Meet four diverse architects who view dwellings in a different light—examining both form and function in order to design and reimagine spaces that are efficient, inspiring and gracefully enduring in a sea of sameness
Christoph Kaiser, Founder/Principal, Kaiserworks
Christoph Kaiser’s design aesthetic can’t be put in a box—or a silo, for that matter. But one thing is certain: the creative departure is deliberate.
Founder and principal of the architectural firm Kaiserworks, his portfolio includes adaptive reuse projects with residential and commercial clients in the hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors. Kaiser’s preservation efforts are evident in neighborhoods like the Roosevelt and Garfield historic districts, as well as in retail hybrid spaces including Changing Hands Bookstore and First Draft Book Bar in the former Beefeater’s restaurant at The Newton in uptown Phoenix.
“There’s something magical about designing something new in old spaces,” he says.
While Kaiser is naturally attracted to breathing life into weathered properties, he’s equally passionate about setting a blueprint for the future with his micro-dwelling concepts that incorporate all aspects of design and technology at a cost-effective price point.
Tucked behind a heritage residence Kaiser renovated in the Garfield district, the Silo House is a 1950s corrugated steel grain silo with an 18-foot diameter and 340 square feet of total livable space. While unarguably unconventional, it illustrates his idea of feasible living that challenges traditional perceptions of domestic housing in an urban setting.
The Kbox, a factory-built shipping container located behind the 1907 Grand Pyramid House, the oldest house of its kind in Phoenix, is another prototype for scaled-down living Kaiser hopes the masses will embrace.
“The idea is to create sustainable, long-term housing that arrives in flat packs and can be assembled instantly onsite where two people can live comfortably,” he says of the IKEA-like, manufactured house kit.
Kaiser, who grew up in Phoenix and Germany, attended Arizona State University and finished his undergraduate degree in architecture in Stuttgart, Germany. He then earned a master of architecture degree at Harvard University, where he examined the definition of “home” and how to use the American homestead as a rubber stamp for modern-day living as part of his thesis.
His concepts might sound far-fetched, but Kaiser’s model for affordable, innovative micro-living is turning industry heads. In 2018, the Silo House won Dwell Magazine’s best design for small spaces in its annual national design competition.
Though Kaiser is fascinated by what’s coming next, he still lives in the present, creating spaces that balance customer needs with effective design solutions and, most importantly, inspire wonder among their occupants. “Both the Silo House and the Kbox do that.”
Great architecture, according to Kaiser, is designing an interesting space that considers how individuals will react to their entire surroundings, whether it’s a cylinder house in a new-age, master-planned community or a rehabbed happy hour spot.
“We sit close to the edge of what’s out there and bring it to clients,” he says of Kaiserworks’ context-driven approach, which includes furniture, light fixtures and landscaping design that integrates all architectural elements into one project. Case in point, the Garden Bar, a craft cocktail bar located in a 1930s Craftsman complete with an edible garden. “We want to design every aspect of the user experience.”
Allison Colwell & Michele Shelor, Founding Partners, Colwell Shelor Landscape Architects
Sometimes, it’s what’s on the outside that matters—especially if you are Allison Colwell and Michele Shelor, founding partners of Colwell Shelor Landscape Architects. The duo’s award-winning roster includes diverse public works projects, as well as residential clients throughout Arizona.
Colwell and Shelor realized they shared the same design sensibilities while working for Phoenix-based landscape architect Steve Martino and launched their own practice in 2009.
“We started at the bottom of the recession, which really helped us. There weren’t many public-project works at the time and we did a lot of smaller residential projects,” says Colwell. “We weren’t business people, so it helped develop our craft and taught us how to run a business with a lot of time to figure things out without the pressure of having a lot of work.”
The designers discovered their strength lies in creating the hardscape—structures that are incorporated into the landscape—not just plant selection and arrangement. Ironically, plants aren’t the first consideration for Colwell, who also is a registered architect, and Shelor, named the 2016 Arizona ASLA Landscape Architect of the Year.
“We make sure to have strong bones in every project and that architecture is integral to our landscape architecture. Plantings then become another layer that’s woven into the story,” Colwell says. “Plants help mitigate the environment, but we start with strong site planning.”
