Managing principal of RDLR Architects (Houston, TX), a community-driven architectural firm that is recognized throughout Texas.
By Liisa Andreassen
During Westrick’s leadership, RDLR has earned numerous design and firm awards including the Texas Society of Architects Firm Award, the highest honor bestowed on architecture firms. She has extensive experience in all areas of architectural design and planning and enjoys public work projects such as educational facilities and streetscapes. She also has considerable experience designing for non-profit organizations. Noteworthy projects include the Houston Food Bank (recipient of five local, state, and national awards); the Sam Houston Tollway NE Main Lane Plaza (TxA Design Award); and renovations at Reagan High School (GHPA design award).
“Innovation stems from our ability to look at projects holistically, considering client needs, and to creatively find opportunities for community enhancements,” Westrick says. “We look for opportunities to leverage our client’s project to enhance Houston’s built environment.”
A conversation with Lorie Westrick.
The Zweig Letter: The firm was founded 40 years ago. How long have you been with the firm and how has your position evolved during that time?
Lorie Westrick: I started subletting a workstation from Rey de la Reza (founder of RDLR) in 1992. At the time, I was pursuing a practice that allowed me to be available for my young children while working independently. After completing several residential projects, Rey invited me to collaborate on some of his work. This collaboration continued over several years, after which I made the commitment to join RDLR. I was asked to join the firm leadership in 2000.
TZL: How do the four principals divide their responsibilities? How do those responsibilities overlap?
LW: Firm partners share common principles for success: satisfied clients, quality design, and a healthy business. Together, we make decisions that balance these principles. Though we all share a passion for design and the business, each of us have unique talents that we bring:
- Howard Merrill leads our transit and education projects. He is a consummate technician and is also responsible for ensuring all our technical documents are of exceptional quality.
- Jennifer DaRos is a strong project manager who provides team leadership on our most complex projects. She is responsible for implementation of new project accounting methodology and software.
- Daniel Ortiz leads our municipal projects. He is an exceptionally talented architect capable of filling any project need. Daniel also is responsible for firmwide financials.
- My strengths lie in interiors, planning, and conceptual design. I manage most of the non-profit and interior projects. Daniel and I share office management responsibilities, including staffing, business development, and marketing. We use each other as sounding boards.
TZL: What does your growth plan look like for the next five years? How are you working to meet that end?
LW: While we see great opportunities to leverage our transit experience in other Texas markets, our business success is not based on revenue or staff numbers. RDLR growth is organic; it is responsive to opportunities to produce quality work, satisfied clients, and maintain a healthy business.
TZL: How has COVID-19 permanently impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
LW: Like everyone else during COVID-19 lockdowns, we adjusted to remote working with new technology. While established teams were able to remain productive, on-boarding new staff was extremely difficult. Design is collaborative. Everyone on our team contributes. Being physically together allows for spontaneous flow and sharing of ideas. We were eager to get back to the office.
We have always believed family and health come first. (As a mother of four, I understand how difficult it is to juggle family and work responsibilities.) We meet individual requirements and provide opportunities for flexible schedule, remote working, and “bring your kid/pet to work” if need be. The technologies we used during COVID-19 lockdowns are used regularly.
TZL: Innovations in technology seem to be at the forefront at RDLR. Tell me about your most recent innovation. What is it? How is it helping with current projects? How is it helping to move the firm into the future?
LW: Every project is an opportunity for innovation. While we use the latest BIM and project management technologies, they are mere tools. Innovation stems from our ability to look at projects holistically, considering client needs, and to creatively find opportunities for community enhancements. We look for opportunities to leverage our client’s project to enhance Houston’s built environment.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
LW: I have been very fortunate to have numerous mentors in my career. Pete Winters, FAIA, my boss during my tenure at CRSS, provided me with incredible project opportunities, encouraged me to work with others, and trusted in my ability to deliver. Pete taught me to balance client service, design quality, and business health.
As a young project manager, I was intimidated by the scale of my assignments. Out of necessity, I reached out to my team for advice. It was this experience that taught me that design is collaborative and doesn’t rely on any one individual. Design leaders are idea-gatherers and organizers.
My experience associated with Rey de la Reza, FAIA, was also very formative. Rey taught me to expand project vision beyond property lines. His designs always considered their impact on the surrounding streetscapes and neighborhoods.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
LW: Trust is earned by delivering what you promise and by being a trusted advisor. We aim for this daily.
TZL: Can you share an example of “community-driven architecture” by providing the details of a recent project?
LW: Houston Food Bank client, Brian Greene, challenged architectural standards regarding building entries and established traffic practices while we were designing renovations at their current facility. Listening to his creative ideas and vision for a food warehouse that also was a “beacon of hope for the community” encouraged us to be bold, innovative, and creative with solutions. This project transformed our traditional design process and helped us imagine “community-driven architecture.”
We believe capital investments should respond to user needs as well as benefit the overall community. RDLR looks beyond project limits to seek opportunities to enhance the public realm and create places for communities. We believe that good design is not contingent upon the schedule or budget, but rather the result of an inclusive design process that includes stakeholders, community leaders and design and construction professionals. Successful projects reflect cultural influences and are contextually sensitive. They are sustainable developments which are cost effective to maintain and operate.
A recent example of community-driven architecture is our project SERJobs for Progress, a community nonprofit organization that has served hundreds of low-income individuals in need of a second chance. SER purchased a 2.4-acre property in Houston’s vibrant and historic East End, converting the original home of Tellepsen Construction to serve as its headquarters. At the groundbreaking event, Mayor Turner said of the effort: “This is not just a building, it is a place where dreams will be realized, hard work will be recognized, and the whole city of Houston will benefit.”
The 22,500-square-foot building was fully renovated and occupied in mid-2018, just after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. The East End location of the project has made a large and positive impact on its residents and the community in turn. With its opening shortly after Hurricane Harvey, the organization’s services were magnified and there was a significant increase in demand for skilled labor in the construction industry, as well as many other blue-collar careers. Recently, the pandemic also created a great need for SER programs and services. Now more than ever, the program provides much needed opportunities and financial stability for individuals in Harris County and beyond.
The choice to transform a dilapidated and decaying building was deliberate, bringing a sign of prosperity to the community. The coffee shop and art gallery are accessible to the community, making it a hub for people to gather and explore opportunities. Since its opening in 2018, the Workforce Opportunity Center has served almost 20,000 individuals in the community through various services.
The project was recently awarded a 2021 ULI Houston Development of Distinction Award in the Not-for-Profit category. The ULI Houston Development of Distinction awards honor developments and green spaces that seek to inspire land use that fuels the creation of a flourishing global city.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
LW: As a firm leader, my greatest failure was holding on to staff when the firm could not afford to. During the Great Recession, our firm suffered as did many others. As a new owner, I was reluctant to reduce staffing. Employees were more than colleagues – they were friends. The result was significant financial stress; the firm was at the breaking point. We almost lost it. I learned businesses are entities that serve others. They must be cared for so they can continue to provide for all.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
LW: As a second-generation business owner who is soon facing retirement, I’ve experienced ownership transitions as both buyer and seller. This puts me in a unique position. I was the young professional with drive and vision that felt held back by management reins. I’m also the senior professional facing retirement and the changes this brings. Ownership transition must balance my young and senior persons.
Transition must be fair and put the health of the business before any individual. Transition starts with selecting, trusting, and allowing the development of other leaders. Setting up realistic and comfortable financial goals for new owners is critical.
Transition is a time to celebrate company achievements obtained during one’s tenure and the vision that new ownership will bring. I am very excited about RDLR’s future!