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Interview with Architect James E. McMahon, Founder of McMahon Design Build from Tucson

James E. McMahon has been designing contemporary and user friendly residential and commercial buildings in Tucson, Arizona since he started his own architectural practice in 1996. I talked about his career and basics of residential projects with James E. McMahon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

James E. McMahon, Founder of McMahon Design Build

James E. McMahon, Founder of McMahon Design Build


by Meryem Aksoy

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James had already decided to be an architect when he was a teenager. His interest in buildings inspired him to design his own buildings and to start drawing in his high school years. After graduated magna cum laude from University of Arizona College of Architecture in 1989, his architectural journey has begun professionally. He has founded McMahon Design Build, LLC with the desire to both design and construct his clients' dreams, and ever since, he is turning the desert into a living space. I talked with James E. McMahon about his career and asked him about the basics of residential projects.

James, before start talking about McMahon Design Build, could you tell us about yourself?

I’m 52 years old, born and raised in Tucson. Graduated magna cum laude from University of Arizona College of Architecture class of 1989.

Completed my post-graduation architectural internship mostly in Tucson with one year in San Francisco. Became a licensed architect in the State of Arizona in 1994, licensed in Colorado in 1998.

Started my own architectural practice in Tucson in 1996. Became a licensed general contractor in the State of Arizona in 2007, that year forming McMahon Design Build, LLC

McMahon Design Build

Cecilia Residence - McMahon Design Build

Why did you decide to pursue a career in architecture? What inspired you?

As a teenager, I remember walking to school, studying the houses and comparing them to each other and to the house I grew up in. I would wonder why some houses caught my eye while others didn’t and I remember trying to determine why I liked any one house more than another.

In high school, I realized that my interest was architecture so I began drawing and taking drafting classes to develop the skills to become an architect. Learning my father enrolled me at the UofA, in the College of Architecture, remains one of my fondest memories.

It was in my third year as a college student, as I studied the great works of architecture in the college library, when it all seemed to hit me. I knew for sure this was what I wanted to do! And I’ve never wanted to stop…

How did you decide to establish your own firm? Could you tell us about McMahon Design Build and your team?

I knew I would start my own firm around the age of twenty-five, while working as the lead designer at a local architectural firm, when I realized the ability to design and build a client’s project required the type of direct, personal contact only guaranteed by having my name on the door.

Legally, the McMahon Design Build team is only me. However, I’m able to produce all of the architectural drawings that eventually lead to my providing general contracting services, all of which I’m able to do through the direct hiring of others as I need them.

On the architectural side, I hire engineers and interior designers to help design and draw the project. And on the construction side, I contract directly with subcontractors and vendors to build the project.

McMahon Design Build

Lot 137 - McMahon Design Build

How could you define your architectural design approach? What is your signature in your designs?

My architectural design ‘approach’ is pragmatic. I meet with and listen to the client at great length until I’ve developed a deep understanding of the project’s requirements and its site. Once I’ve absorbed all of the client’s concerns and other relevant information, I begin a very isolated but creative conceptual drawing process where layer upon layer of design information is added and clarified until concept sketches are developed enough to be reviewed by the client.

The client and I continue meeting and reviewing sketches until we are both satisfied, at which time I develop a three-dimensional model of the project. Once the 3D model has been reviewed and approved by the client, my engineers and I continue with, and ultimately complete, the construction drawings.

Once the construction drawings are complete, I simultaneously oversee the permitting process while procuring bids from subcontractors and vendors interested in building the project.

My design 'style' is both "contemporary" and "modern" meaning the project’s requirements are met by applying the most simple, effective and logical, current-day solutions.

And because of the significance of indoor/outdoor relationships in our region, the term “desert contemporary” is often used connoting the selection and application of the most appropriate regional materials.

The result is usually an open floor plan inside of a practical skin, comprised of a combination of glass, metal, block and stucco, where each material’s use is based on a “kit of parts, set of rules” principle, the ultimate result of which is clean and honest simplicity, clarity and elegance.

McMahon Design Build

Lot 137 - McMahon Design Build

Which type of projects does McMahon Design Build specialize in? What type of services do you offer your customers?

McMahon Design Build, LLC specializes in mostly custom homes and small commercial projects. As a design builder, I offer complete architectural and general contracting services to my clients who are typically looking for a single point of contact throughout the entire design/build process.

Where is the most popular location for new residential projects in Tucson?

For custom residential, single-family projects, Oro Valley, Marana, and northwest Tucson have the hottest markets and are seeing the highest number of quality homes being built.

For multi-family and/or apartments, downtown Tucson and neighborhoods near the University of Arizona have seen the development of more interesting projects, such as The Hedrick, a luxury apartment designed by my company.

McMahon Design Build

Cecilia Residence - Kitchen - McMahon Design Build

Could you explain to us the full process of a residential project?

