Lake|Flato Architects grew out of a rivalry between two young upstarts in the office of Texas modernist O’Neil Ford. David Lake and Ted Flato had joined the famed San Antonio architect’s practice several years after graduation—Lake from the University of Texas at Austin and Flato from Stanford—and were soon paired on a bank project.
As Flato recalls, “I thought fairly highly of my abilities at the time, and Ford put the two of us together to see what sparks would fly. There wasn’t really room for two people on the project, but we tried to stay in the same boat.”
When the pair ultimately presented two projects, the bank board liked both designs so much that they suggested combining them. “We realized how much we admired the other person’s talents, so something that started out as warfare turned into a lifelong friendship,” Flato says.
Several years later, when Ford died suddenly, the men struck out on their own, mixing their mentor’s enthusiasm for how buildings are made with their own ideas about living with the land. Since its founding in 1984, Lake|Flato has expanded from a small custom residential practice to an internationally recognized 90-person office with studios devoted to institutional and civic work, educational campuses, “buildings in the landscape” such as immersive visitor centers, and urban mixed-use projects. An Austin, Texas, office is slated to open in March.
Lake|Flato’s early work revolved around ranch and mountain homes that blended modernism with the practical ingenuity of systems at hand. Before net-zero was a buzzword, Lake’s designs drew on his university studies with Pliny Fisk of the Austin-based Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, who was building wind energy plants and trying to create houses that could operate offline. Lake also had spent time building earth-sheltered solar adobe houses for farmers on the Texas Panhandle. “I’ve always felt like architecture should change the way we interact with nature,” he says, “and that great architecture intrinsically links you with the natural realm.”
As emerging technology raised the bar on energy and water efficiency, Flato and Lake added scientific rigor to their intuitive approach. The architects monitor every home they design to follow how and where it is using energy and water and to help track their progress toward the 2030 Challenge, which sets greenhouse gas reduction targets for new and renovated buildings. Lessons learned from monitoring can be scaled up or down, and much of the firm’s focus these days is on large-scale work such as San Antonio’s Pearl Brewery, a 2,000-unit mixed-use project that continues to grow. “It’s rewarding to work on making our cities better by bringing more density and mixed use to neighborhoods that have never met their potential,” Lake says.
The founding partners find equal satisfaction, it seems, in helping employees meet their potential. Residential client Laura Walls observed that dynamic recently. “The combination of people they had working on the project was fascinating to me,” she says. “A young architect just out of school was our daily contact with the firm. I enjoyed watching Ted bring him along and train him so beautifully. It was a very pleasant experience to work with old and new.”
The work is about building influence, and also about building for the future, Flato says. “Once you build up a practice, you can only do a certain number of buildings. Even when people leave our office, they’re part of our club and we’re part of the things they do,” he says. “We’re getting real talent and continue to have a vibrant place where people have all the tools to take over.”