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How Paul Lukez incorporates sustained pro-bono work into his practice

His architecture firm has been building in a Honduran town for eight years running

Paul Lukez in front of a wall of images in his office.

Architect Paul Lukez puts sustainability at the heart of each project he takes on, whether it's a 50,000-square-foot complex in Hangzhou, China, an ADA-compliant medical simulation center in New Jersey, or a health center in Honduras.

Founded in 1992, Lukez’s Boston-based studio didn’t become a full-fledged practice until 2007, when he shifted focus from teaching—he had professor posts at MIT, Miami University in Oxford, and more—to larger-scale architecture and planning projects. Around the same time, Lukez also published Suburban Transformations, a book on creating sustainable environments in the suburbs, and got to know new clients through lecturing and research work at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

Paul Lukez offices.

In the last decade, the firm, averaging about 10 to 12 employees at any time, has built an impressively varied portfolio spanning architecture, urban design, and interiors. But no doubt one of the most rewarding initiatives at Paul Lukez Architecture is its ongoing work in Guaimaca, a town of about 29,000 people in central Honduras.

Lukez’s first trip to Guaimaca was around 2008, as part of a service program organized by his parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. Every year, a group of about 10 to 15 parishioners head to Guaimaca to complete week-long projects with local parish Parroquia Santa Rosa de Lima. Lukez has been going almost every year, usually with his kids, and a few times with his wife as well.

Proyecto Clamor de Paz in Guaimaca, Honduras. Image courtesy of Paul Lukez Architecture.
Proyecto Clamor de Paz was the first project Lukez's firm completed in Guaimaca, Honduras. It's a memorial to two children who were brutally murdered.
Courtesy of Paul Lukez Architecture.

The focus for each trip is determined by the particular skill sets of the adults leading the group. When Lukez first went down there eight years ago, he was one of the first architects to go, and the two nuns they work with, Sister Maria Ceballos and Sister Marta Ines Toro, suddenly realized how much need there was for architectural and planning projects.

"They nearly marched me down to the mayor’s office, got in front of this long line, and got an immediate audience with the mayor," Lukez recalls in a phone interview. "It was like a scene out of a movie."

The first project they completed was a memorial for two siblings, ages 10 and 12, who were killed in the mountains. Lukez’s design turned their abandoned, former home into a simple meditation and meeting space with shuttered windows and hand-sewn benches, all for $25,000. From there, they’ve done everything from minor dorm reconstruction to rebuilding a barn out of reused components, to completing a 10,000-square-foot courtyard-based health center.

All of the design work in Honduras is pro-bono, funded by the firm. Lukez's clients back in the U.S. help finance hard costs in Honduras.

The entire staff at Paul Lukez office.
The team at Paul Lukez Architecture.

When asked about how his U.S. work influences his work in Honduras, Lukez answered the question first in reverse.

"What we learn in Honduras is that you’ve got to make the most of the least," he says. "You’ve got to be incredibly inventive because there aren’t many resources. It forces you to do things that sometimes seem impossible."

He brings up a time when they had to do a one-week project in the mountains and needed to figure out how to get a bunch of steel fabricated, installed, and shipped up to the site. The local contractors they’d partnered with, however, weren’t so worried. And on the second to last day, they simply piled into a truck and started doing all the welding and cutting up at the site and finished the project.

Alpers-Janetta Residence. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.
In Dover, MA, Lukez's team designed an addition to the Alpers-Janetta residence that connects the home to the landscape.
Peter Vanderwarker

As for the firm’s influence on Guaimaca, besides all the design work, it’s also a lot about the process.

"Because of the success of some of the projects we’ve been involved in with [these contractors’] help, they’re now viewed as the go-to contractors in town," Lukez says. Whereas they would once tow a cart around town with their supplies, these local builders now own motorbikes or trucks, and have grown their businesses with the certain practices they’ve seen work well.

Coming up, the firm is on track to complete a new dental clinic in Guaimaca within six to nine months. Just recently, Lukez chatted with a Louisiana dentist (a collaborator and friend he met through the Honduras projects) who received an amazing donation of dental chairs, and now they have to figure out how to accommodate the pieces at the new clinic.

Project Studio, The Medicines Company. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.
The Project Studio is a collaborative space that PLA designed for the Medicines Company, a scientific research firm in New Jersey.
Robert Benson

Also underway are a small-scale energy-plus house (a dwelling that produces more energy than it consumes) in New England, another compact but energy- and cost-efficient home for a teacher near Boston, and a Chinese project that will incorporate PV-integrated glass on its roof.

"Over the last 10-plus years, there’s been a lot of focus in our profession on sustainability, which is fantastic—because back in the 1970s, there was a big emphasis on it, but we got all derailed in the early ‘80s when solar and everything else was poo-pooed for a while," he says. "At long last, I think we’re back on track."

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