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How An Architecture Firm Instills Values in Future Leaders

Tara Wanda Merrigan, Writer September 18, 2019

When Indian Springs School, a private school nestled in the hills outside Birmingham, Alabama, needed an architectural overhaul, it was not the kind of run-of-the-mill project that could borrow from typical education designs. Founded in 1952 with the aim of bringing world-class secondary school education to the Deep South, Indian Springs prides itself on its innovative spirit and student-directed curriculum. Furthermore, the school grounds had been designed by the Olmsted Brothers, a famed landscape architecture firm run by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Projects like the Indian Springs School redesign are the kind of challenging project that Lake|Flato, a 34-year-old architecture firm based in San Antonio, Texas, relishes. The project would require careful attention to detail and a thorough understanding of the school’s desire to balance its heritage with its progressive educational practices. So when Indian Springs asked Lake|Flato to devise a new master plan for its campus, the firm’s leaders decided they would spend several days living on campus “before there was a sketch even penned.”

Watch the video on Lake|Flato’s exploration of impact and longevity.

During their visit, Brandi Rickels and Greg Papay, the associate partner and partner (respectively) who lead Lake|Flato’s education-focused design studio, attempted to understand Indian Springs students’ experience of the campus as much as possible. “We spent a couple nights in their dorms, walked on the campus, paddled on the lake, ate in the cafeteria, to look, to listen, to observe, and be as immersed as possible,” says Rickels. “I think we would never be so presumptuous to say that we know exactly how any of our clients feel at any moment, but we try to get a personal sense of their experience so that we can respond to them accordingly.”

Lake|Flato has distinguished itself as an architecture firm by building natural, human-centered designs in accordance with founders David Lake and Ted Flato’s deeply held beliefs: that projects should be grounded in their local context and use as many regional materials as possible. It is this ethos that has helped propel Lake|Flato from a boutique Texas-based firm specializing in residential projects to a 120-person strong company that has created award-winning designs across the country.

As the firm continues to expand, second-generation leaders like Rickels and Papay have had to contend with questions of sustainability and change as they step into leadership roles and the founders become less hands-on.

While values like a commitment to connecting people with nature and use of natural resources remain a constant source of direction and inspiration, with growth comes new ideas and evolving principles. When thinking of how to best describe the architecture firm, Rickels reflects, “If there were a metaphor for Lake|Flato, I think it would be a river.” Much like a river, Lake|Flato has begun to flex beyond its original focus, jumping its banks as the firm brings on new employees and new projects. “David and Ted have very much ingrained in us a collaborative approach to working from the outset, and I think it’s really our responsibility as we’ve continued to evolve the leadership at Lake|Flato to grow that,” says Papay.

BUILDINGS AS A BRIDGE

In 1984, Lake|Flato was begun with “a number of strong ideas” about how the firm would approach building design. Founders David Lake and Ted Flato wanted to create buildings based on the philosophy that the built environment should be sensitive to human experience and natural contexts. Having both grown up in Texas, Lake and Flato had a strong connection to the landscape around them, but they felt that other architectural firms were overlooking how the built environment can connect to its natural surroundings and vice versa. Lake|Flato architects see this approach to design as an act of “regeneration,” allowing humans and nature to thrive side by side, a practice that stands in stark contrast to the short-sighted, environmentally harmful practices that some architects may use.

It’s a principle that continues to define Lake|Flato’s projects even as the firm takes on projects for clients ranging from commercial enterprises and hotels to educational institutions and community centers. “Our goal is to have buildings be a bridge between human beings and the landscape, so they’re not actually put up as defensive mechanisms to keep the natural environment and human beings separated,” says Papay. In a basic sense, this means that Lake|Flato strives to use as few building materials from outside a project’s respective region as possible.

A focus on sustainability has been a natural outgrowth of the founders’ philosophy, adding another dimension to the architects’ desire to create buildings that fit with their natural setting. Firm leaders saw sustainability as such a crucial pillar to maintaining and expanding the Lake|Flato vision; when the 2008 financial crisis hit, leadership had to step back and look at the longevity of the firm, choosing to let some employees go while retaining their newly-formed sustainability office. This dedication has paid off and has resulted in numerous LEED certifications and, in recent years, 11 national “Top Ten Projects” awards from the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment.

When approaching sustainability for a new design, Lake|Flato architects will first consider how building orientation, shading, natural ventilation and rainwater collection can be utilized and incorporated into a given design to passively lower a structure’s energy consumption. These passive strategies, largely borrowed from the simple yet efficient techniques of pre-modern architects, provide solid footing for the architects to then think about active strategies — using renewable energy sources, powered ventilation systems, etc. — that will help a client achieve their goals for reduced energy consumption.

Lake|Flato takes this concern for the environment to the next logical step, thinking about how the very materials used in a project could affect the environment. When redesigning two visitors’ centers in Mississippi that had been devastated by a hurricane, the firm architects were keenly aware that not only should these new buildings be as hurricane-resistant as possible, but that they should also consider the possibility that a natural disaster may someday destroy them. “It meant looking very closely at the materials,” says Rickels. “It wasn’t so much where the materials were coming from but what were they made of, such that when the next hurricane comes — because it certainly will — the building hopefully withstands the storm but whatever doesn’t, as it’s moving downstream, is not negatively or adversely affecting the rest of the ecosystem.”

TIMELESS AESTHETICS & IMMINENT CHANGES

While Papay and Rickels say that Lake|Flato architects prefer to center how people will experience their buildings and how their buildings will interact with their local context — the firm does not believe in “design for design’s sake” — aesthetics are a significant point of consideration during the design process. “Our architecture is timeless in a way,” says Papay. He adds: “We couldn’t be any further from the centers of fashion in the world, but this means you get to think about the essence of what you should be doing when you do your work.”

