The Built Environment

One goal of Architect Week: to spread the word about strong local design

When architect Rob Paulus was a kid growing up in Tucson in a house stuffed with his parents and six siblings, he had an electric train set.

He loved the trains, he says, but he "liked the houses I built alongside the tracks even more."

Now 46, the architect lives with his wife and daughter in the Ice House Lofts, a 1923 warehouse along the tracks downtown. A half-dozen years ago, Paulus converted the abandoned building into 51 super-cool modernist dwellings. Carved into the cavernous spaces of the old Arizona Ice and Cold Storage Company, the high-density housing echoes the crowded family house of his childhood.

And his current home—a two-story loft unit within the complex—not only has a spectacular view to the north of the Catalinas; it overlooks the trains rattling by outside.

"I just love the view," Paulus says. "And I like the train sounds."

Three units in the 72,000-square-foot Ice House will be open to the public this Sunday during the 19th Annual Architecture + Home Tour, sponsored by the Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

The Ice House homeowners opening their doors live in a variety of dwellings, varying from a 1,200-square-foot loft to a 2,200-square-foot "townhouse" the size of Paulus' home, and a four-bedroom, two-story dwelling exactly twice the size of the architect's abode.

The seven other stops on the home tour include six single-family homes—two downtown, two in midtown, and two on the city's sprawling edges—and one commercial space, the design studio of architect Kevin B. Howard, on Oracle Road in Oro Valley.

"We are trying to promote smart planning choices," says Paulus, who coordinated eight days of events for Architecture Week, which ends Sunday. "The goal is to stress the importance of the built environment."

The theme for Architecture Week, "(520) Live Local Design Local," is inspired not only by Tucson's area code, but by the strength of local architecture. Apart from a 1990s Blenman Elm house by Phoenix superstar architect Will Bruder, all of the projects being shown are by Tucson designers.

"The AIA is looking to spread the word on strong local design," says architect Frank Mascia, who will give a lecture on the virtue of small houses on Saturday. (He'll lead a tour of his own small house after his talk.) "There's a lot of good work coming out of this town. It's been called the Arizona School in national publications."

A number of the Arizona School projects on the tour offer inventive takes on current "sustainable" trends in architecture, from historic preservation to infill construction to renovation.

In Barrio Historico, architects Kathy Hancox and Michael Kothke built a new modernist house on a lot that had been empty for years. Completed in late 2010, their barrio house is sleek and contemporary, but "it draws from the history of the neighborhood," Hancox says, and from the couple's favorite historic style—the Sonoran courtyard-dwelling characteristic of early Tucson.

The older architectural style meshes well with contemporary tastes, Hancox says, noting that "historic barrio houses are minimalist, almost modernist." On the exterior, their barrio house fits in with the older structures in this historic neighborhood south of downtown. A wooden door is set within plain-white stucco walls. But the inside is contemporary.

"It opens into a different world," Hancox says. "It has a glass soffits and horizontal lines, and the living space opens to the outside." A long pool stretches along the length of the courtyard.

The homeowners are fascinated by cameras obscura, Hancox says, so the designers rigged a set of mirrors on the roof that project a real-time, full-color view of A Mountain onto the inside wall above the kitchen cabinets. For all its innovations and luxuries, the three-bedroom house is a relatively modest 2,100 square feet, with an "efficient use of space."

Paulus also has a barrio house on the tour. Like the Hancox-Kothke project, his Holman barrio house is set in a historic streetscape and borrows a courtyard footprint from the century-old houses nearby. Its simple lines and materials put it into the modernist camp, but its snug 1,850 square feet set it apart from the oversized mansions built during the fevered real-estate boom of a few years back.

In the Ice House Lofts, Paulus and company tried to re-use as many of the original materials from the old ice factory as possible. In the original operation, workers created blocks of ice to cool produce that was shipped by train across the country; the ice was loaded onto boxcars on the tracks just outside of the warehouse. Rough wood panels that were used inside the factory to insulate the ice are now fences around the unit's patios; old refrigeration pipes form a wall around the small swimming pool.

"It's a repurposing aesthetic," says Paulus, who's also known for the Barrio Metalico housing complex nearby, and for the recent renovation of One North Fifth at Congress Street.

Up in the Blenman Elm neighborhood, Siri Trumble, Chris Trumble and John Folan renovated a classic 1940s territorial house near the Arizona Inn. Respecting its traditional features, the trio of architects—current and former UA professors—preserved the saguaro-rib ceilings and adobe brick, while adding a contemporary garden bath and up-to-date kitchen.

Guided by the principles of urban planning that call for a denser core and lower expenditures of energy, the tour organizers tried to line up mostly buildings in downtown and midtown. But even those that lie on Tucson's sprawling edges—the Milagrosa residence by Bil Taylor on the northeast side, and a contemporary house in the far northwest by Joseph Maher—are meant to demonstrate attention to site and climate.

The Taylor house runs on solar energy, and its renewable materials include clay-plaster walls, concrete floors and a bamboo ceiling. Mayer positioned his project to preserve the thickets of cacti on the site, and to capitalize on the desert views.

Mascia notes that typical Arizona School buildings are oriented to minimize the impact of the fierce desert sun, and thick walls, overhangs and windowless western walls ward off the heat. And its modernist designs—like Hancox and Kothke's—are respectful of indigenous architectural design.

Part of the credit for this distinctive regional architecture goes to the UA College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, which has consistently focused on a sense of place.

"The UA is more grounded in that than any other school in the country," Mascia says. Many local architects, including Paulus and Mascia, trained at the UA, and "we sure as hell know where the sun comes up and goes down."

In a hard-hit real estate market, architects continue to find employment in "constituent work," Mascia says, doing additions and renovations for churches, hospitals and businesses. Commissions for new houses are scarce, and the days of the oversized high-bubble McMansions may be done.

In the wake of the housing crash, Mascia says, the "notion of smaller, sustainable and greener makes sense."