Paul Lukez established Paul Lukez Architecture in 1992 in Boston, Massachusetts. The firm listens carefully to their clients, and integrates research as part of their design process, in order to create inspiring and transformative places. Paul received a Bachelor of Environmental Design from Miami University in Oxford, OH and a Master of Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. There, he was awarded an AIA School Medal for Top Student and the Goody Prize for Best Thesis in the Building Arts. Along with being a successful architect, Paul has taught at universities including MIT in Cambridge, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Paul is the recipient of numerous academic and professional honors, including being elected as a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with Paul and learn about his philosophy and approach to design.
On pursuing the profession of architecture
I grew up in The Netherlands, among other places overseas. I was exposed to art and architecture throughout my childhood, thanks to my family, friends and teachers. I was lucky because I was immersed in this world of art and design from very early on. In high school I had an opportunity to work with a couple of artists — in particular, one whose name was Koo Stroo. He was kind of a Renaissance man. He was an engineer by training, but was also an accomplished photographer, artist and sculptor with an interest in architecture. He invited me to work in the studio after school and weekends and help on special art-related projects. His generous mentorship really opened me up to the world of art and architecture. I knew then that I wanted to do something in design and art.
When I came back to the United States for college, I was involved in an internship program while studying art, math and physics. I ended up working at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) for a six-month internship in Chicago! It was a great time to be at SOM. They had great projects and amazingly talented designers like Gordon Bunshaft, Myron Goldsmith, Bruce Graham, Walter Netsch, and Adrian Smith, among others. I was very lucky to be exposed to some extraordinary projects and people at that time. That was when I decided I wanted to go into architecture and study it full-time.
On starting his own firm
I was one of those people who were always interested in teaching and practicing in tandem, while trying to find ways in which these two worlds could inform one another. I started teaching and practicing in 1992. I had a studio space in a North End loft building with a bunch of artists. I had only one project going when I started, as well as a part-time teaching position. My practice grew, and I was able to learn more about building, design and managing a practice. I continued this model until I accepted a full-time position at MIT in 1999, while sustaining my practice with a larger staff.
While I no longer teach full-time, I try to translate the lessons that have been learned from research and teaching and bring them to our clients. Consequently, with the help of ten staff members, we have developed a strong research-backed design process. We engage this process in varying degrees, depending on the scale of our projects (small, medium and large) and their complexity. Through this process, we seek to find new and unexpected solutions to our client’s challenges, ones that are uniquely tailored to site and circumstance.
On how his approach to design has evolved
I’ve always been interested in the idea of transformation in a number of different ways. First, I am fascinated with the relationship of transformation to the origin of creative, inventive ideas. Where do we get ideas from? Is an idea something that hits us like a lightning bolt, or through divine inspiration? Or is what appears to be a groundbreaking and fully-formed idea, in fact, rooted in other ideas, concepts and sources of inspiration which, through creative transformation, have been synthesized into a new and fresh concept? Understanding the power of transformation can serve as a powerful teaching and design tool. We can seek out many sources of inspiration — some design-related, others completely unrelated — and weave them into new and fresh ways of thinking about a design problem.
Secondly, transformation is a powerful design tool in shaping the physical environment. The word ‘transformation’ implies a pre-existing condition. As designers in the physical realm, we always have a pre-existing condition, whether it is a natural or urbanized site, its underlying ecology, or the culture that supports it. The insertion of a new building into this context will itself be a transformation of a natural, ecological, built and cultural condition. How, then, can a new design help build upon the qualities of a site or context in a way that preserves or enhances the site’s unique identity? More specifically, how can we add to a site new design elements, systems and technologies that address existing and new needs, while being more strongly connected to nature and an evolving culture?
This design approach runs counter to the “clean the slate” approach often employed by some developers, planners and designers. We have tried to bring a transformational design sensibility to our work, not only in the US, but also in China and other countries.
Ultimately, the question we face as designers is, how do we transform the world, and not destroy it? How do we make it a better place while sustaining the environment? Given the challenges we face with climate change, we are ultimately all going to be environmentalists out of necessity. This is an existential challenge that confronts designers, leaders, and societies at large.
On his renewable energy-focused design
Transformation is a powerful tool in thinking about how designers think about energy and design. With the obvious challenges we face with climate change, it is important to find ways in which new, renewable technologies can be integrated into the built environment. This means understanding the latest available technologies, as well as how they can be integrated into buildings.
To that end, we have worked in a highly collaborative and multidisciplinary way on our projects, small and large. By bringing engineers, ecologists, landscape architects and builders on board early in the design process, we are able to integrate the most appropriate and cost-effective renewable energy systems into a design.
