Architecture firm Lake|Flato creates environments that enrich communities and nurture life.
When it had an opportunity to rethink its corporate headquarters in 2020, the Texas-based firm made an example of itself: Instead of building a new office, it repurposed its old one.
Using digital technology as its wayfinder, Lake|Flato turned a 100-year-old former car dealership into a future-focused hybrid workplace that showcases environmental sustainability and creative, collaborative design.
In 1984, architects David Lake and Ted Flato established their eponymous architecture firm on the south side of the second floor of a historic building in downtown San Antonio, Texas. Built in 1920, the three-story structure at 311 Third St. originally was home to a Hupmobile dealership that sold electric cars. Subsequent tenants included a gospel radio station, a law firm, an investment banking firm, and an interior design firm.
Lake|Flato expanded to the north side of the second floor in 1990, took over the third floor in 2003 and assumed full ownership of the building, and subsumed the first floor in 2005. A decade later, the company was still growing. By 2019, it had taken over the entire building and had more than 100 employees. It was clear that the firm had outgrown its space. Less clear, however, was what it should do about it.
The answer finally manifested in 2020, when a unique opportunity arose to complete a wholesale renovation of the 22,545-square-foot building without disturbing or displacing employees.
The firm could have razed the structure and built anew. Instead, Lake|Flato recognized the potential of adaptive reuse. By repurposing the existing building, it could create a more functional office space and also a showpiece that embodied the merits of sustainable design.
“We’re constantly telling clients that they should be paying attention to their carbon emissions,” says Design Performance Manager Kate Sector, who points out that the built environment—encompassing building operations, as well as the embodied carbon in building materials such as cement, iron, steel, and aluminum—is responsible for about 42% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. “A lot of folks want a brand-new building, and we definitely could have had that. But you can also find ways to celebrate historic buildings and make them into something really beautiful and unique. It felt really important for us to be able to demonstrate that to our clients.”
Because the goal was to create its dream office and to turn sustainable fantasies into tangible realities, Lake|Flato named its office project “Living the Dream.” Although the conviction was simple, its execution was anything but. To pull it off, the firm needed digital tools powerful enough to make the dream come true.
Lake|Flato moved into its new/old office in 2023. Some things look the same, such as the building’s historical brick facade and its interior bones—including enormous concrete beams and 13-foot ceilings, which allowed vehicles to be stored on the building’s upper levels when it was a car dealership. Many other things look completely different, however.
Perhaps the biggest change is the former parking garage adjacent to the building. The design team deconstructed the roof and transformed it into a four-season outdoor courtyard that’s an extension of the office, where employees can work, socialize, and host events—like a weekly farmers’ market where employee volunteers shop for fresh produce, which they then use to make a communal salad lunch for their colleagues. There’s a large, shaded structure with tables and seating. And where the garage doors once stood is a new pedestrian gate that serves as the building’s front door, ushering employees and visitors through the courtyard and into the building via a new side entrance.
“One of the spaces I like the most is the courtyard because of the connection to nature,” Sector says. “There are parks nearby, and we’re close to the San Antonio Riverwalk, but this is special because of the immediate access. You can go sit outside whenever you need to. Even when you’re inside, there’s a lot of daylight because of the courtyard, and there are views of nature from the upper levels. That’s a pretty unique opportunity in the city.”
Inside, there’s an open floor plan with collaborative workspaces, a communal kitchen with capacity for 70 people, open and closed conference rooms of various sizes, private rooms for Zoom calls, and shared workstations that employees—including the senior leadership—reserve when they’re on-site. Because employees can work at home several days each week, the firm can accommodate more employees without adding more office space.
“Only our HR, marketing, and finance people have permanent desks; everyone else has a locker and uses a desk checkout system,” says Director of Design Technology Dan Stine. “So on day one when the office opened, we had fewer desks than people. At our current utilization rate, we could grow another 30% and not have to change anything, which is pretty cool.”
Thanks to its abundance of daylight, nature, and community, it’s obvious to anyone who visits that 311 Third St. is a healthy, happy, and high-performing workplace. To make the office a showpiece for clients, however, Lake|Flato had to prove and validate its positive design outcomes by way of third-party certifications.
