San Antonio-based Lake Flato was named the nation’s top architecture firm earlier this month by Architect magazine.

The magazine, which is the official journal of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), has been ranking firms since 2009, and Lake Flato’s recognition marks the first time a Texas firm has graced the top spot. Lake Flato has made the list for the past five years and ranked in the top 20 in four out of five years. 

“It was a total surprise to be ranked No. 1 in the United States and an honor,” said David Lake, one of the firm’s founding partners.

Founded in 1984, Lake Flato is best known locally for projects such as the Witte Museum’s expansion, the DoSeum, and the AT&T Center, and for marrying design to Texas’ landscapes. 

Architect magazine said its Top 50 list “attempts to answer the question: Who had the best year?”

A third-party research firm compiled and analyzed self-reported data from 182 firms for the 2019 list. Firms were scored in three different categories: design, business, and sustainability. Lake Flato placed third in design, 11th, in sustainability, and 70th in business, and first overall.

“It’s awfully nice to have our work recognized not only for design but also for our business acumen and our contribution to the community, as well as the diversity of our employees and how we compensate services for our employees,” Lake said. “This was all based on best business practices as well as design and sustainability.”

Lake Flato and the other firms also submitted design portfolios with projects to be evaluated by three judges. The judges found that Lake Flato’s design expressed western U.S. regionalism, and the judges who helped score each firm’s sustainability said they were impressed by each project’s sense of place.

The judges found that Lake Flato’s design expressed western U.S. regionalism.

Lake Flato’s work shows a wide range of abilities, partner and architect Greg Papay said. The firm employs 115 people between its San Antonio and Austin offices, a relatively small staff when compared to many global firms. But Lake Flato’s size allows its designers flexibility in what kind of projects they take on. Papay pointed to Confluence Park, which has won multiple awards this year, as one of the firm’s most striking projects.

“And even that is a testament to our clients as much as anything because they have to ask for what we’re doing,” Papay said. “They have to lead us to it. People build buildings – that’s a pretty significant commitment of time and money, so to have people to trust us to take them somewhere they may not have been on their own is pretty rewarding.”

Lake Flato is currently working on a few projects in San Antonio, including the Soto building, Texas’s first mass-timber mid-rise building. The firm also just finished the Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy in Northwest San Antonio and contributed to the design of the new federal courthouse, which is scheduled to be completed in 2022.

Beyond Texas, Lake Flato also gained recognition for such projects as the University of Southern Mississippi’s Marine Education Center, the visitor center at Naples Botanical Garden in Naples, Florida, and the Top of the Hill girls school in Kenya.

Though Lake Flato won the prestigious Architecture Firm Award from the AIA in 2004, Papay said snagging the No. 1 spot in Architect magazine’s Top 50 firms reflects the overall contribution of everyone at Lake Flato: marketing, human resources, and technology staff included.

“It’s about as holistic a review of the firm you can find,” Papay said. “That makes it really rewarding.”

“I think this will raise our profile,” he added. “It will be interesting to see what we can do with that. The hope is we get more opportunities and do a good job with those opportunities.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.