The team at Zahn Development reimagines a Rio Vista Home

Text John T. O’Connor

Photos Island Studio Productions

I’ve covered the charismatic, exacting work of Zahn Development often in the past, showcasing specific examples of both new construction and renovation. To walk through and experience one of their finished projects is always a real treat for the perfectionist in me. Details are perfect down to the centimeter. The firm’s attention to detail is truly amazing. A big part of that team is Rita Sosa-Zahn, the firm’s resident architect and project manager. Sosa-Zahn works alongside Andrew Zahn. Both Rita and Andrew come from long family backgrounds in architecture and development, respectively… and it shows in every project. We spoke recently with Sosa-Zahn regarding a jaw-dropping renovation they recently completed for clients in Rio Vista.

ISLAND: Can you tell us a little bit about how you collaborate at Zahn Development? Do you find you have to move clients toward your philosophy in design, or do renovation clients search you out specifically for the designs Zahn has produced over the years, both in terms of new construction and renovation?

SOSA-ZAHN: Zahn Development has been in business forever. It started with Andrew’s grandfather in 1953. Andrew is a third generation residential contractor. I am a 2nd generation architect. My dad, Rolando Sosa, started Architecture Studio in Ocala, Florida in 1998. As soon as I became a licensed architect, we opened our Fort Lauderdale office. Zahn Development and Architecture Studio share that office. 

I really didn’t seek out to marry a contractor, but that’s what happened! Now, not only am I an architect, but also serve as a construction project manager. This has put me into a cool position to not only be able to design a home, but to build it too, in collaboration with my husband, Andrew. Collaborating with Andrew is easy. He is a design-oriented contractor and we have similar tastes and principles. We haven’t had to do too much in terms of moving clients towards our design philosophy… If they don’t know it, we explain it and it becomes a shared philosophy.  

As the practicing architect on the team, who are some of the architects of the past – and present – who influenced you or whose work you admire?

The most influential architect would be my Dad. His cool can-do attitude has been a huge influence for me as a professional architect. A more widely known architect that has influenced my design principles would have to be Mies – partly because he has such a good catch phrase that works every time, “less is more”. 

Tell us about the Rio Vista project and how that came about.  What were this structure’s defining characteristics when you were handed the job?

The structure’s defining character was its southwest adobe style architecture. There were a lot of angles, curves, and thick plaster walls. I felt like a sculptor trying to cut away at the heaviness, and also a preservationist by keeping and accentuating the gentle curves. 

Sculptural and drenched in natural sunlight, the new iteration of the home’s staircase is as far away from the home’s southwestern roots as humanly possible.

What the clients wanted from our work was to open it up to expansive views of the New River. They wanted a family home, and a home made for entertaining with multiple “hang out” spots inside and out, plus a soft, light interior. 

The configuration or plan of this house was, shall we say, idiosyncratic. How did you deal with that challenge?

A lot of drafts and trace paper! This house was a particular challenge because I had to design within a boomerang-like shape. In the end, the project came out with clean lines and everything looks simple and minimal. But it was a super challenging road to get there. Renovations are fun because you have some constraints to work with. And the before and after is super satisfying. 


How did the shape of the existing house lend itself to your changes? What were some of your biggest goals with the house? 

One of the biggest goals was opening up the back of the house to create a wide view of the New River. The existing house didn’t have a great view of the 300-foot wide New River right in their backyard, so we changed that with a little demolition and structural engineering. We removed walls that were in the way, and reinforced the structure. We were then able to add wide, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that really transformed the space. Another goal we had was to increase the covered outdoor space and design it in a way that the family would actually want to spend time outside. We achieved this by extending a balcony to create a large, covered space for sofas and lounging. We also built a 200 square foot, freestanding shade structure for their outdoor kitchen and bar. Then we added a lap pool. And to top it all off, we doubled their backyard by building a new concrete dock, 25 feet long by 90 feet wide. I’m happy to say that they have been using and enjoying their outdoor spaces.

The wide, open kitchen has both a work island and a breakfast bar island. The finish work on the handle-free cabinets is exacting, as is the stonework.
By removing some rear walls and reinforcing the existing structure, the architect and builder were able to open up the home to incredible views of the New River.

I love your treatment of the cabana bath with its sliver window. Can you tell us what you did there?

The cabana bath has some of my favorite materials installed. The floor has a large chip, gray and white terrazzo tile that continues into the curved triangular shower. That, in turn, is accentuated by a 3-inch wide by 10-foot tall window    just enough to see the water view but private enough to shower in peace. The window company laughed at me when I told them I needed a 3” window. It turned out to be a really cool bathroom. 

The exterior and interior of the highly sculptural cabana bath, which features a three inch wide by ten foot high window. The floor in the bathroom is a terrazzo tile.

Much of what you have done here seems to be about discipline… about subtraction. Is that right? Can you explain this philosophy and how it relates to this particular renovation?

With a renovation, you want to remove any excess that does not serve a purpose functionally or aesthetically. In our case, that excess meant a lot of demolition. We removed things like interior walls that were not load-bearing to create a more open great room. We removed a bulky fireplace and mantle and turned it into a kitchen appliance wall. We removed a walk-in pantry and gave the space to a larger kitchen with a 2nd island. We got rid of bulky ceiling soffits to increase the ceiling heights and connect important sightlines… the list goes on. 

When it came to materials and fixtures, everything had to be light and airy. Walls were white, woods were warm, and the materials were all earthy –– honed instead of polished. The light fixtures had to be white and minimal to blend into the walls, or delicate and airy so as to almost disappear. Or they needed to be trim-less.

We were disciplined to stay aligned with the conceptual palette of materials and color tones that would be repeated throughout the house, to ensure a cohesive aesthetic in each space. When you come up with a concept at the beginning of the project, it can be tempting to stray when you are selecting the materials and finishes months later. It is important to keep the concept with you until the very end.