Background Check: Staying on Course

Age: 43
Years of Experience: 20
Hobbies: Boating, camping, jogging
Interests: Sustainability, future trends/synergies in justice
Last Book Read: Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
Favorite pets: Our great danes

Lorenzo Lopez knew from the time he was in first grade that he wanted to be an architect. So it comes as no surprise to those that know him best that he is a senior planner for Nacht & Lewis Architects, an established Sacramento-based firm that celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

“I’ve been here for 13 years — 18 years if you include the five years I worked in this office as part of the joint venture to design the Robert Matsui Federal Courthouse project,” says Lopez. “I always felt I had a say in the direction of this firm. I knew I would always be welcome to speak with principals and share my ideas. I felt empowered and knew my opinion mattered.”

Nacht & Lewis was founded by Leonard F. Starks in New York City in 1922. Starks soon relocated to Sacramento from the Big Apple, at the request of his employer, to design a chain of theaters on the Pacific Coast that included the Fox-Senator and the Alhambra Theatre. Although neither theater exists today, each played a significant role for NLA, which consequently went on to design buildings for numerous sectors — civic, education, health care, justice and corrections.

“Our oldest corrections project was the El Dorado County Jail in Placerville, designed in conjunction with HOK — almost 30 years ago,” says Lopez. “Since then, we’ve completed jail projects for Sacramento, Lake and Placer counties in California. We also have been very successful with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, working on a variety of projects at many institutions throughout the state.”

At present, the firm has several CDCR projects in construction, most notably a three-story enhanced outpatient facility (EOP) at the California Medical Facility, Vacaville; a two-story EOP at Salinas Valley State Prison, Soledad; a two-story acute mental health housing facility at the California Men’s Colony, San Luis Obispo; and a two-story acute/intermediate care housing facility at the California Institute for Women in Corona.

At the county level, NLA is paying close attention to AB900 funding and recently completed a grant application for Sacramento County’s Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility.

“Corrections projects are not easy projects,” says Lopez. “Meeting relevant code requirements and security needs can be quite challenging. Recently, we’ve had to balance those drivers with access compliance and sustainability goals. Furthermore, we have specialized in medical and mental health projects within prisons, overlaying I-3 occupancy requirements with I-2 occupancy requirements, which sometimes conflict. In many ways, it is a niche market and we compete primarily with national firms for this work. We have been fortunate to be successful with these projects and hope to continue with corrections work in the future.”

Longevity and Success
Lopez says the secret to Nacht & Lewis’ success lies in the longevity of its staff. The firm has maintained teams that have worked together for more than a decade on multiple projects, resulting in much expertise under one roof. In all, NLA employs 37 people.

“Technology allows a firm of our size to compete on a level playing field with larger firms for projects up to about $500 million. The big difference is that the experience in a firm our size is much more boots-on-the-ground, and it is so advantageous to follow a project from the conceptual stage right through construction, garnering bits of experience along the way that will benefit the next project.”

Highly skilled at designing to tight budgets and using its understanding of codes and regulations to design for the most efficient structures possible, much of NLA’s work is public sector institutional architecture. The firm also strives to be honest and sincere with each other and its clients.

“We feel it is our duty to be good stewards with taxpayer money,” says Lopez.

“However, if the budget is not sufficient, we won’t promise we can build the project within that budget. At times, our honesty might prevent us from winning a job. In the end, I think our success comes from living by our core values: innovation, integrity and collaboration. It might sound corny, but we really do ask ourselves each day whether or not our decisions and actions are congruent with those values.”

Lopez has been an architect for 20 years, having graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1992. Two decades ago, the advent of CAD drafting was new, which gave Lopez the opportunity to really affect the design, since senior staff did not know how to use the AutoCAD design software.

“I was allowed to plan some of the departments within Robert Matsui Federal Courthouse, giving me my first real-world design and planning experience,” he recalls. “I stayed with the project all through construction, which educated me how drawings get interpreted and built. It also instilled in me a great respect for the contractors who had to bring our designs to life.”

Lopez focuses primarily on projects within the justice and corrections markets and considers it his responsibility to be an expert in everything that can affect design. As a result, he has also become an expert in fire/life safety codes, as well as access compliance.

“I understand how to construct buildings, how they are waterproofed and how they are supported structurally,” he said. “I can talk turkey with MEP and civil consultants.”
If his responsibilities at NLA didn’t keep him busy enough, Lopez was the chair of the Academy of Architecture for Justice 2011 National Conference where he was ultimately responsible for planning the event. With some assistance from the national AIA and the AAJ’s advisory group, he assembled a conference team consisting of three track chairs, a co-chair, and some additional support roles. The Academy of Architecture for Justice is an AIA network created to foster sharing of knowledge and experience, and advance the state of justice architecture.

“We solicited content for the conference, created the schedule of events and the conference program, and arranged for keynote and plenary speakers,” he says. “We were fortunate enough to have new Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye speak during our keynote lunch. I also presented at the conference during three sessions, addressing accessibility for justice facilities, contemporary courtrooms and alternative delivery approaches for justice facilities.”

This year, Lopez will chair the Justice Facilities Review, the AAJ’s annual publication honoring worthy justice projects that have been recently completed or are in design. He is also involved with the AAJ’s sustainability committee on a subcommittee charged with educating users and clients about the benefits of sustainable design in justice facilities.

“To sum it up, I love working as an architect because it challenges me on the artistic and scientific level,” he says. “I really enjoy working with our clients, most of whom become good friends. I strive to deliver the best value and find ways to improve the built environment. In the end, I find it extremely rewarding because it is an honest living where I can make a difference in people lives and improve their surroundings and operations.”