phoenix, ariz.

Andy Byrnes put himself through architecture school by building houses, and he enjoyed every minute of it. When he moved to Phoenix after graduation, his priorities were to get his contractor's license and track adown fellow Tulane alumnus Richard Fairbourn. A mutual professor gave him the lead on Fairbourn, who'd been practicing architecture in the area for 15 years. The lead proved prophetic. In 1992, just a year after meeting, the two architects joined forces to form a design/build firm called The Construction Zone. “Collaboration led us to our own niche of creating only architecture that we want to build,” Byrnes says.

Another Tulane architecture grad migrated his way a few years later, and in 1998 D.J. Fernandes became the firm's third partner (as well as its CFO and graphic designer). The company now employs 65 staff and has recently launched two smaller divisions: CZ MULTI oversees multifamily and light commercial, while CZ WORK fabricates custom concrete, glazing, and carpentry. Every project supervisor has a degree in architecture and is trained in the art of construction by the firm's dedicated craftsmen.

“From our standpoint,” says Byrnes of the design/build advantage, “I like to have control over a project and know that I'm going to satisfy the client.” Because the company's only advertising is word-of-mouth, happy homeowners are key to its success. According to Byrnes, those homeowners benefit by getting more architecture per dollar and a more efficient process. These forward-thinking clients do take a slight leap of faith, because not every design element is put to paper before building begins, and some final decisions are worked out during construction. “Clients know our work and trust us enough to know that even without every last detail drawn we're going to figure it out,” he explains. “It lets us create more architectural parts and it becomes a better project.”

Known especially for innovative concrete and rammed earth fabrication, The Construction Zone aspires to make buildings that are good for the planet. “There's a nice poetry to digging up the desert and making walls out of it,” says Byrnes. They do much of their own landscaping as well, with an eye toward naturally re-vegetating the desert. But they also use “intentional landscaping” to complement the house design.

Interior elements such as custom cabinetry and built-ins are fabricated by CZ WORK. Byrnes couldn't find subs to execute their complex designs at the level of detail they expected and at a price the budget would bear. Instead of forfeiting quality, Byrnes hired experienced and talented craftsmen to put together full-time specialty crews. This approach not only benefits design/build clients, who get more of their wish-list items without busting the budget, but it also attracts outside architects who know The Construction Zone can build things others can't. Out of the 20 to 25 projects in progress each year about half are design/build; the rest are projects built for outside architects or an occasional design-only commission for out-of-town houses. Byrnes explains that projects done with other architects are somewhat design/build as well, because his entire team gets involved before schematic designs are complete. He credits Arizona's collaborative community of architects for cultivating The Construction Zone's multifaceted talents. “When you see all of these architects' work you get an immense education on every job,” he says, adding, “One of the biggest successes in my career is that almost every architect we've worked with has also asked us to build their own house.”

Success for Byrnes means taking on compelling projects regardless of size. “We do kitchen remodels up to houses that take five years with budgets of $9 million,” he says. Even as the company grows, the principals maintain a hands-on approach and a free-spirited willingness to take on collateral work, such as furniture design or sustainable land management planning. Byrnes sums up the philosophy: “We'll do anything relative to the field if it seems positive for the community and toward the end of good architecture.”

The lithe structure is cast-in-place concrete, but Byrne, liberated from client restraints, went a little wild with the finish materials. Chemically patinated copper siding glints in the setting sun. Slate floors keep their cool throughout the footprint and out onto adjacent terraces. Twin entry corners consist of thousands of 4-inch strips of clear layered glass. “They provide dramatic sources of light but mitigate undesirable views,” says Byrnes, who admits to going overboard a little. But the current homeowners are thrilled he got so carried away.

project: York residence

architect / contractor: The Construction Zone

project size: 5,400 square feet

construction cost: $300 per square foot

photographer: Bill Timmerman