Going Big

Working at all scales, Lake Flato transforms from a regional player to a national powerhouse.

In 1980, David Lake, a young architect who had until then been building earth shelters in West Texas, and Ted Flato, then a recent Stanford graduate with a self-admitted “big attitude about design,” met at the office of the legendary Texas modernist O’Neil Ford. The septuagenarian Ford was weathering the storm of postmodernism by continuing to build as he always had: with a deep respect for indigenous architecture and local conditions. After his death, the two young architects came together in 1984 to found Lake Flato, a rapidly growing firm that has translated Ford’s concerns into a working philosophy for our present-day ecological crisis.

The past decade has been a transformative period at Lake Flato. With 66 employees working out of three floors of a retrofitted building in San Antonio, the firm, best known for site-sensitive regional design, has built an outsize national presence. “When it comes to working in our city, our opportunities have been working in the downtown core,” Flato says. “But as it happens with a design firm in a less design-oriented place, those opportunities are few. That’s why we do so much work in other parts of the country.”

By all measures, the practice has been remarkably successful in taking its hardy Texan ideas to projects across the United States, from San Diego to Louisville, Kentucky. The secret: context. To place after place, Lake Flato has applied three concepts—a deep understanding of each site and its climate, a keen eye for materials appropriate to the area, and a respect for history—creating some of the most sensitive and sustainable architecture in the country.

In the last six years, no fewer than four Lake Flato projects have been on the AIA Committee on the Environment’s annual Top Ten Green Projects list. The committee applies stringent criteria—from community engagement to post-occupancy evaluations—to find the best among structures that are already considered green by other standards. One of the projects that made the mark this year is Lake Flato’s design for the Polytechnic campus of Arizona State University (ASU) in Mesa, Arizona.

Like every project at the firm, the campus’s design began with understanding the site—600 acres of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, formerly the home of Williams Air Force Base. This meant a scorched, arid brownfield site—perfect conditions for Lake Flato. “That’s why they came to us,” says Andrew Herdeg, the partner in charge of the project. “They understood what we could offer them in terms of place-making.” The firm met the challenge with a spare, walkable, LEED Gold–certified campus that encourages students to interact with both their peers and their parched environment.

Four colleges and an auditorium are housed in five airy, industrial-looking buildings sheathed in perforated steel and Teflon-coated fabric. There are no air-conditioned hallways here. Students walk up outdoor staircases and greet each other in open atria—Herdeg refers to them as breezeways—that channel cool air into the buildings while letting heat escape through the saw-toothed, solar-panel-ready roofs. The buildings are organized around intimate courtyards that are sized for optimum shade. In place of the obligatory campus lawn, Lake Flato partnered with Ten Eyck Landscape Architects to rip out the air force base’s tarmac and replace it with a desert mall: a walkway shaded by local vegetation that doubles as a giant, 14-acre bioswale. The courtyards collect storm water and channel it to the mall, meeting more than half of the site’s irrigation needs. Not a drop of water is wasted. The ASU Polytechnic campus makes it impossible to forget that you’re in the desert, but it also manages to make the harsh landscape enjoyable. “For a firm from Texas, the easiest things to export have been landscape-based projects—that’s really our unique place in the design world,” Flato says.

“I like to say that what we do is ‘ranch tech,’ ” says Greg Papay, a partner at the firm. (“But saying that has gotten us into trouble a couple of times,” Herdeg interjects.) It is an accurate description, because many hallmarks of a Lake Flato project—courtyards, porches, and the emphasis on ventilation—can be found in traditional ranches. Twenty-first-century techniques like BIM and energy audits are layered on top of that deep foundation. “Working with harsh climates and with people who want to be part of the outdoors, we naturally approached architecture in a very sustainable way,” Flato says. “But over the last ten or fifteen years we’ve added more science and added more rigor.” Taking on Architecture 2030’s challenge to achieve carbon neutrality in the next 18 years has provided a keener edge to the their efforts. “The younger people in the firm are pushing back,” he says, “making us evaluate some of our intuitive decisions.”

As with all architecture offices, material fads come and go at Lake Flato, some of them indeed informed by the science of sustainability (corrugated steel would appear to be a current favorite). But the firm has a basic, unshakable belief in local materials that dates back to the early days in O’Neil Ford’s office. “It was a perfect graduate school for David and me,” Flato says. “It was great to finally come back to what an edge-detail is, and how the stone comes together. You could just taste it in the way O’Neil would discuss things with us. A lot of times, that rigor at the small scale can be applied to the larger scale.” The craft of construction, together with an understanding of local climate, context, and history, has been a driving force in Lake Flato’s work since the early days, and is especially key to the success of its adaptive-reuse projects.

