A Makers Mentality Ryan Cowan Designs with Life in Mind
Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Ryan Cowan spent much of his time riding bicycles and on the fender of his uncle’s tractor. Cowan figured he, too, would be a farmer someday. But alongside his father, a custom homebuilder, Cowan’s interest in design was sparked as he watched the process of making buildings.
“I was not born with an appreciation for art and architecture,” Cowan says. “I was only taught to observe details. It was through my education that architecture entered my life. Through this I saw the value of ideas, art, and the human experience.“
As Cowan watched his father design and build houses, he witnessed creativity at work. “My family gave me the most important part of my education, the ability to work. Helping my father around the job sites, with small projects around our house, and looking over his shoulder while he drew house plans was the beginning of learning for me,” Cowan recalls.
After graduating high school, Cowan started his first job in construction as a laborer for a remodeling contractor. He spent his twenties roaming the West as a rock climber, picking up odd carpentry jobs in the mountain towns of Salida and Crested Butte.
“I worked for some great mountain home builders during this time and witnessed firsthand how high-quality homes should be built,” says Cowan. “After becoming a general contractor myself in 2001, I formed R.G. Cowan Design | Build, operating primarily as a renovation contractor.”
When the recession of 2008 came, Cowan felt it was a good time to complete his formal education. Choosing architecture as his major, he moved to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado’s environmental design program. He graduated with a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree in 2012 and entered the world of architecture.
After finishing his education in Boulder, Cowan and his family found their way to the Western Slope and Grand Junction, resurrecting R.G. Cowan Design | Build. “We ultimately chose the Western Slope for its great access to the mountains, rivers, and deserts to enjoy in our free time and give our kids an outdoor experience free from crowds,” says Cowan.
Cowan’s interest in environmental surroundings is at the heart of his work, as well. “I always liked the idea that design can be more than a simple house plan,” he remarks. “I have always felt a general lack of artistic value in most of what we experience in our world of buildings. As an industry, contractors and builders tend to make things overly pragmatic, driven not only by the least expensive material options, but by limited time, creativity, and skill sets.”
For Cowan and his team, it is less about finishing the project and more about the finished product. “I prefer to be creative,” he explains. “I prefer to see and experience creative projects. I prefer contemporary architecture that expresses a relevance for us today and offers a juxtaposition to the buildings of the past. A great example of this is the Avalon Theater addition in Grand Junction. I appreciate the contrast between past and present in projects like this.”
When asked what separates his firm from others, Cowan responds, “First and foremost, we are designers and makers. We believe in building high-quality projects for design-minded clients. This may not seem like a great distinction, but my experience with many designers and builders alike is that they do not have a maker’s mentality.” He adds, “many projects are not designed with ideas so much as much as with products. Don’t get me wrong, the right product or material can make or break a project, but many times the best solution is not found, it is made. It is thought of, sketched, iterated, drawn, and made.”
R.G. Cowan Design | Build’s work is driven by the location and building site for each project, beginning with passive solar principles: know where south is; make shade; don’t create huge, unshaded glass walls and expect the air conditioner to save the client later.
“We find what’s special about the location,” says Cowan. “We capture views. We light up the living spaces with natural light, and we open it up to the exterior where appropriate. This informs our arrangement of spaces and drives the floor plans, and the floor plans drive the form of the building. In this way it grows from the site. We then explore the finishes and materials that will enhance the architectural experience and provide the sense of rootedness it deserves.”
Beyond the designs of our homes, all cities — even small cities like Grand Junction — could benefit from thinking about the efficiency of our communities, Cowan believes. “We don’t have a big traffic problem in Grand Junction, but we don’t want one either,” he points out. I think it is important to create more density in our communities with higher quality of life. Life designed for pedestrians, with lots of trails and paths between services. Some jobs require us to use our cars, but many don’t. We will always need to use our cars, but if we are creative and we arrange our cities and towns differently, we will need them less and move around our towns in a way that is more fun and healthier, to boot.”
Cowan may have landed far from his midwestern farming start, but his passion for organically designed structures and healthy cities is helping his chosen home, the Western Slope, to grow in the best possible way.