Rida Asfahani, AIA, and Christopher Esper, Assoc. AIA, of Root Architects are winning hosts at their mixed-use headquarters north of downtown El Paso. The partners devised, developed, contracted, and now manage the rehabilitated property, called Working Capitol as a show of faith that their hometown, a sprawling city that has long neglected the historic gems of its interior, is ready to repopulate its urban core.
Root’s office is embedded within a co-working enterprise that houses, among other tenants, the El Paso chapter of the AIA. This allows for shared conference spaces and meeting rooms, as well as a cafe, a makeshift bar, and one of the best new taquerías in the region. To say that Asfahani and Esper have created an enviable working environment is an understatement.
Readers familiar with El Paso will know of the Root-designed TI:ME at Montecillo, a dense assemblage of restaurants and retail spaces composed of shipping containers, Corten steel, and CMU block. When it opened, the development felt like the first edgy thing to hit El Paso since the Mexican Revolution brought Pancho Villa to town. In 2021, Root received two honor awards from AIA El Paso, one in the Historic/ Adaptive/Rehab category for St. Rogers Depot and another for the Taconeta interiors, as well as a citation for a project under 2,000 sf called No Vacancy.
I sat down with Asfahani and Espers over margaritas and tacos at Taconeta to discuss Working Capitol, the advantages of developing and contracting their own projects, and what they love about El Paso. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, AIA: Tell me how Root Architects is organized.
Christopher Esper, Assoc. AIA: Our office is almost a living organism in itself. It seems to adapt every couple of weeks to what is going on in the world. We are a small boutique firm. It’s one of us on a bad day, nine of us on a good day — or the other way around. We have two principals: Rida and myself. Rida founded the company in 2010 and is kind of the grandpa/baby of the office. He still sits at the intern desk and wears his Dodgers hat backwards 95 percent of the time. He has a lot of design and construction experience under his belt and makes sure that he dots the i’s and crosses the t’s.
Rida Asfahani, AIA: Chris is the more refined one, with a great deal of high-end hospitality design experience. He loves his Gucci wallpaper and tufted leathers, but has also played the role of owner and developer, so he knows how to achieve a desired look in a manner that can actually get done. We have four full-time employees in house with a broad range of architectural experience. The office is relatively small because we have allowed our team to adapt to the COVID world. We have an employee that is fully remote. We have one who had to move to San Diego, so she now runs our California branch (it’s just her). We have part-time help in San Antonio and Austin. We have interior designers living in both old and New Mexico. We’re considering opening up an office in Colorado. We’re kind of everywhere. Our office has done projects from Louisiana to California, and the idea of spreading our roots throughout the Southwest is the reason we’re doing this. This is the part of the world we call home, and we want to make sure we have a hand in shaping it.
SCR: How did the idea for Working Capitol come about?
RA: The original idea came about from Chris’ thesis project in graduate school, which explored how office design and architecture is changing, given the ubiquitous role of technology and remote working. Both Chris’ research and the maturation of the concept focus on adaptive reuse of older buildings as the site for this prototype.
The concept identifies functions that host work-related activities throughout the city, such as restaurants and cafes, and co-locating them with flexible aspects of co-working. This includes amenities such as on-demand meeting rooms and a variety of workstyle settings — be it desks, high tables, or phone booths. The project is also a critique of the traditional model of co-working spaces that are cut off from the public and often privatized. Working Capitol introduces programs that bridge the public activities of the city and the private activities of the office proper with a somewhat “privileged” zone, mixing public and private through an active patio terrace, a cafe, and flexible lounge space.
SCR: What experiences gave you confidence that you could take on the roles of both developer and contractor, and what did you learn in the process?
RA: We have both developed projects in the past, but this was truly a new endeavor. What brought us confidence was that our main partners, the taquería and the cafe, bought into the concept early on, along with flagship member-tenants who would office in the space.
Generally, we learned that in order to execute simple details all the way up to furniture design and fabrication, we had to be on site and involved with construction. We knew that this level of quality-driven concept has not typically been seen in El Paso, and that meant that we had to be heavily involved in the construction. Existing buildings also pose a unique challenge due to multiple conditions where new construction elements meet the old, as well as the inability to fully plan for the unknown. The idea of typical details or typical conditions gets thrown out the window.
SCR: Can you describe the neighborhood and why it made sense to locate Working Capitol here?
RA: Working Capitol is situated in “Uptown” El Paso, although the term was only loosely defined, if at all, until a few years ago. Recent developments, including Working Capitol and other projects, have started to redefine the district, which is located between The University of Texas at El Paso and downtown. What makes the area so opportune and interesting is the diversity of buildings, vacant lots, residential neighborhoods, and access to IH-10 that have made it ripe for redevelopment. The proximity to downtown without the congestion, as well as opportunities for street parking and private parking, have made it an attractive area that is seemingly a crossover between restaurants and other amenities within the heart of the central area and the hustle and bustle of downtown.
