Tucson was listed in the March Sunset magazine as one of the West's "20 Towns of the Future" for its "fresh, innovative and environmentally sound buildings."

That might surprise folks who have driven past miles of aging ranch homes in the city's center or explored the cookie-cutter sameness of subdivisions on its fringe.

Sunset focused on urban-infill pockets of creativity amid our boomtown sprawl, specifically citing architects Rob Paulus and the husband and wife team of Luis Ibarra and Teresa Rosano as part of a "new guard of architects and designers."

Those two firms have garnered local and regional design awards for their work in the past decade.

Paulus is known for his transformation of an 80-year-old icehouse into the sleek, modern Ice House Lofts and for the visual surprise of places such as Barrio Metalico.

Ibarra Rosano Design Architects uses a mix of modern and traditional materials to create open, airy spaces on tight lots.

Teresa Rosano said urban high style can be a hard sell in Tucson, which "still sees itself as a town."

"There are a handful of people doing exciting stuff," she said.

"I would definitely call Tucson a hub for fresh and innovative thinking about sustainable development," said Don Chatfield, the deputy director of operations for the Sonoran Institute, which encourages infill and environmental sensitivity with its biennial Building From the Best awards.

"We have a way to go to put that into practice as a norm," he said.

Part of the gap between thought and action, Paulus said, is a reluctance by some architects to take on their own building and financing. "If you can design and build, that's a complete commitment to your craft," he said. "I wish there were more design-savvy people doing it."

Anne-Marie Russell, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, said interest in architecture, specifically modernist architecture, is strong and growing, with 20 to 30 "top-tier architects" working in the form.

"If you want an architecture-designed home, Tucson is probably the most affordable place to do it," she said.

Russell said contemporary architecture expresses concepts from the region's earliest forms - the pit house, the pueblo, the adobe.

"They had to pay attention to light, to wind, to sun. All of these buildings were incredibly smart - cooling towers and thermal mass and sleeping porches."

Rosano, whose first building experience was helping her father make mud-adobe blocks for the family's Marana home, said the key is to allow the natural setting to dictate building concepts.

Our setting, she said, "requires a different way of thinking and a real understanding of place."

Paulus said Tucson's mild winters and "crazy sun" in summer offer "a clear diagram to design within."

Laura Shaw, senior vice president of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc., said any positive listing in a magazine such as Sunset is good news to her. "It's especially good to be recognized for a kind of creative uniqueness," she said.

"I always think about these rankings in terms of young professionals. A lot of young people are looking for unique, creative places to start families and careers."

Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com