“Timeless” is a word that Papay and Rickels frequently use to describe how Lake|Flato thinks about its designs. The hope is that through focusing on the essential aspects of a given project, Lake|Flato buildings will be as relevant in 50 years as they are in the current moment. But, as the architecture firm’s founders begin the process of transitioning out of leadership roles, Papay and Rickels also aim to ensure that the firm’s core values continue to define its work. They want the spirit that distinguishes the company’s designs today to continue to shape Lake|Flato’s work in the years to come.

In the first 15 years of Lake|Flato’s existence, founders David Lake and Ted Flato worked on every project that the firm brought in. This level of involvement in some ways guaranteed that building plans would align with the values Lake and Flato had in mind when they started their firm. But as Lake|Flato has hired more architects and promoted more employees to partner, the founders have taken a less hands-on role in projects.

Today, the founders’ contributions to most projects come in the form of participating in brainstorming sessions, known in the architecture world as “design charrettes.” Partners like Rickels and Papay spearhead projects, overseeing day-to-day work and ensuring that the final plans meet clients’ needs. The result of the founders’ transition from project lead to mentor roles has meant that in recent years, many of Lake|Flato’s most notable projects — including the majority of the buildings honored with the Committee on the Environment award — were not led by either founder.

And yet, because Lake and Flato have so crucially shaped the company’s vision and unique orientation, the founders still loom large at the company. “They’ve had such a profound impact on the company from its inception through to today,” says Papay.

DELIBERATE DESIGN

Rickels says that second-generation leaders such as Papay and herself must work to sustain the firm’s existing values while allowing younger employees room to grow and make meaningful contributions. By focusing on collaboration, Rickels believes that Lake|Flato becomes at its heart a collective, rather than an operation helmed by its namesake members. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re recognizing the younger partners, the younger staff, so that the firm gets seen as a collection of contributors, rather than two founders,” says Rickels. “We’ve been very deliberate.”

In a literal sense, Lake|Flato’s office setup lends itself well to this kind of open, democratic working style. The firm is divided into six studios, each of which comprise about 15 team members, all focused on a specific type of project. Fashioned in the “open office” style, Lake|Flato studios don’t have vertical barriers to separate employees from each other. Furthermore, there is no difference in how office space is allotted. Partners’ seating area is no bigger or better than the junior staff members.

“We have only horizontal surfaces in the office and it makes just standing up and talking and communicating really comfortable, really easy,” says Papay. “When anybody walks into our space — a potential client, consultant, new hire, whoever it might be — I think they just feel like everybody gets the same opportunity to contribute, and I think that’s unique in a world that sometimes has too much hierarchy.”

Studio leaders like Papay and Rickels make a point of checking in with younger employees, informally and formally. With consistent communication, Papay and Rickels help newer team members stay aligned with the company’s key values. “Usually if you feel like something is starting to head off on a funny course, you can gently nudge it right at the beginning and you don’t have to make a lot of course corrections,” says Papay.

More formal design reviews are used as a forum for partners to offer encouragement and critique of fledgling architects’ work, particularly for pro-bono projects. A member of the 1% Initiative, Lake|Flato donates one percent of its total annual project hours to non-profit clients who couldn’t otherwise afford to work with the firm. These projects offer less experienced team members an opportunity to take on more responsibility and learn by doing.

HIRING AS VALUE ALIGNMENT

Beyond creating a collaborative environment among existing employees, Papay and Rickels say that thoughtful hiring practices have been and will continue to be an important way that Lake|Flato maintains its identity. As a firm based outside the architecture hubs of New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago, Lake|Flato likely receives a pool of job candidates that has already seen some self-selection. But Lake|Flato leaders still carefully vet each potential new employee, first through a review of their portfolio. Oftentimes, Rickels and Papay say, it’s evident to Lake|Flato whether or not a candidate shares the company’s values just based on looking at their previous work. A series of interviews, including a daylong, in-office visit, help flesh out whether a candidate is a good fit.

“I like to think of the world of architecture as kind of a pie, and our wedge is a set of values that align right in here. We’re very comfortable hiring anybody who aligns with our values,” says Papay. “But we’re also super comfortable hiring people right at the edge of those values, because we want to test those edges often to make sure that our direction and alignment is going in the right direction.”

Rickels says she does not worry that the firm will stray from the essential approach that has propelled Lake|Flato to its current stature. “Preserving the values of Lake Flato — I do not see that as a challenge,” says Rickels. “I think that it is a strength of ours. I think the work is what really roots us all.”

Looking to the future, Papay sees a Lake|Flato that has expanded beyond its San Antonio headquarters and Austin, Texas, satellite office and is making a greater contribution to shaping the built environment nationwide, while continuing to grow internally and preserve the values that have characterized the firm to this point. “I hope we are seen as a vibrant community that is always evolving, that we’re not plateauing, and that we continue to learn more about how we can be a better business and be a better practice, and build better buildings,” says Papay.


REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • What are Lake|Flato’s core values?
  • How do these values permeate through the company?
  • How does the role of second-generation owners differ from the role of founders?
  • What are some ways in which second-generation owners can maintain the founders’ values?
  • What are some ways in which second-generation owners evolve and change let go the founders’ values, such that the firm will continue to thrive and stay relevant?
  • How would you vet new Lake|Flato hires?

Watch the video on Lake|Flato’s exploration of impact and longevity.