Lott Trucks Into Urban Design

July 12, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The thought of not flying solo was scarier for him than was the idea of taking off on his own. So in a few weeks, Ted Lott will celebrate his first anniversary of piloting Lott 3 Architecture LLC by himself.

Bur Lott, an urban designer, doesn’t plan to fly unaccompanied for long, as he is looking to land a few others to join him at his firm.

“That wasn’t the plan going out, but that is the way it worked out, and it’s just fine for the way it is right now,” he said of doing his own thing. “I do hope to be other than just one in the not-too-distant future.”

The not-too-distant past, which has found him spreading his word and his wings from his loft office at 25 Ionia Center SW, has been pretty rewarding for Lott. Start-ups aren’t easy, as there never are enough hours in a day to get the word out. But Lott clearly understood that going in, and he seems to be making good progress on getting known.

“Architecture is such a local profession that you really have to invest the time in the place you are residing and working to be able to develop the relationships and develop the trust to develop the contacts,” he said.

Lott left Landmark Design Group PC just about a year ago to form Lott 3, after more than nine years at the southeast side firm. He credited Landmark’s top executive, Robert Van Putten, with rescuing him from a nightmarish truck-washing stint he did after earning his graduate degree 10 years ago, and with introducing him to the world of design, a field he dreamed of being in since he was 10.

“I felt I could get closest to doing the work I wanted to do in a place like Grand Rapids, where there are a lot of existing building stock that is right for redevelopment. There are also a lot of open pieces of land in the urban environment that are ripe for redevelopment,” he said.

“When I left Landmark, one of the biggest goals I had was to do more urban work.”

He is doing just that and working both sides of the design street, too. Lott currently has two downtown projects on his drawing board One is renovating a South Division building. The other is designing a new structure on Ionia SW. Both are mixed-use projects with retail and housing, and one will become home to his new office.

“I don’t look at myself as a renovation architect or a preservationist. I look at myself as more of an urban architect or urban designer,” he said.

“There are so many existing buildings in Grand Rapids that are under-utilized and not necessarily being used to their highest value. I’m trying to actually use these in different ways,” he added. “I’m trying to adapt these buildings into something else — and that is not necessarily preservation. That is adaptive re-use and that is re-thinking the way our urban environment will be.”

Lott was born in East Lansing and bred to grow up green and white, but got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from that maize-and-blue school in Ann Arbor. That’s not normally the kind of thing that finds its way onto the pages of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It’s really not all that common, either. That’s Lott’s story, though.

His parents, both MSU grads, still speak to him, however, and he was able to turn that academic trek onto “enemy” turf into an opportunistic one.

“It was always kind of a joke (at home),” said Lott of taking his Spartan background to Wolverine land. “I remain a Michigan State fan. I won a whole lot of money from hubris-filled Wolverine fans over the years I was in Ann Arbor, betting against the Wolverines.”

Lott left U-M with a graduate degree in architecture in 1991, a time when the nation’s economy was spongy and the market was soft on design jobs. After sending out 750 resumes, having a few interviews and getting even fewer worthwhile offers, he took a job at Thornapple Valley Trucking near his home in East Lansing.

“I washed their semi-tractor trailers in the snow. All through Christmas and New Year’s of 1991 and into 1992, I was standing out in the snow power-washing tractor trailers and getting a little tired of doing that, ” he said, laughing.

Then the cavalry arrived in the form of Van Putten, and Lott’s truck-washing days were a thing of the past.

“In February 1992, I left my career as a truck washer to go to Landmark and start to be an architect.”

Lott and Kristy Glass, his wife, live in a nearby downtown neighborhood — close enough to the central business district that he often walks to work. Lott gives his time and talents to the design committee for the Heartside Mainstreet Initiative, a unique project primarily concerned with the redesign of South Division. Kristy works at Frames Unlimited, where she does graphic design and ads for the retailer.

Socializing with others in related professions is what he does when he’s away from work. He named Paul McGraw, Jennifer Metz and Rebecca Smith-Hoffman as people he regularly hangs with. He and Kristy also like to take road trips to Detroit and Chicago to catch little-known punk rock bands in small clubs.

“There is never a better way to see any music performed, in my opinion, than in a bar with about 100 other people,” he said. “She and I both like to do that whenever we can, to get up right in front and have our ears ring the next day.”

Lott told the Business Journal that architecture has taught him the true art of patience. He also knows that even though he has practiced for more than a decade, he is still seen as a young pup by his peers and that it will take time for him to reach the seasoned pro status.

“I rarely get nostalgic for my good ol’ days in architecture because, you know, it’s an old man’s profession,” he said with a wink. “And I’ve got a long way to go.”

Even though Lott’s way is long, he does have part of that path mapped out.

“In the immediate future, I’d like to expand Lott 3 Architecture at a reasonable pace and be viewed as a high-design firm. I would like to be able to compete on larger and larger playing fields, as the years go by,” he said.

“I also will continue to be involved in downtown issues and downtown design as much as possible, as much as people who own buildings and pieces of land around here will allow me.”

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