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David Lake and Ted Flato founded Lake | Flato Architects in 1984 in San Antonio. They started their practice designing ranch houses in Texas, but in the intervening decades have created a diverse portfolio that includes schools, workplaces, and mixed-used developments spread throughout the country. The duo, whose projects are characterized by an attention to craft and a respect for nature, are the joint recipients of the 2024 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Known for ultra-high-performing buildings, Lake | Flato has earned 15 AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Awards—more than any other firm—and it achieved the first Living Building certification in Texas. RECORD deputy editor Joann Gonchar spoke with Flato and Lake about their design philosophy and approach to practice.


Lake | Flato has expanded over the years, now with 150 staff mem­bers and a second office in Austin. At that size, how have you maintained the firm’s culture?

Lake Flato Architects Office.

Lake | Flato Architects’ San Antonio office. Photo © Nic Lehoux, click to enlarge.

Ted Flato: One of the things that has been really helpful is our space in San Antonio. During Covid, we decided to remodel the office that we’d been in for almost 40 years. The experience of being apart informed how we would come back together after the pandemic. Though we had outgrown it, we realized we could make our desks smaller, create more thoughtful shared space, and—most importantly—create an incredible outdoor gathering space. We took away an area where we used to park our cars and turned it into a courtyard. We have lunch there together every week. We host a farmer’s market. Even though we now have 150 people, it doesn’t feel very big. It’s a very collaborative office because that’s how we began. David and I began as a team.


How do you organize the office, according to skill sets or by project type?

David Lake: We like to consider ourselves galloping generalists, but we do have studios. We have a residential studio, a K–12 studio, a higher-ed studio, and an ecology/conservation studio, which designs everything from visitors centers to eco-hospitality projects. Another studio focuses on making our downtowns and our cities’ cores more vibrant, doing urban planning, civic buildings, and a lot of adaptive reuse. Each studio is led by one or two partners.


Given this setup, how do you instill a sense of ownership of the work among the staff?

TF: We have design reviews where different studios review other studios’ work. That promotes engagement around design and discussion about philosophy. Those are things that end up creating group ownership, but it goes back to starting a firm rooted in collaboration.


You have consistently created sustainable, environmentally sensitive buildings. How have you managed to maintain such high levels of performance?

Austin Central Library.

Austin Central Library. Photo © Nic Lehoux

DL: You have to be aspirational at the start. In the case of the Austin Central Library, the client came to us in late 2008 and said, “We want a LEED Silver building,” which was a city requirement. Then we sat down and started talking about what it was that they wanted and how it could be better. We said, “You’re in Austin, the library should be the city’s living room. It should be Platinum. It should be as close to net-zero water as possible.” The process teaches people that you can aspire to these things and achieve them. That’s really the fun of what we do: bringing everybody along.


Is there a common thread that ties your buildings together?

DL: From the very beginning, Ted and I felt that architecture should bring down the walls between us and nature. And that philosophy yields buildings that are connected to each place. It takes the idea of critical regionalism and pushes it forward with technology, innovation, and construction. We love building things. We love detailing things. You take the culture and the climate and the context of each place, and you overlay that with craft and local resources. Then you balance that with habitat conservation and the sciences of engineering.


Your projects not only seek to connect people to the landscape, but often to heal it, and, in addition, be socially restorative. Can you explain how?

TF: In Dallas, we are working with Michael Van Valkenburgh’s office along the Trinity River, which slices through the city and separates east and west. The idea is to create a park as a bridge. Our site is a brownfield containing an old steel industrial structure that will form part of the armature of a garden. The new buildings that we’re designing will pick up on that industrial character. It should be transformative for the city and for an underserved part of Dallas. The challenge is strengthening the neighborhood instead of completely changing it. The project, Harold Simmons Park, should start construction next year.

Harold Simmons Park.

Harold Simmons Park. Image courtesy of Lake | Flato


Lake | Flato has repurposed more than 3 million square feet of buildings. What makes this work so attractive to you?

DL: The beauty of repurposing is, it’s the most sustainable move we can make—clearly. But also, it brings out our inner ingenuity, because we’ve got to find a new use for an old building. But more importantly, it’s also keeping the historic fabric of the city in place and strengthens the city and urban districts by inserting new uses. So that’s always been a great love. We had that at the Pearl Brewery, master-planning that whole 26-acre district in San Antonio, and thinking about how to reuse half a million square feet of old buildings. It required us to think about experience and district-making, what draws people to a place, and what will keep them there.

The Pearl Brewery.

The Pearl Brewery redevelopment (2013) in San Antonio. Photo © Lara Swimmer


What do you hope that other architects take from your work?

TF: We’ve got an enormous challenge ahead of us—we architects and we the planet. One architect, or one firm of 150 people, can’t solve it. So it’s really about creating a design approach that others can embrace. If others see us as an inspiration for their own work, and do it better, that’s great.

Join RECORD on April 17 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Media Lab for Sustainability in Practice, a special half-day event with featured speakers including Carol Ross Barney, Mario Cucinella, Felix Heisel, and David Lake and Ted Flato.