Profile: Lisa Lamkin, AIA

Profile: Lisa Lamkin, AIA

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James Adams
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Profile: Lisa Lamkin, AIA

[Editor’s note: Italicized portions did not previously appear in the print version of Columns magazine.]

A self-described techie, Lisa Lamkin, principal at Brown Reynolds Watford Architects, continues to push the envelope within the AIA Dallas Chapter. This time around it is in the capacity of president for 2014. Before a reception at the Dallas Center for Architecture, we sat down in Lisa’s office to discuss what got her into this profession and the passion that continues to drive her success.

As the president of AIA Dallas, you have been preparing for your role for some time. What are your primary goals for 2014 for the chapter?

Outgoing Chapter President Kirk Teske kicked off last year with a new strategic plan focusing on key areas of communication, education, advocacy, and networks. This motivated us to work on how we serve our members, specifically through communication. I am really passionate for the new opportunity with our website as a springboard to engagement. The thinking that went into our new website and the process that we are asking the committees to engage with it will allow for a better network of communication.

It’s important to leverage the physical location of the Dallas Center for Architecture with a complementary digital DCFA space. I’m really excited about working with all of the committees to focus on how they can serve the members and how the members can engage with their interests.

What do you see in the future for Columns and how it fits in as a publication?

It would be radical for an architect to say that printed books and magazines are ever going away. So much of the communication that we engage with is like a string that floats by us. Digital communication is not pinned down. You generally never go back and look at your Facebook archives, even from a month ago. It is just a flow of information.

There is always going to be a demand for a record of a place and time. Columns is a perfect example of a quality way of accomplishing that. Now it talks about broader themes in a quarterly way that you want to keep for review. It is an archive of our profession. Whether or not it becomes digital, I think it will always be a volume of curated information that is packaged beautifully.

Personally, I have recently done something radical. For 25 years I have saved all my received publications. Recently, I have recycled it and kept only about the most recent five years’ worth, because frankly there is this thing called the Internet; and I still buy books. They are volumes of beauty; well-crafted art objects to cherish.

What are the biggest challenges you have seen for the architectural community in recent history?

That is a really simple question for a really complex set of issues. I think our challenge is not forgetting that, at its core, what makes great architecture is that people want to experience it.

All of our architectural exploration and all of the spaces that we care so much about are changing because of the acceleration of technology. Schools in particular are very much linked to how the workplace is changing. If we are not careful we will educate kids to go out to a work force that no longer exists. What we really care about in the workforce is people who know how to collaborate and engage in networked communities of innovation to come up with great ideas. Technology is a real opportunity. Information is no longer scarce. The library is being transformed from a physical container for a scarce resource to a nexus for potential connections.

Schools are changing, the workplace is changing, and the cubicle farms are going away. The walls are coming down. Recently, we literally tore all our systems cubicles down here at BRW. It was a vast improvement! Our library here is the same thing. We used to have walls and walls of catalogs, but we don’t use nearly as much now. We go on the Internet. This shift has occurred really quickly. The first 25 years of my work experience didn’t change nearly as much as the last five. It’s an exponential curve.

What do you think we as a profession are doing best to handle these challenges for the greater good of our society?

The mainstreaming of sustainability is something that we have done really well. At some level all good architects are sustainability experts. If you are a good architect, you know about the important and necessary components of good buildings including aesthetics, daylighting, comfort, acoustics, and technology.

Sustainability is notably important to you. What do you see in the future for LEED?

LEED is a great tool: a means to an end and not the end itself. Architects have a unique talent for leading the collaboration in the execution of a building. I think the expertise and vision that architects bring to sustainability is really important.

At some point, the designation of architecture itself will begin to embrace those skills, just like we need to know about structures and many other things. But as a bridge to that, I think that LEED AP was necessary. I certainly went out and got it. It’s the benchmark that I have this additional knowledge set. What is good about the U.S. Green Building Council is that it brings other industries together in collaboration.

As a past president of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, North Texas Chapter, what role do architects play in achieving the organization’s goal of “...improving the places where children learn”?

What is great about the organization is that it complements and does not compete with the AIA. It brings all of the people who make great schools together in one place: the client, the architects, the contractors, the vendors, the facilities team, and the community at large. It brings them into the conversation about what makes great schools in a way that an organization serving the single profession and its broader focus cannot accomplish.

Classrooms can’t be locked into the “sage on the stage” method of teaching with a desk upfront with no way to easily move it around. In that scenario, there is only one place to be and the lighting and the audio-visual do not work optimally unless the students are sitting in rows.

Technology serves us; we do not serve technology. It is a tool for assisting innovation, learning, and collaboration. We really have to look at designing spaces for the curriculum that hasn’t been developed yet and also really look at how the content is delivered. Adapting to what we learn is what architects really do.

You’re noted as a leader of technology and technical documentation within your firm. What drives your passion for this area of expertise?

