“The key to being a good architect is listening. I’ve always told all of my team members that if you listen really close, usually within the first 15 minutes a client is going to tell you everything you need to know to make them happy.” —Phil Kean



Phil Kean, in retrospect, was set up for industry excellence. His father was a builder and a master craftsman who did his own carpentry. His mother also worked in the family business. 

Often, Kean — who grew up in Vero Beach and Melbourne on Florida’s east coast — would go with his father to the office and, by age 11, he had decided that he wanted to be an architect. Not long afterward, he could read and understand architectural plans. Such was life as the son of a contractor. The foundation for success was solid.

Yet, who could have predicted this kind of success for Kean and his company, Phil Kean Design Group?

Kean recently finished his third New American Home — the National Association of Home Builders’ annual showcase home, which was to have been unveiled as part of the 2021 International Builders’ Show. 

The show, set for February 9-12 was canceled, but Kean’s work was seen globally via 3-D virtual tours. Similarly, Kean completed the 2020 New American Remodel as part of last year’s IBS, held in Las Vegas.

Not coincidentally, Kean’s regional and national awards span the categories of sustainable design and green construction, interior design and homebuilding. Most recent accolades include Best of Show in the American Residential Design Awards from the American Institute of Building Design.

Kean is a licensed architect, a certified residential contractor, a licensed interior designer and a certified green professional, among other designations. In addition, he’s a member of the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Building Design and the American Society of Interior Designers. Also, he’s past president of Central Florida’s Master Custom Builder Council and serves on the NAHB’s board of directors.

By all measurable accounts, Kean is a recognized luxury home-design leader. He just doesn’t sound like one, especially when he recalls the early days of his journey as a homebuilder. 

For someone whose trademark today is eye-catching homes that feature walls of glass that open to extensive indoor/outdoor living spaces, his start wasn’t exactly grand. 

Phil Kean Designs was established in 2002, with the business centered almost entirely on architecture. He began in custom-home building with one project, and as demand increased, he became a builder as well as an architect. 

Nonetheless, he kept the company name the same, with “design” in the title. “It was just easier,” he says with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. Although he designs and builds in all styles, Kean would quickly become a local pioneer in the sort of modern architecture with midcentury influences that some other builders have now adopted.

Under the Phil Kean Design Group corporate umbrella are diverse business divisions ranging from architecture and homebuilding to interior design, construction, landscape design and kitchen design with a state-of-the-art kitchen showroom.

The showroom is located next to his headquarters on Fairbanks Avenue — which some in Winter Park have taken to calling “Philbanks” because he has helped remake a significant stretch of the commercial corridor. The company can handle real estate transitions, too. 

“You walk in with your ideas, and you walk out with your keys; it’s really that kind of operation,” he says. Approximately 40 people are on the Phil Kean Design Group payroll, and expansion is being contemplated in Tampa Bay.

As for homebuilding, at any one time there are typically 15 or so projects in various stages of completion, with the custom homes taking an average of 1.5 years to complete. Because of the company’s multiple divisions, one project will likely use some or all of Kean’s services. 

Also, Kean’s new-home projects can be found across Florida, the Bahamas, Spain and West Africa, with styles ranging from his signature sleek modern structures to Spanish Mediterranean, West Indies, French country, Colonial and traditional. Presently, Kean has 25,000-square-foot-plus homes underway in Tampa and Vero Beach.

But don’t expect the soft-spoken Kean to take a ton of credit. Characteristically, he deflects. “You surround yourself with people who are smarter than you,” he says. “I have some really, really smart people who make better decisions than I do. I’m good at a lot of things, but you can’t be good all the time.” 

Being smarter than Kean — who studied at Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis and has master’s degrees in architecture and business administration — is quite an accomplishment.

But Kean, above all else, is a good listener — which he credits as being crucial to his success. 

“The key to being a good architect is listening,” he notes. “I’ve always told all of my team members that if you listen really close, usually within the first 15 minutes a client is going to tell you everything you need to know to make them happy.”

Then, Kean’s focus turns to design. He says that while builders often approach projects by accounting for numbers first, he takes a different tack. “I approach it from design first and then I figure out the numbers,” he explains. “And if I need to change the numbers, then I go back to the design. We’re always design-driven.”

Case in point is his emphasis on sustainability. Phil Kean Design Group built its first “super green” Florida house in 2012. Eight years later, the 2020 New American Remodel was specifically designed to achieve the National Green Building Standard’s Emerald certification, Energy Star certification and net-zero status.

Green construction and energy efficiency not only save money and foster healthier living, asserts Kean, they don’t necessarily come with a hefty price tag. Mostly, he has found that at the million-dollar price point of his homes, green “adds so little cost.”

“I’ve done some analysis,” he notes, “and it’s like a $3,000 difference to make some of those choices that make a home truly green. And that’s just negligible in a multimillion-dollar project.”

The past 18 months have been challenging in many respects, although real estate has weathered the pandemic quite well. Kean labels his work on the 2021 New American Home as an “honor” and “exciting” while adding that although COVID-19 caused some roadblocks, “we did make it through; we did.”

Kean’s company remained especially busy, which its owner attributes to “people rethinking ‘home’ and how they want to live.” Assessing the pandemic’s impact, he concludes: “We feel really blessed and fortunate.”

That good fortune has afforded Kean time to pursue some personal passions, oil painting being at the top of the list. 

He began creating art as a child, sketching people, animals, landscapes, houses, and wildflowers with pastels. As a second-grader, he painted a mural. He started painting “for real” about five years ago, working with oils and dabbling with selling his work on a micro website. 

Painting is fun and relieves stress, says Kean, adding “who wants to watch TV anymore?” He has been with his partner, Brad Grosberg — who runs the company’s real estate division — for 37 years and both are staunch supporters of the local arts scene. Kean also runs in marathons, and is working his way toward a personal goal of competing all 50 states.

Any way you look at it, Kean has come a long way — but he still looks back. He laments that his father, who died in the 1980s, never got to see his son succeed in the industry. 

“You always wonder if you have that little angel that sort of says, ‘Let’s do this.’ Maybe he wasn’t done,” Kean said. “I don’t know. But I know he would be proud of what we accomplished.”