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May 31, 2023

Lara Pfadt AIA

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Lara Pfadt

Senior associate and sustainability strategist, Finegold Alexander Architects


BA from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Professional interests:

Sustainability, historical architecture, travel, and sketching

When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?

At age seven I started taking art classes and was the youngest in the class by multiple years. I was allowed to attend only because my brother was such a good student, and they hoped the same would be true of me. We had an amazing teacher who put me on a path of loving art and helped direct our talents into design fields. She was also our high school art teacher, and as part of the class, she made us aware of professions that used art, such as industrial designers, architects, graphic designers, etc., that we otherwise would not have been exposed to in our small town.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

As I mentioned, I had some great teachers early on in life despite growing up in a very small community without a lot of resources. I also credit my parents, who didn’t limit my interests to typical gender-based job-role stereotypes. My parents owned a construction company, and during the summer, I worked for them. This is where I initially learned firsthand how to put a building together, which helped my career as an architect.

I also learned that it was easier to motivate people by doing rather than by telling. One day, my dad asked me to help dig a utility trench at a construction site. Several workers from another team nearby could have helped but immediately became busy when it was time to dig. After a few minutes of my being the only female onsite working in a four-foot-deep trench by myself, others came to help. It’s possible I was just doing a horrible job, but I like to think it was more strategic than that.

I also learned to not be afraid to try your hand at building something. You are not going to be an expert on the first attempt, but you’re not going to know how to do it at all if you don’t at least try. It wasn’t until after college that I realized my knowledge of construction was a bit unusual.

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Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?

I didn’t envision my role in sustainability. I have always been interested in the critical role buildings play not only in building health but also in human health, whether it’s through the materials we surround ourselves with or the building’s energy consumption. I’ve had the good fortune to work with and for people who share my concerns and provide me with the space to make an impact.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

I love both existing buildings—the stories they have to tell and the beauty in how things were built—and sustainability in design. Taking these two into consideration, my goal is to provide new life for an existing building through adaptive reuse and extending its usefulness. This often comes through modifying space to meet current accessibility, program, and energy goals.

What do you see as the largest barrier to equity in your profession?

Whether we realize it or not, architecture is a small profession, and our exposure to people who aren’t in the built world is limited. Many people in smaller communities have no opportunities to experience what an architect does or to explore it as an option for a future profession. I grew up in a small, somewhat rural town and never met an architect until I went to college. Without the suggestion of my art teacher, I never would have known the profession existed. The types of work we do and the areas in which we work have diversified, but as a profession, we need to do better.

What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more sustainable built environment?

My work with our Finegold Alexander in-house sustainability team has been great. A group of six architects and designers meets with all our project teams, offering guidance and support. Of all the developments in my career, I’m most proud that our projects are considering sustainable measures from the start.

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What do you see as the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world?

People, unfortunately. We’ve proved it is possible—there are cities and countries moving to zero waste and slashing their energy consumption—but making the change in our actions and mindset is not easy. I put myself in this category. When I go to the grocery store and all the carrots are packaged in plastic, do I wait and buy them at the farmstand where they are not in a single-use bag? Probably not, if I need them for dinner that evening. I know, like most everyone else, that my purchase reinforces this packaging, but the ease in gathering my dinner ingredients won out.

How has design improved your daily life?

In my daily life, I find beauty in the small details. A beautifully crafted wood joint or a subtle pattern in brick may not steal the show, but each makes a difference, and I cannot help but think about the person who spent hours designing and/or creating that piece of beauty.

What architectural buzzword would you kill?

Sexy. It takes anthropomorphism to an unfortunate level.

Where do you find inspiration?

In nature—I’m continually amazed by how the natural environment makes the most of light, shadow, contrast, and texture—and from my peers. We have an incredible design community in Boston and throughout Massachusetts. After listening to a talk or seeing the work of a colleague, I’m always reminded how amazingly creative people are.

What are you reading right now?

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy. It’s good, but my favorite book from the past year is Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. He’s a Swedish author who tells a good story but does so with a dry wit and focus on the characters’ personalities that is spectacular.

Have you had a memorable experience while working on a BSA initiative that you would like to share?

I’ve been co-chair of the BSA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) with Beth Pearcy AIA of Amenta Emma Architects for almost two years now. We are currently hosting two different talk series. The first is a series on the new energy code called DOER: Critical Stretch Code Series. The initial talks were an overview of the new energy stretch code followed by presentations on existing building compliance and TEDI [thermal energy demand intensity] compliance pathway. We have two presentations scheduled for June: the first will be on how the code impacts building enclosures (on June 7), and the second will be on the HERS [Home Energy Rating System] performance standard (on June 16). This has been an amazingly successful series that we are co-hosting with the BSA’s Codes Committee and Sustainable Design Leaders (SDL) of Boston. The series came about because the BSA and SDL were both figuring out how we can help support the design community to embrace the new code. Although the new code has been well publicized, many people were surprised when it was released in January. (The residential code went into effect on January 1, 2023.) Both groups are made up of active design professionals, and we were all navigating how to roll the new energy requirements into our projects, so the presentation series has grown from our internal discussions. I’m really proud to work with so many people who are so generous with their time and knowledge; without folks being willing to share their respective processes, these changes would be much harder for us all to embrace. And we need to embrace more energy efficiencies within our designs because it is critical to our health and the health of the world. (Find the DOER: Critical Stretch Code Series on the COTE Knowledge Community web page, here.)

Our second series is on the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. The Framework, comprising “10 principles and accompanied by searching questions . . . seeks to inform progress toward a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy built environment.” The 10 points of design excellence were created by the AIA as a way to help guide architects “to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public . . . amid challenges such as increasing climate extremes and social inequity.” We have hosted four talks in this series.

If you could redesign anything, what would it be?

Our public transportation systems. Roads for cars dominate and dictate how our world is designed. How often do you see a sidewalk “disappear” and leave people walking in a dangerous location? I live on an amazing bike path that my town keeps clear all year round because it is heavily used, but even this path ends at a road without a sidewalk before another path picks up blocks away. I like to imagine how different Boston and Massachusetts would function if walking, biking, and mass transit were the primary modes of transportation.