2018 was a banner year for Lake|Flato Architects. The 108-person firm, based in San Antonio and Austin, won a COTE Top Ten Award for the Georgia Tech Krone Engineered Biosystems Building and an AIA/ALA Library Building Award for the Austin Central Library. Founders Ted Flato, FAIA, and David Lake, FAIA, also received the O’Neil Ford Medal for Design Achievement from the Texas Society of Architects. That award recognized the firm’s 35 years of bringing regionally sensitive Modernism and sustainable design to the state, and it felt particularly poignant given that the architects first met at Ford’s firm before starting their own studio in 1984. “He was our mentor and he taught us well,” Lake says. From the start, “our principle passion has been to merge the built environment with the natural environment, and the contextual and cultural environments as well.”
All of which helps explain how Lake|Flato claimed the Number One spot overall in this year’s Architect 50. The firm especially excelled in the sustainability and design categories. “Gorgeous projects, inflected by a western U.S. regionalism,” the design judges wrote about the firm’s portfolio. “Each feels rooted in its place.” That sensitivity to place also impressed the sustainability judges, particularly in regard to the Marine Education Center at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, completed last year. Located along the Mississippi coast, the center’s previous buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the site was hit again in 2017 by Hurricane Nate. The design team spent months consulting with biologists and site ecologists to find the location least damaging to nature yet most protected from natural disaster. The judges lauded the “ecologically sensitive scheme that considered the holistic impact of the project upon place.” The center is expected to consume 46% less energy than the national average for a similar collection of buildings.
Lake|Flato projects begin with an integrated design charrette that includes owners and users, as well as interested participants and citizens. “We set metrics for building performance, building resiliency, and regenerative principles at the start, and it creates goal posts for us to aspire to in the design,” Lake says. “We listen to the potential users. We listen to the land. We really want the best ideas and we have been incredibly fortunate to have owners who share our aspirations.”
That relationship with owners cultivates a rare commitment to post-occupancy work. Lake|Flato has signed on to the AIA 2030 Commitment, and “the only way to confirm that our buildings are meeting that high bar is post-occupancy,” Lake says. The firm maintains a residential energy monitoring program that tracks performance of its projects, and it coaches occupants on how to best use their buildings after handing over the keys.
The firm’s founders credit their outstanding year in part to a healthy studio culture, supported by strong employee benefits and reflected by the low employee turnover in 2018 of just 4%. Today, Lake and Flato continue to take cues from O’Neil Ford. “What I’m loving is mentoring the future leaders and partners of this studio, who are incredibly talented,” Lake says. “We get great joy in watching them progress and evolve.”
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