Professional Profile: Arlen Li

Laboratory Design recently spoke with Arlen Li, AIA, LEED BD+C, about his professional inspiration as a Science Planner with Wilson HGA in Boston.

Why did you choose this career?

Early in my life, I thought I would become a scientist but then hit the “math wall.” As I thought further about what I would like to do for a career, I became intrigued with how architecture involves a constant effort to balance functional and aesthetic desires within a tangible structure. The functional part appealed to my still curious scientific side while the artistic component added a new dimension. Now I would add design for sustainability to the mix as I feel that architects can make a tremendous contribution to both awareness and implementation of energy and resource conservation.

If you were an animal, what animal do you think you’d be and why?

I think I’d be a Border Collie. I like their qualities of intelligence and agility. They are great herding dogs and will even steer humans on occasion.

What’s the best advice you’ve received during your career?

The advice that I keep in mind is: follow your instincts. Even after many years of practice and an accumulation of knowledge about science facilities, I recognize that no two projects are alike and there are always new issues that require some intuition about an approach and eventual solution. I am guilty of overthinking at times and this advice has helped guide me back to a fresher perspective.

What has been your favorite vacation, or what would be your dream vacation?

Of the places I have visited, New Zealand tops the list for sheer natural beauty and variety of landscape. Touring the country is not a matter of traveling from one scenic spot to another; it’s more like being on one continuous scenic ride. And as if to complement the abundance of natural wonders, there are the sheep, lots of them.

What would you tell young people if you wanted to encourage them to join your line of work?

Think of lab design first as an effort that relates to the people that occupy a space. By their nature, science buildings are highly technical and it can be easy to focus on meeting their utilitarian needs over everything else. Working out efficient and well-coordinated solutions to complex puzzles of equipment, utilities and infrastructure can be very satisfying in itself, but creating spaces that inspire the occupants to want to work there is rewarding in a different and lasting way. Some of the most gratifying experiences I have had in my work are when the occupants of a completed building tell me that their new home is better than they could have ever expected.

Why did you decide to get into lab design, as opposed to other kinds of facilities?

I chose architecture first, and then fell into lab design as a result of working for a firm that specialized in academic science facilities. My father was a chemical engineering professor and researcher, so I already felt a familiarity with the science and technology world. Lab design in some ways was an extension of my vicarious experience. As I become more involved in the planning and design of lab facilities, I enjoyed the process of translating user needs to a built work environment. An interesting episode of my career was the opportunity to work on a project at my father’s university alongside some of his colleagues whose names I had known since childhood.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I enjoy traveling and getting to know different cultures, and how they are different or similar to our own. My favorite outdoor activities include hiking and, in the last several years, cycling.

Read the full interview in Laboratory Equipment.