In 2005, when Bill Armstrong, president of Denver’s Armstrong Oil & Gas company, wanted to convert a derelict, hundred-year-old machine shop into his company’s headquarters, he knew where to turn. The brick building, with its steel girders and old machine parts, seemed tailor-made for Lake Flato’s love of historical materials. “I’d had a really great experience working with Lake Flato on my home, and because of that, I felt confident when I showed them this wreck of a building,” Armstrong says. “I knew that they would have a great vision for it.”

That vision first entailed an archaeology of sorts, explains Brian Korte, an associate at the firm. “We blasted all the new paint off the walls to expose the brick underneath,” he says. “When the old signage of the building showed up, we decided to leave it as it was.” The team also decided to leave the shell and the structure intact—except for opening up a large courtyard at the heart of the building that floods the office with daylight. Korte, who is also a fine fabricator and craftsman, worked after-hours for seven months to create custom furniture out of the old timber salvaged from the building. “The office has a gritty, late-1800s look to it, but also a great modern feel,” says Armstrong, who has had four years to get used to the space. “That makes it such a joy to work in every day.”

Both of these strands of contextual design—concern for the environment and an understanding of history—have led Lake Flato to its larger urban role in San Antonio. Making efficient individual buildings is challenging enough, but “the bigger problem is making the city a more sustainable place,” Flato says. “We’re lucky, being in a place like San Antonio. It’s got history, it’s got texture, and it’s more interesting. You can work off that to create a more sustainable place.”
A couple miles north of downtown, the San Antonio River snakes past the nineteenth-century stone warehouses of the Pearl Brewing Company. Once the largest producer of beer in the state, the brewery fell on hard times and shut down in 2001. “I grew up in San Antonio, and this was a scary part of town when I was in high school,” says Todd Wascher, an architect at the firm. “There was this haunted house down there, where we used to dare each other to go. There were some scary people here.” The haunted house still stands, but since 2002, Lake Flato has worked to redevelop the brewery’s 26-acre site into an exciting mixed-use village, creating a master plan, overseeing the work of other architects, and designing three of its own LEED Gold–certified adaptive-reuse projects on the site.

The decade-long effort is paying off. The old brewery warehouse, now a LEED Gold building with one of the largest solar-panel arrays in the state, is home to nonprofits like the Texas Nature Conservancy and the San Antonio chapter of the AIA. Locals flock to the farmers’ market held in the courtyard every Saturday, and they return on weeknights to dine at restaurants run by award-winning chefs. Occasionally, films are screened in a grassy amphitheater that looks over the river and its adjoining wetlands.

“A lot of thought went into decisions like the width of the walkways and the height of the sidewalks,” Herdeg says. “This project has been a great way for us to build expertise in urban design.” Salvaged materials from the brewery act as highlights throughout the site—beer filters became a chandelier, rusty cogs ornament the facade of one building, and the original vats are an important part of the development’s water-management system. Old blurs into new; every renovated building uses distinctive yellow bricks named for the Texan town of Malakoff, where they are produced—some of them are 200 years old, while the rest were sourced recently from the few brick makers who still produce them.

By the time the final phases of construction are completed in 2014, the site will have 340 residential units, an events space, and a 200-room hotel in the beautiful nineteenth-century brew house. In all likelihood, downtown San Antonio will expand to envelop this new community. The redevelopment of Pearl is just one of the ways the firm is changing its hometown. South of that site, at 1221 Broadway, Lake Flato converted some half-constructed shells of apartment buildings into a complex of highly sought-after rentals. And as part of the city’s vision for 2020, the firm has developed a River North Plan for the upper stretches of the San Antonio River.

The firm seems ready to export its experiences with urbanism to other places in Texas, and beyond. Lake recently spent a month traveling to prepare a proposal for Waller Creek in Austin; the office is also working on a master plan for the waterfront of Flato’s hometown of Corpus Christi. “In Austin, which is a really great place, we’re just building to add to it,” Flato says. “But a place like Corpus Christi has struggled. It’s a beautiful little town on the water. It has potential, but it has been 70 years now that people have been talking about its bright potential.”

As Lake Flato expands its own reach and potential, taking on projects on larger and larger scales, it has become critical for the firm to manage the growth of its office while staying true to the credo of context-specific design. “We’ve been lucky enough in building a strong philosophy that people can identify with,” Flato says, “so we get people who move here from all over the country to work with us. The trick has been allowing that talent to have places to go to and opportunities within the firm.” As a result, people have had extraordinarily long careers with Lake Flato. Interns often come back as employees, and employees who leave to start their own practices often return as collaborators, all of them infused with faith in the Lake Flato way. “When we started out, it was all about doing great work,” Flato says. “But if someone asked me today, I think this is what I am most proud of—building this team.”

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