Doing Amazing Things

Young design firm wins national recognition.

A designer can do impressive things when money is no object. A really talented one can do amazing things within a budget.

Zenith Design + Build proved it’s in the latter category by earning a Gold award in the National Association of Home Builders’ Best in American Living Awards (BALA) recently. The award program is founded on the principle that “all great homes start with great design, no matter cost or size.”

Presented in a virtual ceremony in February, the awards honor outstanding achievement by builders and designers in a variety of residential project levels.

“Our project won first place in the Whole Home Remodel under $250,000,” says Zenith’s founder, Nicholas Donlin. “We were thrilled. The project has been a great showpiece for us.”

The small southside Des Moines home built in 1958 was in need of major updates, but Donlin says the potential was obvious, and many of the needed repairs provided opportunities for creativity. “One of the obvious issues was the roof,” he says. “It was in really bad shape. Since we were going to have to replace it anyway, it gave us the opportunity to add a front porch.”

The connection between outdoors and in became an underlying theme in the design and is a principle Donlin emphasizes in most of his work.

“Our daily lives keep us inside so much, and that connection to outside is important,” he says. “This home’s backyard feels so secluded even though it’s in the middle of the city, and we wanted to take advantage of that.”

To do so, Zenith replaced the aging deck, added a pergola overhead, and installed a multislide door that allows greater access to the space. There’s also a projector screen for outdoor movies. “A projector screen is relatively inexpensive option, but it makes movie nights more of an event,” says Donlin.

Changes like that completely transformed the 1,700-square-foot home while maintaining its midcentury vibe. Finishes throughout the space are midcentury modern, and the redesigned layout opens up the living area, making the home feel larger than it is. Donlin says, “The original staircase broke up the house. Moving it allowed us to bring in more light and even restore the original interior brick.”

Zenith also added a second bath as part of the remodel. Donlin says its design is testament to what can be done in a tight space. “We added a micro master bath in what used to be a closet,” he explains. “I’m proud of the amount of storage and the efficient design we were able to create in a space that size.”

Donlin says his training in construction engineering and his prior experience on the technology side of the business taught him that constraints like a small square footage footprint and a tight budget are actually good problems for a designer. “Those constraints are what bring out your creative side. It’s a problem to be solved. This project allowed us to show what a good design can accomplish and what we do on every project. We start by asking what the constraints are, what the client wants to accomplish with the design, and how we can maximize the budget.”

The award-winning home showcases all those concepts. Zenith retained and reused many of the original architectural features and materials, from the brick wall to the tongue-and-groove wood ceiling and redwood siding. The firm incorporated the secluded backyard as part of the design and accomplished the remodel within a budget that suited the market.

“I actually own the home,” Donlin says. “It’s given us the added resource of not just demonstrating what we can do as a team, but it allows us to offer our clients a place to stay while their home is in the midst of a remodel.”

Only in its third year in business, Zenith is busier than ever. The firm offers a full team of designers, project managers, construction crews, and more. The BALA-winning home was designed by Donlin with the help of Aurora Design Group.

Although it’s a young company, the wisdom with which Zenith Design + Build approached this project is reflected in the recognition it’s received. “It’s exciting to bring the incredible design and remodeling projects happening in Des Moines to the national stage,” Donlin says. “We have an incredible team.”

Best in American Living Awards

The Best in American Living Awards, presented by the National Association of Home Builders and sponsored by Monogram Luxury Appliances, recognizes “outstanding achievement by builders and design professionals in all sectors of the residential housing industry, including single-family production, custom, multifamily, affordable, remodeling, community, and interiors.”

Learn more about the other 2021 winners and the awards, go to

Learn more about Zenith Design + Build, and see more photos of this project, by visiting their website at