Q&A - Helen Lee of TAO & LEE Associates
After working in Los Angeles, New York and London for more than 10 years on diverse project types with budgets from $100K to $135M, my partner, Peter Tao and I were ready to leave the corporate architecture world and open our own architectural practice. We believed that St. Louis, Peter’s hometown, would be the perfect location to start our office.
We opened our office in 1995 and have built a design-oriented practice working on a variety of project types including commercial developments, cultural institutions, educational buildings, hospitality/restaurants, retail and residential (multifamily and single-family homes). We recently worked on some very public projects: Ballpark Village Block 100 Offices, Block 200 Retail building, Washington University East End Project and the soon to be opened Missouri Botanical Gardens Visitor Center. Tao + Lee thrives on diversity and challenges with each of our projects and strives to provide a unique design for our clients.
Q: When did you decide to get into the commercial real estate industry? Was it always your focus?
A: I knew from the moment I started architectural school at USC that this is what I wanted to do, creating built environments that reflected the culture, location, clients’ aspirations and my vision. I travelled extensively in Europe and Asia, looking at incredible architecture and spaces that only reinforced my love for architecture and led to a Master’s Degree in Architecture at Columbia University.
Q: What are some of the things you love about your job?
A: There are so many things that I love about my work – the people, the challenges, the problem solving and the concrete evidence of the work. I get to build relationships with my clients, understand what their vision and challenges are, creatively solve problems and issues as each project is unique, and create a space that is beautiful, inspiring and fresh. No one project is the same. Each is challenging in different ways. The solutions are innumerable but finding the right solution for the client is extremely satisfying.
Q: What is your CREW-St. Louis origin? When did you join? Why did you become a member?
A: I’ve been invited over the years to attend different CREW events by different people, and they were incredible networking and fun events. I joined in 2019 at the start of the pandemic, and it has been a revelation. I knew that there was a huge network of incredible successful women, but the national reach and connectivity was a huge draw. I wanted to be a part of this women group that fostered growth, education, understanding and support to its members. I am also a big supporter of building a stronger, equitable and sustainable community through architectural and commercial real estate and CREW fit this interest.
Q: What was the first CREW event you attended and what were your impressions?
A: The 2019 Signature Event with Maxine Clark inspired me to join. The room was filled with smart, interesting, dynamic women that were committed to make St. Louis a better place to live and work. It was refreshing to see the alliance of so many different aspects of the commercial real estate industry coming together in a social and informal way.
Q: Please name a few of the projects you’ve been involved in, specifically in the St. Louis area that you are proud of
A: We like challenging projects and Washington University has thrown us a few, taking undesirable basement spaces and creating the Skandalaris Center, a student entrepreneur incubator center and the Student Writing Center. We are also proud of our work at Villa di Maria Montessori School, our long association with Crazy Bowls and Wraps, United Provision market at the Lofts at Washington University, SLAM East Building Education Center and Auditorium renovation, and the soon to be opened Missouri Botanical Garden’s new Sassafras Café and Restaurant.
Q: What other associations or volunteer activities are you involved with?
A: I’m currently the board chair for EarthDance Organic Farm School in Ferguson, whose mission is to advance food justice by training organic farmers and gardeners, providing connection to healthy food and community. I also sit on committees for the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, STL, YWCA facilities (through a CREW connection), OCA-AAPI Advocate, Habitat for Humanity and Mosaic’s International Mentoring Advisory Group. It’s been a privilege to be a part of these groups!
Q: How has COVID-19 impacted you and your organization?
A: You learn so much about your company having gone through the pandemic. We are a small company, and we thrive on collaboration. Working remotely impacted our day-to-day collaborations, the impromptu desk discussions, the group meetings, the calling out for information, etc. Fortunately for us, we were considered essential workers and allowed fairly early on to return to the office.
Q: What else would you like your fellow CREW-St. Louis members to know about you?
A: I started teaching the Capstone semester in the Interior Design Studio at Maryville University and love the contact with young aspiring interior designers, the ability to open their minds to another way of seeing space and design. It’s another form of mentorship that I find rewarding.