luis ibarra and teresa rosano, ra, leed apibarra rosano design architects
Luis Ibarra just had one of his original music compositions performed by a local high school orchestra. Teresa Rosano, RA, LEED AP, is about to test for her black belt in karate. Houses in Six, the couple's latest development venture, are selling before they're built, and their five-person firm has been tapped to work with Will Bruder, AIA, among others, on a 76-acre mixed-use development in Glendale, Ariz. Things are going well for the husband-and-wife team, who just nine years ago used prize money from a kitchen design competition to launch their own firm.
That award-winning kitchen is in Ibarra and Rosano's house—the testing ground for endless experiments with new techniques and materials. “It's a lab for ideas,” Ibarra confirms. “There are pieces of our house that you'll see in our other projects.” They bought and began renovating the house as an outlet for their modernist tendencies while working for Vint & Associates Architects. Although their former firm favors a more traditional aesthetic, Ibarra and Rosano learned there that the fundamentals of good architecture have nothing to do with style and everything to do with the relationship of a building to its site. Out on their own, the couple continue to infuse their contemporary structures with historical references. “We combine modern aesthetics with an idea of place,” Ibarra says.
For them, the place in question is the high desert in and around Tucson, Ariz. Both native Tucsonans, they understand all too well that the most dramatic aspects of this locale —incredible heat, intense sun, and limited rainfall—also present the biggest design challenges. To combat these extremes, the pair has found that indigenous construction techniques, including thick walls, earth-based building materials, courtyards, and strategic solar orientation, still pack the most punch for keeping desert structures cool.
Unfortunately, Ibarra and Rosano's hometown doesn't always recognize these important, locally specific solutions. “One of the frustrations of working here is that the city isn't really looking for architecture that fits,” Ibarra says. Rosano adds that their time spent on various planning and political committees hasn't seemed to yield results. Now that their firm is gaining recognition, they plan to push a bit harder against zoning laws that favor sprawl instead of density. They'll also continue to show how sensitive architecture effects positive change. “We spend the majority of our lives and experiences at home,” Ibarra explains, “so we feel we make a difference in many people's lives by doing houses. But it's also great to create spaces that touch greater masses of people.”
Ibarra cites Glenn Murcutt, Hon. FAIA, as his biggest influence. Murcutt was a visiting professor at Ibarra's architecture school, The University of Arizona (UA), in the early 1990s—long before he won the Pritzker Prize and garnered international fame. Murcutt “really filled in a lot of gaps about architecture for me,” Ibarra explains. He was particularly wowed by Murcutt's ability to design stunning buildings that nonetheless defer to their environment. (Like Murcutt, Ibarra Rosano does the landscape design for its projects.) Ibarra was also inspired by Murcutt's accomplishments as a sole practitioner. “Our business model is based on his practice. We have that same mission of staying small so we can stay hands-on and be selective about our projects.”
Rosano met Ibarra at UA, but her journey to a career in architecture began much earlier. “When I was 1 year old, my father built our house out of adobe blocks that he made from earth on the site,” Rosano says. “That imprinted my life.” Rosano's father was a pneumatic control contractor and a metal artist. Her mother was also an artist and a teacher. That childhood filled with learning the mechanics of putting things together and appreciating beauty gives Rosano an eye for exquisite detail and a curiosity for figuring out new ways to build.
Ibarra asked Rosano to work with him on a project while in school; the collaboration went so well that they've been life and design partners ever since. Ibarra graduated in 1993 and went to work for Manuel Rojo. He recommended Rosano for an internship at Rojo's firm, where she continued to work after her graduation a year later. The couple then worked at different firms for a while, but both ended up working together again at Vint before leaving to start their own firm in 1999.
Officially, Ibarra Rosano Design Architects is less than a decade old, but its principals bought the house that launched the firm 12 years ago. They joke that their house will always be a work in progress. The addition of a backyard studio is one recent change. Currently under way is a remodel of their award-winning kitchen, because it was designed for a 900-square-foot house that “now is 2,600 square feet,” Ibarra explains. Along with earning the couple national exposure and the funds to start their business, the award delivered the firm's first official whole-house client: a college acquaintance of Ibarra's who saw and admired the kitchen in a local newspaper.
The resulting Garcia Residence has since been published many times over and looks as fresh today as it did then. Created using commonplace materials (concrete, plywood, and steel) in lofty ways, the house reflects the couple's ongoing belief that thoughtful design can elevate even the most ordinary materials. The project also launched a long-time collaboration with general contractor (and fellow UA School of Architecture grad) Page Repp Jr., of Repp Design + Construction. The trio became fast friends and soon realized they had more than a passion for good design in common. Says Repp: “We have a similar idea of what we want to accomplish: to improve the quality of housing by providing a high level of design to people in an affordable way.”
Driven by this shared mission, Ibarra and Rosano mortgaged their house to buy a vacant piece of land for a speculative project. Together with Repp and another set of believers, former clients Desi and Jerry Winter, the group formed a development company called Dreamspace. The empty lot became The Double—two houses designed on a tight budget and built with eco-friendly materials. To date, Dreamspace has completed eight houses and a duplex. Indeed, Ibarra and Rosano's speculative work is so successful because they approach it as if it were custom work for an impassioned client.
The duo hope to apply their philosophies to more commercial and mixed-use projects that promote higher density. Until then, they continue to find inspiration in the surrounding landscape. There are a multitude of plants that thrive in the desert, says Ibarra, and each teaches a lesson of durable beauty in harmony with its surroundings. For Ibarra and Rosano—and their lucky clients—that's a lesson already learned.