James Trahan graduated with multiple honors from Louisiana State University and is a past recipient of the AIA Young Architects Award. The up-and-coming architect began his career at a small firm in Phoenix designing mostly light commercial projects. Trahan enjoyed the work, but was frustrated by frequent communication disconnects with contractors. Rather than complain about the problem, he decided to fix it by becoming a licensed contractor and starting his own design/build firm. “I actually took the residential licensing test by mistake,” Trahan admits, but he’s glad he did because it was a house that launched his fledgling firm into the stratosphere of Phoenix’s construction elite.
“I originally intended to only build projects we designed,” Trahan explains, “but we won a competition with a house we did and suddenly all of these prominent architects were asking us to build their designs.” As the firm’s client list grew, Trahan began hiring, but he sought out recent architecture graduates rather than experienced contractors. The strategy was to avoid communication issues by selecting people who could already interpret plans and be taught the rest. “I hired staff with architecture backgrounds,” Trahan says, “so they’d understand what I or another architect were talking about in our designs.”
Each new employee at 180 Degrees goes through intensive training. The program is similar to an apprenticeship, but covers all steps of producing a building from conception to completion. The staff member who designs a particular project follows it through construction, serving as architect, project manager, client liaison, site supervisor, craftsperson, and more. In addition to teaching each employee every job, this arrangement means that the person who knows the project best also is the one building it.
The training creates better builders because they understand the concepts behind the design. It also improves their architecture skills because they know how things go together. The approach creates a group of designer/builders who are capable of creating highly complex projects. The company incorporates extensive 3D modeling into their designs as well as projects where they act only as the general contractor.
“We do our own drawings even when we get construction drawings from architects,” Trahan says. “We basically go back and rebuild a project with three-dimensional drawings so we know exactly how it works and goes together.”
Trahan’s training philosophy generates perks for clients as well. Because the employees have all built something, they all know exactly what things cost from a custom detail to an entire house. The company is widely respected for its ability to complete a project on time and within budget. It helps with cost estimates that a lot of fabrication is done in house, which also yields higher quality and ability to handle complex designs. “We have about a 4,000-square-foot warehouse where we do custom design and fabrication of furniture, cast concrete, glass installation, and specialty finishes,” Trahan explains. He adds that many architects choose the firm because of its hands-on approach to training employees and building houses. “We understand the complexity of modern architecture and how the infrastructure must be flawless for the final finishes to be flawless.”
In 2008, Trahan’s company received the Arizona AIA Contractor of the Year Award—proof that although his career path has changed slightly since graduation, Trahan hasn’t stopped putting award-winning effort into his work.