By Christina Sturdivant Sani
As a child growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, Constance Lai, FAIA, visited Washington, D.C., on school trips and family vacations. “I loved the museums and all of the monuments,” says Lai, the historic preservation manager for Grunley Construction. “And now I get to work on all of them.”
Lai received her BArch from Rice University in 1996 and Master's degree in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art from MIT in 1999. As a licensed architect and LEED AP BD+C accredited professional, her portfolio of preservation and restoration projects includes the U.S. Capitol and Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
With expertise in historic preservation, Lai has exceptional skills in the restoration of historically and culturally significant buildings. At Grunley Construction, she advises the pre-construction and operations departments on preservation and conservation scopes, integrating new technologies, and design-construction quality assurance and quality control, among other things.
We chatted with Lai about her love for preserving buildings, some of her most interesting projects, and more.
When did you first become interested in architecture?
When I was eight years old, I looked at house plans in the newspaper every week. This was in the 1980s where, every week, they had a tiny picture of a house plan you could buy. My dad told me, "Hey, you know, you could actually make a living drawing houses." So I would just draw house plans on my own. That’s how it all started.
Early in your architecture career, you bounced around a bit until you discovered historic preservation. What was it about historic preservation that hooked you?
I was actually born in Holland, Michigan and then we moved to Eastern Pennsylvania. Both of those towns have very historic downtowns. But I didn't really put two and two together until I moved to San Francisco in 2002 and I ended up at a historic preservation firm.
I thought, "This is actually the perfect combination of being able to use my architecture and history degrees." And I realized I've grown up in historic towns and there's just something that resonates about preservation to me.
Did you face any challenges during your academic years or your professional career based on your race or gender?
There's always a self-confidence problem, but I don't think that's exclusive to being female or Asian. There are shy males, too. So I never characterized [my challenges] in that way.
The historic preservation field can be influenced by society. Have you seen any big cultural shifts or new understandings of the built environment that impact how decision-makers choose which buildings or aspects of those structures to preserve?
In the preservation movement right now, there's definitely a shift. It used to be that preservation was about—pardon my speech—the upkeep of houses of old white men. Now there's a movement to make the history much more inclusive.
I'm actually on the board of AIA’s Architects Foundation and we're housed in The Octagon Museum in downtown D.C. We are currently trying to rewrite the history of the Octagon and talk about the slave quarters which are in the basement. So the kitchen and the slave quarters will be interpreted in a way that visitors who come to the house can experience how it was to be an enslaved person in the Octagon.
You won the Architects Foundation Richard Morris Hunt Prize in 2017 and were able to travel to France. What were some of the similarities and differences you found between their approach to historic preservation and the U.S.’s treatment?
The U.S.’s preservation protocols, of course, are based on the French, but there are a lot of key differences. The most striking one that I didn't realize is we have a tendency in America to be more grassroots. So if you're in a small town and you have a Main Street that's rundown, the movement to revitalize those towns are from the people who live there and everybody gets to set the rules. Whereas in France, all the rules are set by the national government and their preservation system flows down. They also have a much more consistent program.
Earlier in your career, you worked on residential structures that were obliterated by Hurricane Katrina. How was that experience for you?
I remember going into the Ninth Ward and the ship that crashed through the levee was still right there. We could see it in the distance, and I was just like, "Oh my goodness."
What was also heartbreaking was that some of the residences were historic. The historic house that we were required to look at was completely gone. We couldn't even find the mailbox. All that was left was the foundation. That was sad and wrong on so many levels.
I visited the same community a few years later after Brad Pitt's organization built houses and it still didn't revitalize the community. That was really telling for me because even with Brad Pitt’s good intentions of trying to bring all this new architecture into the community, it still didn't bring the community back together. So there are forces much larger than all of us as architects, urban planners, and city planners that we have to confront. [Editor's note: The houses built by Brad Pitt's organization, Make It Right, have recently come under scrutiny.]
What have been some of your favorite projects?
The Washington Monument was my favorite National Park Service project. And I'm currently working on the Jefferson Memorial. We just cleaned all the biofilm so the dome is all white now! And we're ramping up another project at the Jefferson Memorial to do the store and the bathrooms down below.
How does it feel to be part of a team that brings buildings back to life?
For me, that's what gives me the most satisfaction. I did spend a few years working on new buildings. And while they are satisfying as well, it's not like resuscitating an existing structure and literally breathing life back into it. I think historic structures, old structures, and existing structures have so much to give us still. They just need to be taken care of and brought back to life.