Interview with Teresa Rosano, Architect

Interview with Teresa Rosano, Architect

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Architecture

Teresa Rosano is the co-owner and principal architect of Ibarra Rosano Design Architects, a Tucson-based architectural firm that specializes in innovative design with alternative building materials. A graduate of the five-year architecture program at the University of Arizona, her work has won awards and has been published.

With her husband, Luis Ibarra, who is her partner in the architectural firm, the couple won the grand prize in 1998 in American Homestyle and Gardening Magazine's national Kitchen and Bath Design Contest for re-design work on their 1947 home. Their more current projects include a rammed earth and steel "teaching pavilion" - a Ramada for teaching landscape technologies, such as rainwater harvesting, for the Sonoran Desert - and several residential projects for which they are using Rastra® and Integra®, which are highly insulative and structurally-versatile wall systems.

Born in 1971, Teresa grew up in an adobe house outside Tucson, Arizona surrounded by her father's metal sculpture, her mother's wood shavings and the cacophony of her triplet brothers' simultaneous, yet individual music practice.

Ms. Rosano & Her Career

How did you discover your talent for architecture?

As a child I was exposed to both art and construction. I enjoyed drawing and building things. When I was seven I built an entire balsa wood village in a mesquite tree for a family of one inch tall clay bug figures I made. My brothers and I made forts out of the adobe bricks leftover from the construction of our house. I can't say I "discovered" a talent for architecture. I was just naturally drawn to it.

How did your career unfold?

After attending a five-year Bachelor of Architecture program at the University of Arizona, I began the three year internship required for professional registration. I worked in small offices, where I would obtain a variety of experiences and responsibilities. Most of these firms emphasized the use of high quality and alternative materials.

Tell us about how you started your own business. What inspired you to do it?

I knew that although having one's own business is difficult, it is often the only way to do things your own way, particularly in a creative field. Luis and I had been working for other architects and found ourselves wanting to put our efforts into our own vision.

We needed a creative outlet as well as a place to live, so we bought a tiny "fixer-upper" built in 1947. It was exactly what we were looking for: a simple house on a large lot in the center of town. We immediately began demolition and remodeling. This project became the focus of most of our evenings and weekends. Anticipating future additions of a living room and master bedroom suite, we constructed a kitchen in the existing living room and an entry gallery in the old kitchen. We lived in the house with no heat, no kitchen and lots of dust for over a year before the remodel was complete.

We sent pictures of our new kitchen to a national design contest and won the grand prize - a new Chevrolet Venture Van! The result of almost entirely our labor (plus that of family and friends) was published in American Homestyle and Gardening Magazine in October 1998.

This was as good a starting point as any, so Luis and I left our jobs and began our own architectural practice with a couple projects we had on the side. We sold the van, bought some computers and hung out our proverbial "shingle".

We designed and built a studio out of which to work - a single space that can serve as a studio apartment or work studio and is a prototype for high quality but affordable construction. The simple plastered Rastra® structure uses passive solar principles, requires little cooling, almost no heating and no daytime lighting.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

Having our first design-build project win a national award and be published locally and nationally was a great thrill.

So far our minor setbacks have found themselves with solutions. The sole source of these frustrations: the community's desire for the conventional and predictable. The current trend toward conventional design is influenced by the mortgage companies, the building departments, the neighbors, the homeowners' associations. Fortunately, our clients have been open to and excited about our ideas. Innovation and creativity can prevail with persistence and faith, and the reward is worth the effort.

Who (or what) were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My father likes to think it's the first time he showed me a set of blueprints for a building. I think it was the combination of art and science to which I was exposed as a child. My father built our house of handmade adobe blocks when I was one year old. He worked in construction and introduced my brothers and me to science and math at an early age. My father is also a mosaic artist and metal sculptor. My mother is an art teacher, wood sculptor and ceramic artist. There were always things with which to build, paint or draw in and around our house.

The Actual Work

What exactly do architects do? What are your key responsibilities?

