Story made in partnership with Baltimore Together for Baltimore Development Corporation.
Pavlina: “At this time last year, everything was unknown. The building, design and construction industry experienced a major shakeup when the housing market burst in 2009. It took half the industry out, and so everyone was bracing, thinking, is this going to be another recession and what are we going to do?
What was incredible is the fact that our industry remained fairly stable through the pandemic. I think part of it is because the industry has learned to be resilient because it's often so vulnerable.
For us, since we’re a relatively small company, it allows us to be nimble. So, we were prepared to do whatever it took to ride the storm out. It was exciting to see how everyone pitched in and fought for us to make it through the pandemic. Our team made the necessary sacrifices to help keep everyone healthy so we could continue to do good work.
I'm just so proud of Baltimore City, who just really coalesced around each other and followed the rules. I think it's contributed to everyone being able to come out of this, because it could have been much worse had we not stuck together.
Baltimore is very special to us. We started our professional careers here and then moved to the West Coast to pursue opportunities we felt would make us better designers and ultimately, good business owners.
We went there to train with the idea that we would have our own practice, and we would learn how to do it well. We had the opportunity to go somewhere else after that, and we chose to come back to Baltimore.
Many people asked why, but there has always been something incredibly enticing about Baltimore to us. It was the fact that we felt, and we still do, that Baltimore needs good design. It needs people that are committed to its long term continuous improvement, and we felt that our biggest contribution as professionals could possibly be in that capacity.
Baltimore is a large enough city that has the capacity to dream big and stand on its own, it's not the little sister of D.C. It has its own unique identity, but it can get overshadowed by some of these glossier, bigger cities. However, that makes the soil here fertile for a lot of great work and development on the shoulders of this historic city.
Kuo Pao: “When we came back to Baltimore, we noticed that a lot of the progressive and high-level design work we were seeing seemed to be more for larger organizations, and not so much for the communities that also needed high-level design work.
Small businesses that don't have a tremendous amount of funds weren’t able to do the same elaborate work, and so we looked at that as a challenge for us. We decided to tackle the cost challenges by getting more creative with the design and implementation aspects to give these communities and certain clients a chance to have good, thoughtful, contemporary design.
It's not just designed for the 1 or 10%, it's designed for everyone, it’s universal. I think Baltimore needed and wanted that, and that's one of the reasons why we came back.
One of the biggest challenges we faced when we first started was getting our firm out there as one that can take on large-scale projects. We knew that if you didn’t have 20 to 30 years of experience like some other architecture firms, clients would quickly say they’re going to go with the norm. We had to work hard to market ourselves and to convince potential clients that hiring architects with 20 to 30 years of experience wouldn’t necessarily give them the best product.
During that time, we saw that the city needed some fresh, new ideas and energy. So, we kept working hard to convince people to hire us and let us show them what we could do. We showed them that architecture can be exciting and dynamic. It doesn't have to be the way we've been doing it for decades. We had to break the modus operandi and bring some new ideas to the table.
We love creating great architecture and we enjoy training the next generation of designers. Pavlina and I have taught at Morgan State University and MICA for the past ten years.
Pavlina stepped down as the director of the undergraduate architecture program at Morgan State University just before the pandemic started to focus more on the business, but we still work with students in the studio, which has been great because it keeps our business fresh. We've also had students intern with us, which has evolved in some of them being hired and becoming part of our team.
We believe in giving students real-world practice with what we teach in the classroom. We had students from our schools help with the Baltimore City Light Festivals to give them some hands-on experience with building things.
We are currently in the middle of finalizing a deal to acquire a building on South Ann St. in Baltimore that used to be a library. It has more space than our current studio, which will allow us to increase the number of students who can work with us.
Pavlina and I are excited about expanding because when we started, our goal was to make a name for ourselves as entrepreneurs.
My father is from mainland China and my mother is from Taiwan. My father immigrated to Taiwan at an early age. He went to school there and met my mother there.
He joined the military in Taiwan and when he was around 18-20 years old, he got a scholarship to study engineering at Texas Tech University, so he and my mother moved to the United States.
While my father was earning his degree, my mother was also working on her degree in business. Their move became a family affair because their parents and siblings immigrated to the U.S. too. My paternal grandmother, who was an entrepreneur in Taiwan, opened a Chinese restaurant in Texas, which became a family business. My dad, mom and their siblings helped at the restaurant.
This sparked the entrepreneurial spirit in my family. Years later, my mother opened her own Chinese restaurant in another town in Texas and made a name for herself.
Pavlina and I also attended Texas Tech University, it’s where we met. After we finished college, we worked for some other firms to prepare to open our own business and I wanted to follow in my family’s footsteps, so Pavlina and I have been committed to also making a name for ourselves with our design firm.”