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Maestros of Minimalism

2020 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winners - John Anderson, James Trahan and Troy Vincent

The trio of architects behind 180 Degrees Design + Build elevates the ordinary to the sublime.

By Alison King | Photography by Matthew Winquist and Portrait Photography by Jesse Rieser

If someone had told architect James Trahan 20 years ago that he would end up designing places meant to make horses feel right at home while getting MRI scans, he would have been pleasantly surprised. His business partner and fellow architect John Anderson would have been equally delighted by the unlikely turn their career has taken. “When you first start out as an architect, you think you’re going to specialize in a certain arena, such as residential or commercial,” Anderson says. “It’s exciting to take on project types that you’re not familiar with, especially those outside of normal convention.”

John Anderson, James Trahan and Troy Vincent, 180 Degrees Design + Build; Portrait Photography by Jesse Rieser

Today, the pair, along with architect Troy Vincent, are frequently called upon to execute highly specialized, technically challenging building projects, such as the aforementioned veterinary clinic in Paradise Valley. Their firm, 180 Degrees Design + Build, helps develop structures designed by their peers as well as adapt or restore icons by past greats. Balancing collaboration with other design professionals, they also love to indulge in their own original work. Vincent admits that it’s hard to pin the firm down to any single aesthetic because its solutions are so client-driven, and while Trahan categorizes their style as modern, he refuses to be pigeonholed into one genre. If there’s any signature, it’s found in detail and restraint.

Martha Abbott, a practicing architect, and her husband, Ryan, a commercial contractor, chose 180 Degrees when they decided to remodel their midcentury ranch in Tempe to accommodate a growing family. “James and Troy were incredibly likable. We really appreciated their design sensibility and attention to detail. As industry professionals ourselves, we knew we were going to need some help—or we were going to kill each other,” Martha teases.

“The trick to understanding is to acknowledge what’s not there.”

—James Trahan, architect

The Abbotts love their modest 1953 cinder block home and wanted to preserve its scale, but they needed a place to store sporting gear and wanted a common area that didn’t revolve around the consumption of media, such as video games and movies. They call the result a “living kitchen.” Both a TV and sofa are conspicuously absent from the communal core. Instead, a wall of built-in cabinets and a dining table that laps across the prep island form the main area around which the family’s life revolves. When a large window wall neatly collapses away, the common space spills out into the backyard, where a freestanding prefabricated addition can be found. “It’s a three-sided horse barn, really,” explains Ryan. “The side facing our main house would have been open for stalls.”

Vincent elevated the steel skeleton into a dramatic and deeply set back casita that overlooks the pool and verdant lawn. He was especially interested in coaxing as much originality out of the prefab as he could, so he tapered the plaster-faced aperture to a knife edge and finished it with angled steel that weathers to a rusty finish. The structure houses a guest apartment, a rec room for the kids, a play loft perched above the apartment and plenty of space for cars, equipment and sporting vehicles.

1. As 180 Degrees Design + Build matured into its 19th year, a new offshoot brand took root at its central Phoenix fabrication shop. The Guild is a collective of in-house makers and artisans whose custom furniture, cabinets, metalwork, glass and sculpture add value to the firm’s architecture. This year, The Guild debuted a line of benches, consoles and products designed by woodworker Jason Vetsch. 2. Homeowners Martha and Ryan Abbott hired 180 Degrees Design + Build to renovate their 1953 cinder block house. After sandblasting the exterior, architect Troy Vincent transformed the previously dark entryway by simplifying its lines and modernizing the canopy. Steel-framed windows and a corrugated steel roof reinforce the home’s minimalist vibe. 3. In lieu of an addition to the main house, the Abbotts suggested transforming a prefabricated building into a casita and garage. Vincent modified the steel structure with a smooth plaster exterior and a rectangular tapered aperture that shields the building from harsh sunlight.

A master suite and fourth bedroom were added to the main house, which received a fresh appearance by sandblasting the exterior block and adding a corrugated-steel roof. The crisp, spartan interiors, mainly devoid of freestanding furniture, are meant to be clutter-free. Extensive custom built-ins take care of storage in every room. “Minimalism adds calm to our lives,” says Martha. “We both have big, crazy jobs, and then there are the kids. Having everything in order is really peaceful to us.” Ryan adds, “When you practice minimalism, everything you own has meaning. You have to love it, or it goes.”

