really feel it’s the future and are committed to wrapping our heads around this. We have to understand how to both build and renovate a house that is highly efficient,” Roy says. Phi has begun performing blower-door tests for clients and doing performance analyses of homes before they build them. “We’re going to start doing this with every project. The idea is to make it part of the process, rather than an afterthought. It’s about taking those added steps to make a house tighter and making them standard.”
Going hand in hand with green construction are Phi’s efforts in recycling—a value and strategy that Roy started investing in after he realized just how much waste accumulates on job sites. “I became sick to my stomach when I started thinking about it,” he says. Roy appointed a recycling manager and invested in a dump trailer with multiple bins to replace the catch-all dumpsters typically found at construction sites. “If we’re building a green home, we should be green during the process,” he says.
In addition to delving into the world of sustainable design, Phi is starting another new venture this year. The company has recently teamed up with
Leslie Curtis, a renowned interior designer who is relocating to Maine from Cape Cod and Los Angeles. Roy hopes the partnership will cement Phi’s reputation as the midcoast’s consummate one-stop shop. “I think this total home involvement gives us an edge. Oftentimes, larger projects come out of smaller ones. We do a construction-management job and then we wind up getting the kitchen and casework jobs. Then, next thing we know, we’re building the furniture too,” he says.
These days, Phi is currently caretaking for about five properties—the details of which could include anything from closing a house for the season to stocking the refrigerator with food in anticipation of a client’s return. Roy is one of those rare entrepreneurs who believes that building relationships is just as important as building his business. Perhaps that is why Phi Home Designs has been so successful. “We have a saying around here: from foundation to furniture. But it even goes beyond that,” Roy says. “When we start a relationship with a client, we want it to be long term.”