Recently, we designed a unique home for a schoolteacher who teaches in an expensive school district with high-priced real estate. He wanted to stay in the same town and build a zero-energy home. Working closely with Carter Scott of Transformations Inc. (a builder and solar installer), we were able to come up with a very affordable 900-square-foot house that will produce 50% more energy than it requires. The client will now receive a check every month for the extra energy produced.
There are two approaches to integrating solar panels and other renewable technologies into a design. One is to integrate systems seamlessly into a more conventional design, and not call attention to the technologies. The second way is to highlight the technology, integrate it into the building’s design, and creatively articulate the technology as part of the building’s tectonic expression. Both are valid, depending on client preferences and project circumstances. Both also offer great new design opportunities by thoughtfully and creatively integrating new systems into our buildings and the built environment. Ultimately this offers a more sustainable environment with strong economic advantages.
A second and much larger project of this type was designed for the international “Living with Water” competition. Our design, which was created by a multi-disciplinary design and engineering team, proposed developing a new self-sustaining urban district powered by a new hydroelectric canal and a system of integrated turbines. This new infrastructure would capture energy from tides and storm surges. A new multi-use urban district would be energy-independent while minimizing its carbon footprint. New advances in VLH turbine technologies allow shallow sites and harbors to capture tidal energy.
We worked with a hydro-turbine company in France called MJ2. Using their technologies, we were able to figure out how to generate enough energy to power between 1,000 and 2,000 houses in this new district. This could all be financed privately. Since the energy infrastructure produces a surplus of energy, the infrastructure would be paid off in 30 years. Thereafter, the profits can be re-invested or returned as additional dividends to investors. Because the new infrastructure is more resilient to climate change and produces future profits, the risk to investors is reduced. This project demonstrates how sustainable energy systems integrated into new urban districts can be economically sustainable as well!
We are now thinking about how this model can be applied to other low-lying coastal areas around the world.
On the firm’s direction in the next 5–10 years
We have high hopes and ambitious plans for the future. We’ve enjoyed the benefit of working with great clients who really care about their projects, whether they are small, medium or large in scale. Many of our clients have been visionary, in the way their project, team and goals have cohered together to fully manifest their visions. We want to continue to serve these clients and help them find ways to improve their quality of life and the environment.
As mentioned, we want to continue our efforts to find new ways to integrate renewable energy technologies in cost-effective ways that yield beautiful and appropriate designs. Related to this goal is our desire to continue to develop our collaborative associations with engineers and allied professionals, especially as it relates to creating sustainable ecologies, landscapes and re-newable energy systems.
These collaborations are well suited for the large-scale and complex urban systems we have designed in China and other places. We wish to continue to work on projects in the US and internationally.
On transformations in architecture over the next 10–15 years
I just heard a presentation on all of the technological changes that have happened over the last 10-plus years and how substantively radical they are. Obviously the cell phone as a platform for many of our everyday personal and business needs has been economically, socially and culturally transformative. Besides combining and integrating many of the devices, tools and systems we used to use into a small, pocket-sized device, it has changed the ways we communicate with others and see ourselves connected to a bigger and more complex world. The rapid development of digital computational and communication tools will only accelerate, generating change in all fields and human endeavors. So, too, will the role and function of space change. The environment and our habitat will change, not only in how it appears, but how it functions and is (re)assembled.
These new advances can help us come up with new ways of operating in the world, in ways that are less stressful on the environment. Our everyday awareness of how we affect the environment and how it impacts us in return (in terms of our health and well-being) can allow us to change our behaviors as a kind of feedback loop. Tied to real economic and policy drivers, we can have a lighter touch on the planet without sacrificing quality of life.
It is within this context that the architect and designer are presented with an opportunity to give form to our built environment, cities and the supporting ecologies and landscape. In the same way that medieval builders in Central Europe gave form to medieval societies, their walled cities, marketplaces and iconic cathedrals, so, too, will our profession be faced with a similar challenge, one that will certainly generate new and exciting environments.
On advice he would give himself before starting an architecture career
Get an MBA! (Laughs) No, but more seriously, design and architecture professionals offer so many new and inspiring ideas. Collectively, we can contribute so much to the world. In an economically driven marketplace, though, we are operating at a disadvantage.
Our education does not provide us with all the business tools we need to engage the marketplace as effectively as is deserving of our profession. If we were better negotiators, if we understood and leveraged the full value of our services, if we positioned ourselves as a consequential profession playing a pivotal role in the shaping the environment, we might be better able to benefit from our contributions, economically and professionally.
What does that mean for the architecture student, recent graduate or intern? Find ways to be the best designer you can, but layer your academic and professional training with experiences that elevate your understanding of economics, management and good business practices. This can be done through additional course work, self-study, and seeking mentorship.