To that end, Lake|Flato’s office is on track to achieve the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) Zero Carbon Certification, as well as the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) WELL Certification. And in June 2023, it became the first Texas-based architecture firm to become a certified B Corporation. The firm also is participating in ILFI’s Just program, through which it measures its commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Circular economy strategies were essential to meeting Lake|Flato’s goals. To create the courtyard, the wooden roof of the former parking garage was carefully deconstructed and reused in the interior (as work surfaces and ceiling accents) instead of being discarded.
“Material reuse is a really important strategy because most carbon emissions come from creating a new product,” Sector says. “If you don’t have to purchase a new product, you’re significantly cutting down on emissions.”
At the heart of the firm’s efforts was a 3D model created in Autodesk Revit. “We had a laser scan performed on our existing building, which gave us a 3D point cloud,” says Jamie Sartory, the project’s lead architect. “We built a model from that point cloud, and we used that throughout the entire design and build process. With that model, I was able to get linear footage to figure out how much wood we would be able to salvage.”
Impactful as it is, material reuse alone doesn’t make a building healthy and sustainable. To make its office as beneficial as possible for occupants and for the environment, Lake|Flato had to think as much about life inside the building as it did the structure’s underlying materiality.
Again, Revit was indispensable. “The laser scan gave us billions of colored points in Revit,” Stine says. “Whenever we cut a section or looked at a floor plan, we could see those points clustered together to validate the existing conditions. What that allowed us to do was design as accurately as possible. Without that capability, there are so many scenarios where you could end up with a compromised design.”
And when the goal is human health and environmental sustainability, there’s no room for error. Consider daylighting, for example, which has been shown to impact employee health, satisfaction, and productivity while also reducing energy consumption. To achieve optimal daylight in Lake|Flato’s office, Sartory had originally included a number of new windows in the design. Due to historic preservation requirements, however, some of those windows had to be eliminated. To ensure the project’s goals could still be met, the team loaded the Revit model into a Microsoft HoloLens mixed-reality headset.
“People in the office who were concerned about the removal of those windows were able to walk around the space with the HoloLens on to see what it would be like,” Sartory says. “We confirmed that the intent of the design was still there. Even without the additional windows, there was still plenty of daylight and good views to the exterior.”
Another invaluable tool was Autodesk Forma, which Lake|Flato used to conduct wind and microclimate analyses. “One of the certifications we’re pursuing is the WELL Certification, which is focused on health and well-being for occupants inside the space but also relates to outdoors,” says Sector. “Because we have our courtyard, we had to do an analysis of how that space would perform.”
Sector also says that Forma helped optimize the impact of shade structures, trees, and ceiling fans on employee wellness: “We used the tool to see whether our design strategies could help mitigate some of the extreme heat that we experience in Texas. As a result, we have folks who sit out there during lunch throughout the summer, even when it’s 100 degrees outside.”
Revit also helped with certifications; particularly useful were its systems analysis features and the Revit plug-in Tally. Built into Revit is OpenStudio from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and EnergyPlus from the US Department of Energy (DOE), both of which assist with energy modeling and analysis.
“We used Revit to make sure we were reducing our energy consumption by the required percentage from the baseline as part of our Zero Carbon Certification,” Stine says.
As for Tally, it’s a lifecycle assessment tool that works with Revit to quantify embodied carbon, which also figures into the Zero Carbon Certification. “We had to quantify how much carbon our new materials emitted versus how much carbon we saved by using existing materials,” Sector says. “Because we had such a great Revit model that accurately represented historic elements—it captured what we removed, what we saved, and what new pieces we put in—that was very easy for us to do.”
Reaching consensus wasn’t as easy. In an office full of architects, everyone had strong opinions about what the design should be. Having a detailed Revit model to present to colleagues in staff meetings, however, helped Sartory sell the vision.
“We used AR and VR with Revit throughout the design and construction process,” Sartory says. “I could take a photo of the site and match it with the 3D model to show people, ‘This is what it looks like now, but this is what it’s going to look like when it’s done.’ I did that often, and it really helped people come together around the design and feel like they were part of the process.”
That’s the power of technology, according to Sector. “We use technology for our clients all the time,” she says. “So using it for ourselves was kind of a big deal. It helped us make a healthier and better working environment to attract and retain staff, build our culture, and be an example of the kind of work that we want to be doing.”