In essence, we design space. We describe how the solids that define the space will be built. We study the site and the program (the needs and wants of the client). We need to design within the building codes and available construction techniques.

We follow projects through all phases, from the initial concept to the built structure. These phases are: 1st: Schematic Design - drawings, sketches, renderings, models showing the concept and layout, plans, building sections, elevations, 2nd: Design Development - further development of the design, materials, structural, mechanical, electrical system concepts, 3rd: Construction Documents - the drawings and specifications that describe the structure in detail - the "blueprints", 4th: Bidding or Negotiation - assisting the owner with the bidding process; the permitting process also occurs at this point, 5th and last: Construction Administration - observing the construction and verifying that it is consistent with the drawings; making changes or clarifications as needed.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

A typical day involves some combination of the previous answer. Some time on the computer - drafting, writing, doing calculations. Some time on job sites - studying the site before and while developing a project or during construction. Some time sketching, model making, doing office work (billing, marketing, letter writing), walking a project through the permitting process at the city or county development services (my least favorite part). A day often includes client meetings to review progress and receive feedback on a project.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

A computer (+ printer and scanner) for drafting, computer modeling, writing, marketing, and calculations. The drafting board, which used to be the primary tool, we use only occasionally. Model making supplies such as museum board, wood, plastic. Pens, pencils and lots of tracing paper or "buff".

What are some of the professional organizations for architects?

The American Institute of Architects is the primary organization. They have national, state, local and student chapters. Local groups, often with a particular emphasis such as sustainable housing, design-build, women and minorities in architecture, etc., exist as well.

Is it important to collaborate with your architectural colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

In school we are constantly exposed to ideas of other students, teachers, lecturers, and those in the library full of magazines and books. The interaction and constructive criticism is crucial to the creation of new and different ways of thinking. Once in the work world, it is easy to get wrapped up in daily tasks and stagnate. Collaborations and feedback from colleagues keep ideas and knowledge flowing.

The architectural profession is extremely inclusive; we need to know about structure, mechanical and electrical systems, available building products, landscape, furniture, construction processes, etc. It is important to continue learning and have a variety of resources for this constantly changing information.

Within our own studio, the constant feedback Luis and I receive from each other is critical to our success. We can look at the other's work with fresh eyes and see new possibilities and opportunities.

What are some common myths about architects?

A common response when I say I'm an architect is, "I thought about doing architecture, but I'm not very good at math." While we do arithmetic and geometry on a daily basis, we don't use very complex math often. This should not be a reason to discount architecture for your profession.

Another myth is that architects just "draw up some plans." Most people don't comprehend how much effort goes into creating a design and the construction documents for it. Thought goes into every detail. Each bolt, light fixture, window placement, etc. involves a decision specific to the project, the client and the site.

How does architecture differ from other art forms?

I am often surprised that people, even artists, don't understand that architecture is an art form. It has been equated to "frozen music", but architecture is anything but frozen. It is constantly changing, with the seasons, with the sun and rain, with human interaction and with time. It has the power to inspire and uplift or to stifle and depress.

The main difference between architecture and other art forms is that it is subject to many rules and regulations, beyond those inherent to the client's functional requirements and the physical parameters of the site. Many factions of society seek to standardize building and strip it of its potential to surprise and delight. This makes the field of architecture uniquely challenging and sometimes frustrating.

Education Information & Advice

What is your degree in? What did you like and dislike about your architecture-related education?

I have a Bachelor of Architecture which is a five-year degree. Some schools offer a four-year Bachelor of Arts and Science degree and a two-year Masters of Architecture degree. Often schools with the five-year degree also have a one year masters program.

I enjoyed the camaraderie that naturally develops in a small and intense program. (The University of Arizona accepts about 50 new students a year into the architecture college). Architecture school taught us to think critically, challenge assumptions and explore different creative possibilities. It is a great basis for many career options and many of my classmates are succeeding in other creative disciplines like toy design, theme park/entertainment architecture, zoo habitat design, design-build, and architectural bookstore ownership/management.