At the University of Michigan, students were required to take a programming class in architecture school because they knew that computers were going to be important in the future of the profession. There was no personal computer when I started in architecture school. I graduated at a time when one drew with a pencil. The real craft of drawing was something that I spent enough years doing that I really appreciated it. Then the computer evolved fairly quickly after that, from a toy to a tool, and that was the thing you were going to learn if you were to get ahead.

I ended up learning more than anyone else. I was the CAD person. I was always frustrated with how bad the software was, so I was always writing little automated shortcuts to make it better. I’m proud to say our BIM director today is 14 years younger than I am. She started her career using CAD. That’s an interesting generational change. I have an appreciation for how to maintain the craft of documenting the project and still do it with computers. There was a time when you either drew it on the computer and it looked terrible or you drew it by hand and it looked pretty. I am a champion for the visual quality of our communication.

However when I am talking with people, I will roll out the sketch paper because it is still so much easier to look at the layers and choices together in this format!

Woodrow Wilson High School—a Dallas & Texas Historic Commission Landmark—recently underwent a $14 million addition and renovation, the largest addition to the school in its 85-year history. What was your experience in the process of creating that design?

We designed it in 2010—right when the school had learned that it was accepted into the international baccalaureate program. This experience pretty much happens to every architect: The program is figured out and then something changes. We met with the school and determined a need for theatre arts and science. They were the two spaces least able to adapt to the existing available space within the building. Personally, I love the combination of those two being in the addition together.

I really enjoyed working with Mark Doty and the City of Dallas. He appreciated and supported our approach to complement and respect the existing architecture without copying it. Our project designer, Chris Sano, AIA, was a gem. He spent a lot of time carefully studying the geometry of the elevation and how that was then manifested in the new elevation that we developed. It’s those subtle things that at first glance you don’t see, but you feel.

BRW managing principal Craig Reynolds, FAIA, led the user and community engagement and BRW project manager Stephen Hilt, AIA, pursued the project vision unfailingly from beginning to end.

One of the most difficult technical elements that you don’t see was that we needed to replace the air conditioning: a huge strange barnacle assembly in the courtyard. We had to pull all of that out and bring a pier drilling rig into the courtyard to drill piers for a tower to more architecturally organize the new equipment. We actually did studies about bringing it inside to give the courtyard back for more sun and sky.

Way too often you see historic windows just ripped out and new more energy-efficient windows put in. This is something you cannot do with a landmark building. We had them restored properly off site and reinstalled.They are great now and they open for the first time in decades!

Surrounding Woodrow Wilson High School is a whole community of parents and people who love and appreciate historic architecture. It took a village to accomplish this chapter of the school’s history and we look forward to implementing the next phase.

What influenced you to get into the profession of architecture?

So many great architects have the opportunity of being introduced to the profession because their parents were architects or they knew one personally. My dad was a social worker and my mom was an elementary school teacher and we didn’t know any architects, but I was definitely going on to college.

In exploring what to study in college, I did not have any particular direction. However, in high school I was a violinist. I traveled to Europe a couple of times with a summer youth orchestra. We went to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark one year, and Switzerland and Germany a second year. This allowed me to see a lot of way cooler architecture than you get to see in Farmington Hills, MI. I saw things such as Neuschwanstein Castle and had the opportunity to play a concert in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the “Gedächtniskirche,” which is a modern church next to a bombed-out church in Berlin.

It particularly struck me how much the general public had an appreciation and understanding for the quality of the environment. People really appeared to respect it. My guidance counselor then suggested architecture and I agreed. I was good at math but not that good, and I didn’t want to practice playing the violin for six hours a day for the rest of my life. I liked art but was not good enough to sell paintings for a living. Architecture was the perfect outlet to do all of those things together.

What do you do like to do in your free time?

My husband [Robert Lamkin, AIA] and I met in 1977 when we were freshmen in architecture school together, so our shared profession also stands in for a hobby. All of our vacations are typically about going somewhere to see the architecture. It has driven Elyssa, our adult daughter, crazy. In one of her journals, I think in Rome, Elyssa wrote “There are too many churches in this town!” Of course, we had just been to perhaps 10 of the most magnificent churches in the world in one day. Now, after insisting that she had absolutely no interest in design, she is ironically thinking about going back to earn a masters degree in interior design.

Hobbies have changed over the years for me. In my 40s, I was especially into running. I did a lot of half marathons. Health is such an important thing. We as architects often don’t pay attention to that portion of our lives. I don’t want to be 80 and have to use a wheelchair solely because I didn’t take care of myself. At BRW, we have a Monday lunchtime yoga class with an instructor who comes to the office.. When you feel better, it’s much more likely that you will be creative.

Lastly, what makes you feel successful?

What is successful to me is the opportunities that I see available going forward. Here at BRW, we have built a collection of great talented people that tend to stay here. So many of my friends here have been with me ten to 15 years and we have developed a collaborative network with amazing capabilities.

Interviewed by James Adams, AIA, RIBA, an architect with Corgan Associates Inc.