Design Digest: Tim Lai ArchitecT
Columbus Underground readers are probably familiar with architect Tim Lai and his wife Eliza Ho. They are the team behind the Dinin’ Hall food truck hub and ALTernative, a community based entity that works with a lot of non-profit organizations to create community murals, which spearheaded efforts to beautify Glen Echo Ravine and the SoHud neighborhood. They also have opened up both their home and office for our At Home and At Work features.
We recently reached out to Tim – as part of our ongoing Design Digest feature – to find out more about the work and philosophy behind his firm, Tim Lai ArchitecT. He also shared his thoughts about design in Columbus, a recent award-winning theater design, and some exciting new projects that will be coming to Columbus soon.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the history of your firm?
A: TLA was founded in 2010. Prior to that, I had about 10 years work experience in a variety of building types. I had a good sense of designing and managing building projects, but I didn’t have a lot of opportunities working on smaller-scaled local projects that are unique and responsive to the urban context in a modern way. Glass Axis was one of our first clients who took a chance on us and really believed in our design vision. It was a very tight-budget project but we were able to not only solve their spatial problem but also really transform the whole organization in how they use the space.
Eliza, being an art historian, is instrumental in what we do, but especially when we first started. She is very good at connecting the dots and seeing unique opportunities. Looking back on our relatively short history, we seemed to be always doing one-of-a-kind projects that are small but really make a difference in our city.
Q: You’ve been involved with a wide variety of projects, would you say there is an overall philosophy that applies to all of your work?
A: Being architects, we are problem solvers, and each and every one of our clients and their projects requires unique solutions. Having said that, our goal has always been to create a simple and sensuous space, with delightful surprises that transcend everyday experience. We start with an intense and collaborative process with our clients to clarify their needs and simplify their ideas. With a clear concept, we then explore multiple design options, until we find a solution that is of essence of the project.
Q: How did the idea of Dinin’ Hall come about and how did it move from idea to reality?
A: We were given an opportunity, in 2011, to create a design exhibition at Urban Arts Space and we wanted to feature projects that are with the theme of good design makes better neighborhoods. Dinin’Hall is one of the concepts that we included in the show. The concept arose from a mix of our experiences- the booming food truck scene, our project at Celebrate Local (a unique store that sells all things Ohio) and Food Fort at ECDI, and our office’s move to 400 West Rich.
We think Dinin’ Hall is something that will provide added value to the food truck dining experience; make it simpler and more enjoyable. And most importantly, we believe great food and great space can bring people to East Franklinton, an underserved neighborhood yet an emerging and cool place in town. The idea took off really quickly. It literally took us three months from concept to opening doors. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the food truck community and Chris Sherman, the manager at 400. He believes in the idea! He helped to turn the loading dock into the dining room.
Q: Can you talk about the Willow Theatre project?
A: Out of the blue, I got an email from Brad Steinmetz, Professor of Theater at OSU, asking if I would be interested in collaborating on a stage design competition. I didn’t know Brad and hadn’t work with him before, but we looked at the brief of the competition and thought it could be fun. We were on board after meeting with Brad, getting to know his expertise in stage design and the research he had done. Also his priority of using sustainable materials interested us.
The design was done fairly quickly, and because Brad and I were so busy during the time when they developed the design, most of the communications were done by phone or emails. We would have missed the deadline had it not been extended for another two weeks. We cranked out the design and submitted it at the last minute. No one would have anticipated we would win.
A few months later, we got the notification that the organizer, World Stage Design , had chosen the Willow as the winning entry and their crew would build it! We were ecstatic! The following months were a lot of Skype communications and conference calls as the construction crews were building Willow from scratch to a 120-seat fully functioning theatre.
Brad and I flew out to Cardiff, Wales to see the Willow after it was built. The most amazing moment was when we saw how visitors interact with the moving fabrics in the breeze as they go in and out of the Willow. It’s priceless to see how a simple design can completely transform how people experience the space.
Now we are working on a proposal to bring Willow to Columbus! It will be a public art installation and have the ability to move around town to be set up in different neighborhoods. We’re now pursuing partners to create arts programming around the installation: be it dance, theater, visual arts, and writing. The goal is really to create a transformative experience to people of all ages and backgrounds. The plan is to realize it in 2015.
Q: In terms of architecture and the built environment, how do you think Columbus has changed in the years you’ve been working here? Is it on the right track from a design and architecture perspective?
A: Our built environment on the macro level is always affected by big development by the city, major institutions and developers. In that regard, I think Columbus is very fortunate to have OSU, Nationwide and many active developers constantly planning and building new quality buildings and infrastructure all over the city, not to mention all the work on the downtown riverfront that the city has done in the past few years and will continue in the future.
On the micro level, our city has many entrepreneurs and small businesses that open many well-designed retail stores and restaurants that we can experience at the pedestrian level. With the help of organizations like Center for Architecture and Design, whose mission is to promote and help elevate awareness of our built environment and design in different disciplines, we are definitely on the right track in that regard.
Q: Any exciting new projects that you’re currently working on, or looking forward to in the near future?
A: Yes, a good portion of our current projects come from our returning clients. We’re working on the design of Glass Axis’s new and larger facility as they are relocating to East Franklinton! And we’re moving forward with City Beet Café in Clintonville, the vegan restaurant owned and operated by Pattycake Bakery. We just completed the first-of-its-kind fashion truck that sells suits for Pursuit! The Market now under construction in Italian Village, will be wrapping up and open its door in the fall this year.
One of the new projects is in Grove City in which our client, Folsom and Pine Farm, is envisioning to expand its farmers’ market and educational garden components. On top of these commercial projects, we are also working on a few residential projects with individual homeowners who share our modern sensibility and want us to design their home-addition and renovation.
Q: Anything else we should know about TLA?
A: I want to mention ALTernative, an organization that Eliza and I set up to promote the use of design to improve the built-environment of Columbus neighborhoods. Through ALTernantive, we provide our design and management services with a highly discounted fee. Often times, we also helped apply for grants to make projects possible. All of our projects are realized with strong collaboration with our non-profit partners too. Our goal is to create design-oriented projects that also bring people together and help nurture a sense of neighborhood.
So far, we have completed four murals with two coming up this year. Also, we’ll be expanding the SoHud Tree Mural to the adjacent vacant building in our neighborhood in the spring. In addition, the Gift Garden in East Franklinton, a collaboration with Local Matters and Boys and Girls Clubs, will continue to its 2nd phase. This education-garden project just received a grant and we’ll be working with our partners together, with help from the Kiwanis Club, to expand it. ALTernative allows us to think outside the box sometimes to create our own projects that can have a positive impact in our neighborhoods.
More information can be found online at www.laiarchitect.com.
Photos provided by Tim Lai ArchitecT.