I regret not having more time in college to take a variety of electives, as the program was heavy in architecture classes. Also, the hands-on practical experience in school was limited, which makes it important to gain worthwhile experience during the internship following graduation.

How can prospective art students assess their skill and aptitude for architecture?

The ability to challenge assumptions, come up with new solutions and think three-dimensionally are the basis of architecture. It is also important to have good organizational skills and the ability to communicate ideas through drawings, models and words. An architect is constantly switching from the "right" to "left" brain.

Must an architect also be a gifted artist? Are there specialties within the field of architecture?

This depends on one's emphasis in the field of architecture. There are many specialties: architectural design, graphic design of presentations and promotional materials, renderings (hand and computer, 2D and 3D), specifications writing, construction documents production, construction administration or construction management, office management, marketing, structural design, the list goes on...

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in architecture?

Some architecture schools are closely associated with related disciplines such as landscape architecture, interior design, furniture and product design, engineering, etc. Some architecture departments have a strong relationship with the fine art department.

Architecture schools vary in their emphases. Some are more practically-based; some are more academically-based. The choice of school depends on what the student wants to do with the education.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious architecture schools, departments or programs?

I can't recommend a particular university or school. Professors and teachers vary from one school to another and within a school. A degree from one school may look better on paper than another, but ultimately the student gets out of the education what he or she puts into it. Once at a school, seek out the teachers with the most to offer.

What is the process for becoming an architect?

The process is a minimum of eight years: five-year degree and a three-year internship during which one works with a registered architect doing a variety of job tasks. In addition, architectural registration exams (ARE) are required, which involve 47 hours of testing and about $1,200 of fees. (Sometimes four years of school and four years of work are accepted. This may vary from state to state.) An architect is registered in a particular state. Most states accept the education, work experience and exams from another state and grant "reciprocity" in order to become registered in that state.

Job Information & Advice

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of architecture?

Begin talking to architecture firms and take a portfolio (if you've just begun architecture school, take other artwork). Familiarize yourself with drafting and other computer programs. Study construction by observing jobsites.

How available are internships in this field?

Internships are available, though not always well-paid in the beginning. Try to find one in which you will be exposed to a variety of tasks.

How is the job market now for the architecture industry? What do you think it will be in 5 years?

Right now, architecture graduates are in demand. However, like other fine arts, architecture becomes a luxury item when times are economically poor.

Industry Trends

What are some of the trends that you see in the field of architecture which could help students plan for the future?

Computers are becoming a more widely used tool for producing documents, 3D modeling, structural modeling and calculations, etc. In this area new graduates are far ahead of those who have been in the profession for some time. The important thing to remember is that the computer, the drafting board, the pens and markers are all just tools and each has a best use. I have seen students and professionals become enamored with computer generated renderings and forget that a quick overlay with a marker can make that rendering communicate much better. Understand your tools and use them the most efficient and effective way.

What specialized computer programs do architects typically use? How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?

Most architects use AutoCad. Some use other drawing and modeling programs such as Vectorworks, Claris Cad, Minicad, Microstation and Archicad. Architects are looking for potential employees to be versed in these programs. It's also helpful to know programs such as Word, Excel, Photoshop and Pagemaker.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Specifications, drawings and photographs of building products can be downloaded from the Internet. Email is a quick way to send drawings or other documents to and from consultants, to a print shop or a client. Cities and counties are putting their development standards online. As more companies develop and test websites it will become more useful; sometimes the old-fashioned phone call is still the best way to get the information you need.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in architecture?

I find that many architecture graduates do work they don't enjoy or believe in and say that one day they will do the kind of work they really want to do -- that one day they will create their own space -- but that until they can have their dream house, they'll just work for other people and "put in their time."

Whether it means starting your own practice, seeking the work that makes you happy, or creating a space that is uniquely yours, those who are happy and successful in architecture are those who "just do it".

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