And collaboration with architects and home builders, a key strategy to create a cohesive footprint. “Often, people don’t value their exterior place. It’s not as big of an investment,” Colwell continues. “But if you don’t give thought to the outdoor space, it’s ugly and no one wants to be there. The ideal situation is we are brought in early and understand the goals. When we work together, the indoor-outdoor connection is stronger.”
Colwell and Shelor’s projects have a running theme: ecologically sustainable and respect for the climate with the use of low-water plantings, limiting lawn environments and lush accent plants in masses.
“Native plants and raw materials are often used as resources to complete their landscape designs. We consider Arizona plantings and materials like steel, concrete and stone—things that hold up well in the climate,” she adds.
The firm’s House of Different Gardens project—which earned the 2015 ASLA Arizona Design Award of Excellence and 2015 ASLA Arizona Design Award of Excellence for its accompanying field guide—showcases their eco-sense, converting the water-thirsty, 7-acre property into a Sonoran desert with a collection of garden galleries that also feature species from other arid regions of the world.
With the Arcadia House project, the landscape designers maintained the integrity of a 1950s ranch redux by integrating the architecture and existing citrus grove, creating a contemporary and seamless transition between the interior and exterior living spaces with garden zones that unite all the elements. The project was recognized with the 2012 ASLA Arizona Design Award of Excellence and 2011 Valley Forward Association Environmental Excellence Crescordia Award.
“Simplicity is important to both of us,” says Colwell. “Not minimalist, but [rather] simple, modern clean lines. When we’re asked to explore other options, it feels foreign to us. Timelessness is what we are shooting for.”
Marlene Imirzian, Principal Founder/Owner, Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects
Perhaps it’s easier to describe the projects Marlene Imirzian hasn’t worked on than those she has. The principal founder and owner of Marlene Imirzian & Associate Architect’s resume covers the architectural gamut, from historic preservation to new builds for commercial, civic, educational and residential clients.
“We develop a broad range of projects, which used to be more common. But now there’s a tendency to be more specific,” says Imirzian, who launched her firm in 1997 and also has an office in Escondido, California. “We’ve always done a broad range of work and that’s what’s probably most interesting about our practice.”
No stranger to industry recognition, the firm was ranked as one of the top 50 firms in the country by Architect Magazine in 2017 and has repeatedly been recognized nationally as a leader in sustainable architecture.
“It’s a big part of our work process and just part of doing good design,” she says of her sustainable nature. “It’s not about, ‘Are you going to pay more for it?’ Whatever we can do to minimize impact is always a consideration for us.”
The key to her practice success, according to Imirzian, is simple: collaboration and sticking to a budget. “Aside from the overall design performance, we are very collaborative. We have a strong relationship with our engineering, landscaping, and cost consulting team,” says Imirzian, who earned a master of architecture from the University of Michigan. “One of the unique factors of our success is that besides optimizing the best design comprehensively possible, we make sure the owner’s project is done within their budget.”
The Life Science Building at Paradise Valley Community College, winner of an AIA Western Mountain Region Citation Award and the Arizona Architects Medal, is a testament to Imirzian’s innovative sustainable approach and ability to maximize a location’s potential. The metal and stone building has two rain-harvesting towers that feed into an underground cistern, which collects water for the site’s desert-adapted vegetation. But the project ticks other design boxes, as well.
“We had a very specific goal from the science faculty to integrate science into the campus experience as a whole. We created a complex that encourages people to visit the building and interact with what is going inside but also is a strong campus gathering spot,” she says of the connectivity achieved through a series of collaboration pods that are open to the campus via a main walkway where faculty, students and visitors can meet and congregate.
Imirzian also is hopeful her sustainability solutions will become a larger part of the community effort to reduce energy use. In 2018, she and senior designer Jay Atherton designed, along with local engineering and construction experts, a 2,170-square foot, energy-efficient, single-family home called HOMEnz for widespread adoption that won the top prize in the Sustainable Home Design Competition, which was sponsored by the City of Phoenix and the American Institute of Architects, Arizona.
Home plans for the “near-net-zero energy,” mid-century modern dwelling is available to download for free on the City of Phoenix website and can be built for $158 per square foot.
“It’s an extremely important effort,” says Imirzian. “We hope people will visit the website and understand the moves they can make to build a sustainable home that will eventually affect the overall energy use of homes in the Valley.”
Portraits: Mark Lipczynski