1. Meet with Client to understand project scope and site, including solar orientation, views, and topography.
2. Develop a Concept Design, showing project functions and space allocation.
3. Develop the Schematic Design, showing functions, space allocation and three-dimensionality of the project.
4. Complete the Design Development with accurate sketches, computer models and material selections.
5. Develop and complete the Construction Drawings, from which the project will be permitted and built.
6. Oversee the bidding process, answering subcontractor and vendor questions regarding the Construction Drawings, to determine which subs and vendors will be hired to complete the project.
7. Coordinate subcontractors and vendors to build the project while meeting with the client, inspectors, and others to verify all construction requirements are met.
8. Complete construction and “deliver” the project to the client.

McMahon Design Build

Cecilia Residence - Great Room - McMahon Design Build

How do the environment, climate, and geographic features affect house design?

The path of the sun as it moves across Tucson’s sky, both in the summer and winter, is the single-most influential natural force that should be considered when designing and building in our desert environment.

Applying “passive solar” design strategies, overhangs must always be used to moderate thermal heat gain on surfaces and openings, particularly those facing south and west. A house, with its overhangs, openings and other surfaces properly oriented with regard to the sun’s path, will give its owner a lifetime of seamless connectivity to the environment.

Because so many of Tucson’s custom homes are located on south-facing, sloping foothill sites, the opportunity to capture long-ranging desert and city vistas gives overhangs and openings a particularly special relationship. The more symbiotically they work together, and in relation to their sloping desert terrain, the more you can ensure a home that is thermally efficient and connected to nature.

McMahon Design Build

Skyline - McMahon Design Build

Do you offer turnkey projects to abroad customer? At which steps should your client have to be next to you after the first moment of the project?

Yes, I would offer a turnkey project to an abroad customer. My first requirement though would be for that client to meet me on the project site and then to spend a few hours with me conceptualizing their project at my Tucson foothills office. After our initial meeting, the internet provides an excellent platform for us to share drawings, sketches, and other images, allowing us to complete the project without any communication gaps or related problems.

How many months does it take to complete an average residential project?

A 4,000 square foot custom home takes about 16-17 months. Three months to design, two months for both permitting and bidding (those happen simultaneously) and eleven to twelve months to build. These time-frames can vary depending on the project’s complexity.

What are the most important factors that affect the project cost?

1. Site excavation and earthwork
2. Client material selections
3. Construction material cost fluctuations

McMahon Design Build

Skyline - McMahon Design Build

You have lots of completed and in-progress projects. Which one is your favorite?

That is almost too hard to answer. Every building (and client) and the decisions reached are so different. Each one feels like a child that has been raised to survive on its own.

If you’re forcing me….my favorite commercial project is Skyline Pediatrics doctor’s offices and my favorite residential project is The Three Floating Planes. However, I’m currently designing a house called “Dos Zocalos” which will probably become my favorite.

Turns out a design/builder’s favorite project is likely his or her latest one.

McMahon Design Build

Three Floating Planes - McMahon Design Build

What would you recommend to customers who want to work with an architect to build their new home?

Spend time talking and getting to know each other enough so that the different processes and decisions reached are understandable and well-reasoned. Because the architect is often placed into the role of a counselor of sorts (think of a three-way discussion as to whether or not a door should be placed on the master bath toilet room...) the client should be able to trust that their architect is responsive and professional in that and every other way.

I’ve found that an architect and his clients can never communicate enough when it comes to designing and building what will inevitably become the most important place that client will live.

I always say that a design/build process is like a marriage. During the design and drawing phase, it feels very much like a honeymoon. After construction begins, as costs become greater and the schedule longer, there’s the "seven year itch." At the end, the client receives "custody" of the home and I leave them in peace (on good terms, of course!)

McMahon Design Build

Cecilia Residence - McMahon Design Build

In your opinion, what is the relation between Low Budget - Short Project Time - High Quality? Is it possible to combine all in one project?

Is it possible? Yes. But the principled answer is no. Still, the client and design/builder must never stop trying to achieve all three.

The principle is that a project is comprised of three basic parts - budget, time and quality - where the pursuit of one part may occur at the potential expense of one, or both, of the other two.

To an extreme, if speed is the client’s most important concern, project costs could increase while quality could go down. If low-cost is most important, the project’s quality could drop while the schedule may slow. And if the quality is of the highest concern, then there may be pressure on both cost and schedule to increase.

Because I require my projects to meet a very high standard of quality, it is natural that cost and schedule feel pressure. Consequently, I constantly provide cost and schedule information to my clients so they have as much information as possible to be able to make the most informed decisions during design and construction. Only by making such information available to the client, in a manner timely enough to result in the most informed decisions, will you have the chance to combine all three.

What is the best advice you have received, and what advice would you give to young architects?

The best advice I ever received was from a boss who said that if you don’t start your own practice by the time your 30, you’ll never do it. Because I followed that advice, I started my own practice. And I’ve loved it enough to still be in practice 22 years later.

I can’t think of another profession where I could see myself (many years from now of course) at the end of my life and still wielding a design marker.

What is coming up next for you?

To design and build a client’s custom home on a steep, rocky hillside in Marana, AZ. To provide construction consultation on a 61,000 s.f. apartment I designed. And to keep solving the design/build puzzles presented almost daily to me by this Tucson community I love so much.

Thank you James for this enjoyable interview.

For more information, please visit the website of McMahon Design Build