Luis Ibarra keeps a photo of his mother’s childhood home close at hand—a makeshift shelter perched above a landfill in Nogales, Mexico. Originally a chicken coop, the structure was amended with materials salvaged from the landfill. These places, Ibarra says, have instilled in him an appreciation for resourcefulness, efficiency, simplicity, honesty of construction—values by which Ibarra and his wife and partner, Teresa Rosano, AIA, LEED AP, measure their work. In 1999, they launched a practice—Tucson, Ariz.–based Ibarra Rosano Design Architects—that is now among the most recognized names in architecture in the Southwest.

Our firm launched because of a competition win. Based on snapshots we took of our remodeled kitchen in our home, we won a van in a design contest sponsored by a home magazine. We had no need for a van, but we took it as a sign, quit our jobs, sold the van, bought computers, and launched into practice.

We come from humble backgrounds. We feel that our backgrounds have prepared us to look for ways to make the most with the least—extraordinary spaces from ordinary materials—and delight in the beauty of simplicity. This is where our design philosophy and ethics originate, in the notion of “simple shelters,” spaces born out of solving problems very directly, creatively adapting to circumstance with a pragmatism so absolute that its products are often appreciated as art. But the work is not about self-expression; rather, it’s about expressing the problem.

We like to think that what we are making is a piece of a larger puzzle that in the end could fit no other way. This is how nature behaves. It follows purposeful patterns, purely and simply, efficiently and effectively. So we feel that it is through this simple straightforward approach—where every decision is based on something important, and every resolution is an answer to a problem—that timeless design is achieved. Plus our “simple shelters” value system allows us to deliver projects that meet budgets and maximize the value of resources.

But there is an irony that comes with our success: Prospective clients might assume we are uninterested in their smaller-scale, lower-budget projects. But that’s one of the areas in which we excel. In fact, one thing that has helped us in this slow time has been our early decision to keep the practice small. We did this because we wanted to have direct contact with our clients and their projects.

There was a time when we had a waiting list of clients several months deep, and we toyed around with the idea of growing and adding staff, moving our practice off our residential property, and constructing a new office. Thankfully, we were so busy we never did anything of the sort. We would be on the street now if we had.