Meet our newest team member, Lara LaFontain

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by Lara LaFontain

I am so happy to have found architecture as my profession. I can’t imagine anything else that combines my many interests in such a meaningful way. As an architect, I get to work every day towards designing spaces that make a positive impact in people’s lives. I also believe that architects have a unique opportunity to create a more sustainable and resilient world when we work to be leaders within our communities. In doing so, we can use our skills in design and collaboration to be advocates for environmental stewardship, equity for under-served populations, and a more beautiful, inspiring vision of what daily life can be like in the communities we build together.

What is your architect “origin story”?

When I was growing up in Saint Louis, there were several buildings in the city around me that really captured my imagination and became some of my favorite places. I loved making things and experimenting with different materials - as a kid I would secretly stay up past my bedtime working on crafts in my closet! Great preparation for late nights in architecture studio to come.

The Pulitzer Art Foundation by Japanese architect Tadao Ando; one of the world’s first skyscrapers, the Wainwright Building by Louis Sullivan; the Climatron greenhouse by Buckminster Fuller; urban exploring in one of the city’s many old warehouses.

When I was in high school, I was involved in two very different programs that made a huge impact and were formative in my interdependent worldview. The first gave me a full time summer job in a neuroscience laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, where I marveled at the beautiful natural forms of neurons under a microscope. The second program was through the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis  and involved a weekly series of workshops with local and international artists. I loved both of these experiences, and they made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career that somehow combined creative thinking, hands-on making, and research.

A photo I took of neurons; the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis by Portland’s Allied Works Architecture

However, I didn’t really know any architects or truly even realize that architecture was a profession that I could pursue. As I headed into college, I received a generous scholarship to attend The University of Arizona, which is located in Tucson, and I initially chose to major in engineering and art. But after a couple years of going from calculus class to figure drawing studio I wasn’t feeling inspired, and I was bored from all the math homework! So I ended up reading through the course catalog to find something new and took a class in architectural programming, where I started to learn about the problem-solving processes architects use. Finally, it was like people were speaking my language! A professor encouraged me to apply to the architecture program, and from there I began my journey to become an architect.

How did studying architecture in Tucson shape your point of view as an architect?

Studying architecture in Tucson was a phenomenal opportunity to learn how the built environment can relate to and be inspired by nature. Tucson’s desert landscape is so awe-inspiring, with mountains all around, vast skies, monsoon rains, and really interesting plant life. Most of all, it gave me a big-picture, holistic perspective on sustainability. It’s not simply adding solar panels, or using a particular material. Sustainability is a responsibility, it permeates the whole design process, and is not simply a switch to flip on at the end of a project. The concepts I learned about designing for a harsh desert climate can apply anywhere-- rainwater harvesting, solar access, celebrating natural materials, an attitude of resourcefulness. I think a lot about inside/outside connections and creating space that exists between those two realms.

A desert vista in Saguaro National Park  

A desert vista in Saguaro National Park

What has been your favorite building that you have worked on, to date?

I am enjoying the ADUs I’ve been working on with Propel because it’s fun to work on small scale projects with a short timeline from design to construction, where we can really hone the details, pay attention to materiality, and work closely with clients.

The project that has made the biggest impact on me so far was my last project with my previous firm, a 77-unit sustainable senior living community in Seattle that is pursuing Living Building Challenge Petal Certification. It’s being billed as “the most sustainable senior living community in the world”, and I got to be involved with the project from schematic design through design development as project designer. I think this project really will make a difference in the lives of its residents. Working on a project within the framework of the Living Building Challenge has helped me develop my holistic perspective on sustainability and learn concrete strategies that can be used in a variety of project types. The project upholds very rigorous guidelines in terms of healthy materials, connection to nature, energy and water use, human-centered living, net positive waste...the list goes on and on. I’m excited to bring the strategies that I learned from the Living Building Challenge to my projects with Propel.

A Living Building: in-process views of a senior living community in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle.

What part of the job as an architect do you like best, and what are you most excited about in terms of being part of Propel Studio?

What I love most about architecture is how interdisciplinary (or anti-disciplinary) it is, and how often we think about big-picture ideas. I think my background in a couple different disciplines gives me a unique perspective on how to collaborate with people on projects. I love design charrettes, design thinking, the process of making, of following a thread of an idea and exploring it and making it real.

I am loving being part of such a collaborative passionate team of people, who are motivated to deliver great design to our clients and the communities we work in. At larger firms I’ve been a part of I didn’t enjoy the lack of communication within teams, the lack of efficiency or design focus, and not being able to fully explore one’s own abilities. Being part of Propel feels so much more personal-- I have more communication with our clients, and I get to directly see the impact we’re having through our projects and community involvement.

What’s currently inspiring you? What’s next on the horizon?

I really want to explore further how to integrate landscape and outdoor living spaces more, no matter the project type. I think it’s really important to focus on creating spaces for health and inspiration. I think making these things priorities can really improve well-being.

Also, I want to further pursue some of my long-held interests in craft and natural materials. My partner is a woodworker and he has built out a full shop in our garage, so I am really excited to utilize that and get back into the regular habit hands-on making that made me first interested in design. I bought myself a benchtop sander and I am going to start experimenting with making small sculptural objects out of scraps of wood with irregular grain patterns or weird shapes.

A painting inspired by Mt Hood; a wood sanding experiment.

As an architect, I want to figure out how we can collaborate with and support local craftspeople more in our projects. The entrepreneurial spirit of Portland is part of what makes it such a great city to live in, and I think people here truly value handmade local goods. I want to work with clients to find ways we can incorporate one of a kind handmade elements in their projects, to support local makers, and to connect to culture and history.

Speaking of culture and history...stay tuned for a future blog post after I return from a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico this May!