Nosy Questions with John Sebastian

The eponymous founder of the Sebastian Construction Group was George Sebastian, a Dallas native and self-trained architect. Returning home from service in the Pacific during World War II, he founded his building company in 1948 in response to Dallas’ rapidly expanding population. Gradually the company transitioned from middle-market construction to high-end construction, focusing on the grand homes of Highland Park.

George and John Sebastian, 1988. Images courtesy of

George’s son, John Sebastian, joined the firm in 1982 and, upon his father’s death in 1992, he took over. Today the company’s luxury homes command seven figures and appear often in design and architecture magazines. One, Sebastian’s own Athens Farm (photo below), for example, appeared on the cover of Luxe magazine and was pinned more than 5,000 times on Pinterest. It was also featured on a Houzz tour, with interior designer Marci Barnes.

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The Athens Farm

We recently caught up with John Sebastian, who was in Houston for a talk to members of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, and asked a few nosy questions about construction costs, running a family business and home-restorer mistakes.

Did you always know you were going to go into business with your father?
Pretty much. I had been working on his jobsites since I was 15. My plan was always to spend a few years in New York working as an architect with one of the top firms there. But then marriage right out of college happened and life got very real. So I ended up working for him right out of college. My associates in our company kid me that I have never even had to have a resume, and I guess they are right.

Do you have words of advice for people who are thinking of forming a family business?
It is tough in that you have to make sure the family members bring true value to the company and are not there “just because they are family.” Also, one person has to be clearly in charge. Leadership by committee is frustrating and ineffective.

How do you keep your cool with difficult clients?
Our business is tough in that it requires an incredible amount of patience and “hand holding” and the ability to maintain a calm, level disposition always. (I often wish I had minored in psychology.) You have to be wired in the right way to be successful in this business. We even do testing on all potential employees to make sure that they can stay cool in difficult situations. It is so important to us that it is of our five core values: Calm Under Fire.

St. John’s Residence, a Sebastian Construction Group project

What are some of the Houston projects you’ve worked on?
Our first two projects in the Houston area are still under construction. They are probably two of the largest residential projects currently ongoing in this area. We are scheduled to start one or two more projects in River Oaks before the end of the year.

The most common DIY home-restorer mistake(s)?
Not being disciplined and limiting the work to the original scope that was intended. Falling into the “while I am doing this, I might as well …” syndrome. It is a very slippery slope that in most instances results in way too much money invested into the remodel project that could ever be justified from a re-sell standpoint.

Your favorite architectural style?
As an architect myself, the simple answer is I like great architecture, no matter the style. There is great architecture in both modern and traditional styles. And there is also horrible architecture on both sides. Building homes of great architecture is what excites me personally, and we have turned down projects that we didn’t think would result in a great aesthetic outcome.

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University Park Residence, a Sebastian Construction Group project

Can restoring a home be more “green” than building new?
Only in that you are simply re-using rather than replacing it and filling up landfill space. But it is difficult and expensive to bring an older home up to the green standards of today’s new construction.

What are three things people should consider before they tear down an old home and build a new one?
• Really define your goals of what you are trying to accomplish (to see if it can be accomplished in a cost-effective way with a remodel).
• If the foundation is bad on the existing home, tear it down. Don’t throw good money onto a bad foundation.
• Have your contractor do a cost evaluation early on comparing the costs of new construction vs. remodel. Too many people look at this comparison way too late in the game.

What is your business/construction mantra?
It simply must be right for our clients. It is hard to be successful in the business for almost 70 years. Even when it hurts – i.e. costs us significant money – our reputation is paramount.

Euclid Residence, a Sebastian Construction Group project

In a high-end neighborhood like River Oaks, what is the typical range of price-per-square-foot of new construction?
If you calculate it on air-conditioned footage only, it would be $500 per square foot and above. Always be careful that you fully understand how the numbers are being calculated and what is included in this number.

Tell us a little something about your own house.
We have moved into the “empty nest” phase of our lives and have just purchased a modern urban townhome very near our offices. But our real love is our weekend farm in Athens, Texas, where I was able to design our own home. We are there every weekend. Lots of animals, and truly our passion.

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The Athens Farm

“At 5 pm, I’m usually thinking about …”
My evening glass of wine with my wife talking through our days. I really look forward to this time. And walking our dogs.

“Every day I read …”
I am still a newspaper junkie. Wall Street Journal and the local paper. At least I have moved to the iPad format.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
I have been trying to take up golf to be able to play with my grown sons, two very good golfers. But they will tell you that it is still in the ugly stage.

The Athens Farm

What is your favorite kind of vacation?
Give us a week in Tuscany and we pretty much are in heaven.

Your old friend is coming to Dallas and has never been before. What must he/she do while they’re in town?
I am very proud of the Arts District that Dallas has developed over the last 30 years or so. Some of the world’s greatest architects have designed buildings in it. Then we’d go get Mexican food at Mia’s on Lemmon Avenue.