By Drew Allen, AIA | Project Architect, AECOM | Chair, Editorial Committee
When people reminisce about the past, especially when it comes to the subject of starting a company, you can expect some of the usual stories to surface. From waxing poetic about the aspirations of setting out on one’s own to recounting the many trials overcome that led to successes achieved. While these stories and retellings are often heartfelt and paint the road to current success with an ephemeral glow of the past, that is not the story of Lake|Flato.
Lake|Flato’s humble beginnings firmly influence their design today. Their past has not been filed away as some distant memory to bring up over happy hours or conference keynotes, but instead is continuously evolving and guiding their work today, even as projects become larger and more complex.
To learn more, we caught up with David Lake, founding partner and keynote speaker at the AIA Colorado Practice + Design Conference. He spoke to us while enjoying the late summer breeze on a covered porch like those that put his firm on the map. Nestled among the massive shade trees outside of San Antonio, he spoke poetically of how he started out in architecture constructing solar adobe ranch homes in the Panhandle of Texas.
“It’s about creating a connection to the outdoors and to nature,” he said. This sort of “pre-modern” architecture, a basic shelter with a connection to the land, was informed by the vernacular architecture of the place and drew from the local responses to climate through materiality, orientation, and construction methods. This is the sort of mindset that continues to influence the work of Lake|Flato more than 30 years later.
Though Lake|Flato has moved beyond creating adobe ranch homes in the wide-open countryside of Texas, the focus on architecture of its place and the use of primitive, passive systems has been the bedrock foundation of their practice. However, as the buildings grew in complexity, additional layers of building systems were added to the tapestry of their designs. This is where Heather Holdridge, a partner and Director of Sustainability, truly makes her mark on the practice.
Holdridge’s focus at Lake|Flato has been to take the founding ideals of creating place sensitive architecture with an emphasis on environmentalism and integrate them into more and more complex programming. This can most clearly be seen through the new Austin Central Library, which relies almost solely on daylighting for more than 80 percent of its programmed spaces. Additionally, the passive system approach led to a reduced mechanical load and a LEED Platinum rating. Through Holdridge’s leadership and Lake’s foundational ideals, they were able to guide the project from a place where LEED was not on the table to a building shaped through daylighting models and the guiding passive principals rooted in the Texas Panhandle of decades past.
Lake|Flato has made its mark on the architecture world through creating thoughtful and meaningful place-based architecture. With an eye toward the AIA 2030 Challenge and beyond, they have taken on the mantle of environmental stewardship that led them to more COTE Top 10 Awards than nearly any other firm in the country and the title of Architect magazine’s 2019 Firm of the Year. The layers of science and technology overlaid on top of the principles of an architecture rooted into the land are what led to Kengo Kuma to say of them, “… Their work is beautifully efficient and efficiently beautiful. The architecture is richly human at its core. The results are poetic. In any design by Lake|Flato, I sense the sparkle, joy, and beauty of life being offered to us.”