Humanitarians first: Trey Trahan

May 15, 2022

Founder of Trahan Architects, a global architecture firm that mobilizes artistry and innovation to develop thoughtful structures that enhance quality of life.

By Liisa Andreassen

Trahan Architects (New Orleans, LA) is an award-winning firm, but Trahan, its founder, says he prefers not to dwell on accolades. The work, he says, is not about him, his firm, or even the buildings. It’s about creating spaces that evoke feeling and encourage kindness. He is continually exploring ways to cultivate generosity and inclusiveness in our relationships with each other and our environments. Trahan is commended for his innovative use of sustainable materials, stemming from his strong personal belief in the value of environmental conservancy and designing for racial and spatial equity in the built environment.

“I want to create beauty, be profitable, and have financial stability,” Trahan says. “I am constantly monitoring how we create the best product. I look at the big picture and also dive into the details. It’s about creating a balance between the two.”

A conversation with Trey Trahan.

The Zweig Letter: In your bio, you say: “A building can create something that goes beyond its walls.” Can you illustrate this with a recent example?

Trey Trahan: It has to do with thinking about the environment that a building can create. A building or series of buildings can take us to a place that makes us look within and challenges us to rethink ways of doing and being. Personally, I take inspiration from churches – not so much related to the spiritual aspect, but to creating clean, pure spaces. I enjoy bringing that aspect to the commercial space. It’s about creating a holistic community. The Alliance Theatre in New Orleans is an ideal example of what I mean here. The design team felt a responsibility to remove the separation between balcony and orchestra – challenging historic notions of segregation and discrimination. All seating zones can be accessed from every entrance within the chamber – a unifying planning feature of the Alliance Theatre Transformation.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

TT: Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face and a noted conservationist. He was a personal friend and I had the privilege of getting to know him and his wife, Kris, and staying with them for two weeks. He had a profound passion for preserving biodiversity and instilled in me the importance of investing in the world.

TZL: Open mindedness seems to be an important part of the firm’s culture. How do you ensure you’re hiring people who have the same ethos?

TT: It’s not so much about hiring people with that ethos as it is working to develop a group of colleagues who buy in to that culture. I often look for people who are on the edge of that culture or who challenge the overall ethos. You often get greater results this way. An ethos can be subtly shifted and that will often lead to a refinement of culture. We’re working to become more diverse and this is part of that.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

TT: I spend a great deal of time on it. It’s a daily game. I want to create beauty, be profitable, and have financial stability. I am constantly monitoring how we create the best product. I look at the big picture and also dive into the details. It’s about creating a balance between the two.

TZL: Collaboration is also a key culture component at your firm. Does that process look different post-COVID? Has the process evolved or changed? Why or why not?

TT: I’ve always believed in collaboration. Since COVID, we’ve become more transparent with clients. We used to just share information internally, but now it goes beyond that. COVID certainly challenged collaboration, but it also confirmed what was working and what wasn’t. It added a level of complexity that we’ve all learned from. When you collaborate virtually, sometimes misinterpretation can happen, but better things can sometimes come from that. For example, you may think, “Huh, I never thought of that, but it could work.”

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

TT: We make sure that clients have access to any and all information. We reassure them that we’re not taking unreasonable risks with their money and that leads to an appropriate level of confidence. Holding back information often leads to anxiety and that is something we certainly do not want to create.

TZL: Your structures seek to enhance quality of life. Can you tell me a little about that?

TT: We’re investing in historic properties in Louisiana and hoping to provide more accuracy to their histories by creating environments that will tell the story. We’re working to unearth the truth and hoping to bring healing to many communities. As architects, we have to be humanitarians first.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

TT: Around 15 years ago, I collaborated with a landscape architect and was surprised that he referred to his clients as “friends.” I used to put clients in a silo, but he shifted my thinking about that. We spend so much time with clients and they invest so much in us that it’s only natural a friendship should evolve if the relationship is managed well. You need to be open to creating deep and meaningful friendships with clients. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s fantastic.

TZL: Your firm has been ranked the number one design firm by Architect Magazine. What does this mean to you and to what do you most attribute the honor?

TT: Three things – clients, collaborators, and colleagues. I am so very grateful for all of them. So many people have given so much and I will always remember that. It’s a team sport and you have to remain thoughtful and mindful of the talent that surrounds you.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

TT: For years, our work was about “rootedness.” That was not enough. So, we created a 501(c)(3) – “Designing for Democracy.” This organization is in pursuit of gaining a better understanding of the history of the South and what that means to D&I. A growing interdisciplinary consortium of practitioners are using the DFD platform to spatially interrogate and actualize democratic values we strongly believe are intrinsically important in scaling a just and inclusive built environment. DFD’s framework is based on a spatial practice from the lens of healing, equity, and justice. This grounds the application of DFD’s tools and methods centered on transforming the conditions that inform, guide, and manifest our society. By humanizing data and harnessing empathy, we can achieve palpable results that can correct our built environment’s disparate impacts.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

TT: Giving them access to opportunities early on and trusting them. When you trust people, they’re responsive to that. That’s where success comes from. It’s fun and the impact is significant.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

TT: Redefining beauty. 

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