As with the whole building block that comprises Working Capitol, many seemingly nondescript buildings have stories to tell. These buildings peripheral to downtown proper have had layers of construction material cover them up over time. Beautiful masonry structures with immense details have been updated with building layer elements on both the interior and exterior, concealing the base layer that once made them markers of the time in which they were built.
SCR: From a design perspective, were you able to achieve your goals while wearing so many hats?
RA: The short answer is: We struggled quite a bit until we realized we had to go all in and be involved in the construction process. Root is modeled as a start-up and is hierarchically flat, meaning we genuinely must wear multiple hats on a day-to-day basis.
CE: You get to a point as a design professional where you just get tired of excuses. You have clients that want to value-engineer the value-engineered drawings; you have contractors who say they can execute, and they can’t; and you have end users that tell you they want a pizza shop, and at the end of the day it’s just a bar. So we decided to put an end to those frustrations and try putting our money where our mouths are. Going through the process of originating a concept to designing it, to building it, to running it was crazy. We’re trained to be perfectionists, yet you find yourself in positions where a tile is offset from center, or a light isn’t centered over a table…and you look at them, all defeated and sad, and just think “Dammit.” You learn a thing or two about yourself and your profession when you wear all the hats. So to answer the question: Were our goals met? Absolutely. We executed a successful project that set the new standard for how architecture and construction should be done in our city.
SCR: How did running Working Capitol as well as your practice affect your pandemic experience?
RA: We learned that no matter how well executed the design is, economics and the market drive the ultimate financial success of a project. This was especially the case with Working Capitol, which relied on tenants and members, all of whom were struggling in their own respective businesses throughout the pandemic. Taking a real estate and developer mindset to the final architectural product allowed us to be better stewards of the ultimate concept, which is a place that provides for the needs of a collective people, in a certain time and in a certain place.
SCR: El Paso still seems to be in the process of rediscovering and redeveloping its older buildings — the Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park being a recent large-scale example downtown. What is your take on this, and what role does the architect-developer have to play in the city at the neighborhood level?
CE: We love it. El Paso has one of the most amazing collections of historic buildings in the region. Not only are the buildings there, but they are accessible. It’s not just a high money market here; smaller developers are also being able to get in the game. The most beautiful part of being an architect in El Paso is the endless possibilities we have and making a real difference in our community. It’s not just about drawing and building modern buildings; it’s about getting to re-stitch the urban fabric that made our city great. The rehabilitation, the revitalization, the ability to revive neighborhoods and communities — it’s incredible. As an architect, you have parameters, you have limitations. You’re given a set of rules, budget, scope, schedule. As a developer, you get to set those boundaries. You get to pick what flavor the project is going to have. When you get to play both sides, you really get to dig deep into the core of what the community needs. It’s one hand guiding the other. The end result is a well-thought-out plan of action that attempts to piece together all of the elements that make a community great.
SCR: How has the Texas Tech architecture program affected the design culture in the city?
RA: Prior to the founding of the Texas Tech architectural program in El Paso in 2007, there was no architectural degree program offered in El Paso. There is definitely a heightened interest and appreciation for the importance of both new and historic architecture in the city since the foundation of the program — particularly since many studio projects deal with specific binational border issues.
El Paso has a stock of highly influential building typologies that mark a golden age for architectural styles — not just regionally, but internationally. Many multi-story prototypes, such as slip-form concrete and multi-story concrete buildings, came to be in the El Paso context in the 1920s, during El Paso’s boomtown golden age. Because of Prohibition and other economic factors at the time, El Paso was a gateway into Mexico’s entertainment sector. The influx of an international audience promoted experimentation in such innovative building typologies.
Recently, Texas Tech has instituted a master’s in historic preservation. The program focuses on historic preservation and adaptive reuse and has further positioned the importance of the historic building stock in and around downtown El Paso.
SCR: What kinds of projects do you currently have on the books?
CE: We have two requirements for a project in the office: (1) Does it make the community better? (2) Does it make us better? We have been fortunate enough to be at a point where we can focus on projects we feel are instrumental in elevating whatever industry that project is in. We are working on charter schools, restaurants, single-family houses, historic rehab projects, a 400-ft residential tower, a medical park, and a brewery. One of the main reasons I switched to architecture from my early days as a biology/chemistry geek was that in architecture, I kind of had to become a micro-expert in everything. I would read, travel, taste, draw anything I could to get me closer to understanding what it was I needed to know. I designed a bourbon distillery once. I spent four months traveling with a master distiller learning everything I could about what he did. I mean, how else could it work for him if it wasn’t for him — or by him? It had to be the best. We are working on a charter school right now where the CEO wants to revolutionize the way education is delivered to students, and he wants the flagship to be in El Paso. We are ditching the idea of prison-like hallway designs and getting back to open spaces, natural light, interactive design concepts. It’s going to be amazing. We want to have just as much fun designing and building it as our clients do. That’s our secret.
Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.