For the trio of architects, working in a limited palette allows them to reveal the true qualities of the underlying elements. Notes Vincent, “It takes a lot of time to get to that level of detail without all the trim, which is designed to hide flaws. Instead, we’re revealing the simplicity of connections. Space becomes about the people, and we’re not complicating it with an aesthetic. It’s about highlighting things that are more important than a cornice.” Trahan adds that the act of subtraction leads to better architecture. “It’s hard to do, getting all that unseen work to be just perfect,” he explains. “The trick to understanding it is to acknowledge what’s not there.”

Some of the firm’s most impressive technical solutions are designed to go unnoticed, such as a water reclamation system at an equestrian facility in northern Arizona. Grand Canyon Stables, located in the cinder cone speckled Kaibab National Forest, commissioned 180 Degrees to design a plan that would expand its overnight guest quarters and increase its ability to lodge up to 15 horses and kennel the 90 hounds that support its local hunt club.

A main goal of the project was to reclaim, store and reuse enough rainfall and snow gathered from the roofs and groundwater runoff to meet local codes, support an attractive landscape, maintain the animals’ health and keep a mucky facility hygienic. The threat of wildfire was putting a strain on the local well, and the Stables needed to feel secure that they had enough water in reserve.

“We’re revealing the simplicity of connections. Space becomes about the people, and we’re not complicating with an aesthetic.”

—Troy Vincent, architect

1. Raised concrete bunks help the 90 prized hunting hounds maintain pack hierarchy while providing ample resting space. Integrated hydronic heating in the beds and radiant heating in the concrete floor keep dogs warm during cold winter months. 2. The guest house features the same exposed glulam beams as the stable. Large windows capture views of Kaibab National Forest.

Though humans, horses and dogs have kept each other company for millennia, little literature exists on best practices for the design of stables and kennels, especially not with present-day innovations in heating and water collection. The amount of washdown water that would come in contact with waste posed some challenges, too. “You can’t just open the Architectural Standards book and find data on how to handle these problems,” Anderson explains. “It’s not compiled anywhere, so we had to figure it out on our own.”

Following extensive observation and prototyping, Anderson and his team were able to devise a solution in which up to 210,000 gallons of water are collected in three different storage systems—enough for any fire event. Deep eaves with sprinklers integrated into the architecture help maintain a perimeter that protects not only the building but also the creatures inside.

Because the Stables’ staff rotates between indoors to outside throughout the day, much of the facility is not climate-controlled. Anderson focused on mitigating the extremes by integrating heating into many of the concrete surfaces under hooves and paws to maintain a more constant temperature in the stables and kennel. It also deters the build-up of ice. Clerestory windows high above the horses’ stalls let in natural light and can be vented to cool down the open space in the summer.

“It’s exciting to take on project types that you’re not familiar with, especially those outside of normal convention.”

—John Anderson, architect

1. The Abbotts call their new great room the “living kitchen.” Instead of a traditional living room with a sofa and TV, the open space is dominated by a wall of built-in cabinets, a massive island and a waterfall-edge dining table. To the left, a nearly 15-foot-long wall of glass slides open to connect the volume with the backyard and casita. 2. Architect John Anderson didn’t sacrifice design for functionality in this stable that can house up to 15 horses. Rough-sawn Breckenridge siding imparts a refined look, while clerestory windows that can be vented during the warmer months bring in plenty of natural light. The exposed glulam beams are joined by custom steel plate connectors. An expansive hay shed can store up to a year’s worth of hay.

The last objective of the renovation was to provide creature comforts for the human visitors. A breezeway connecting the arena and guest house, which is perched atop a second-story wing overlooking the forested landscape, provides functional space for social gatherings and barbecues. The lodging is finished with practical materials, such as easy-to-maintain concrete flooring, rustic wood furnishings and durable leather seating.

“We’d definitely do a project like this again. We’re much more knowledgeable about the technical aspects now,” Anderson remarks. “The learning curve is behind us.”

As the firm celebrated its 19th year at the end of 2019, Anderson reflects on the quality and innovation of its work and the honors it has received. “It’s pretty humbling. We do good work for ourselves,” he says, “but when other people you look up to in the Valley appreciate what you’re doing, that feels good.”

Architects: John Anderson, James Trahan and Troy Vincent, 180 Degrees Design + Build.

For more information, see Sources.

A breezeway that connects the arena and guest house provides functional space for social gatherings and barbecues. Ten picnic tables offers guests plenty of space to relax and enjoy expansive vistas of the ranch and surrounding forest.

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