Lab Design and Furnishings

Professional Profile: Lily Lai

Lab Manager speaks to Lily Lai of SmithGroup

MaryBeth DiDonna

Lily Lai is with SmithGroup, based in their San Francisco office. Lab Manager recently spoke with Lily about her career, experience, and personal interests.

Q: How did you get started in your career? Did you major in your field in college, get an internship, switch careers along the way, etc.?

A: I started out in college as a political science and art history major at Boston University. I was always interested in art and enjoyed studying politics but was not sure that my future was in law. One summer, I participated in the Career Discovery Architecture Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I had read about the program and my art teacher recommended that I apply. I loved that it allowed me to be creative and required me to be both artistic and analytical. I got a lot of positive feedback which was a great confidence boost. But mostly, it was fun and it felt like a great fit for me. I really enjoyed being around other architects and had more in common with the architecture students than the political science students. When I started as an architect in New York, I worked on high-end retail projects, stock exchange trading floors, and core and shell projects. I enjoyed the complexity that those project types offered. 

When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area 20 years ago, I shifted to concentrate on science and laboratory facilities. I enjoyed the complexity and scale of these projects and I have focused my career on science & technology facilities. I love my work for two reasons: I’m often humbled by learning about the science that these projects will enable, and I am constantly learning as the science, sustainability, and design requirements evolve with each project. Currently, I am leading private sector science & technology projects for SmithGroup’s San Francisco office. This role allows me to continue working on this project type with a specific focus on private sector clients and developer clients. 

Q: If you weren’t in this profession, what job do you think you’d be doing instead?

A: I am a big baker and a big foodie. I think if I were not doing what I am doing now, I would have had my own food business. For me, baking has always been a hobby and a departure from architecture. The two are similar in that there is creativity, planning required, and technical expertise, as well as being able to make something that you can touch and use. Most importantly, baking is free of the complexity of designing a highly technical building! 

Q: What’s a common misconception about your job?

A: I think a common misconception is that there is only one way of doing things. I think there is always more than one solution to an issue. Design education teaches you to think and problem solve to find architectural solutions. We are trained to recognize that there is always more than one right solution, and that is the distinctive skill we bring. We synthesize a large amount of information and try to bring some logic and understanding to it. For me, a good solution is one that works well and solves the issues from the most perspectives. Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting agreement on which direction and solution to follow.

Q: What is your favorite building, lab-related or not?

A: My favorite building is a place—Petra in Syria. It is the most amazing city carved and built into the rocks and desert by the Nabateans. The entry to the city is through a crevice in the rock that you enter on horseback that then opens to a large building carved in the red-hued rocks. The Nabateans took advantage of the natural environment and, like the Romans, had a system of bringing water in and out of the city. Then, for whatever reason, they disappeared. I was born and raised in the Middle East, and the desert has always been a special place for me. I visited Petra and Wadi Rum many years ago and was amazed by this city. Most people are aware of Petra through the Indiana Jones movies and Wadi Rum through Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia movies—and, fun fact, it will again be featured in the new Dune movie.

Q: What lab projects are you working on at the moment?

A: I recently wrapped up the Integrative Genomics Building at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which is the third building that I have worked on at LBNL. I also recently finished a STEM building for California State University, East Bay. I am currently working with various developers assisting them in evaluating massing studies for speculative core and shell lab buildings on potential sites in the Bay Area. I am also working with a private life sciences client to evaluate their existing facility in Mountain View, California, and creating a feasibility study for their new space.

Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you at work?

A: During a difficult budget discussion, one of my team members brought out play money to supplement the budget. That immediately broke through a tense moment and everyone had a good laugh.