Q & A: Mariana Lavezzo

LPA’s New Director of School Planning on engaging learners, digging deeper and designing more inclusive campuses.

After 16 years working with educators to develop campuses that are more equitable, sustainable and supportive of students, Mariana Lavezzo joined LPA in April as Director of School Planning.

In her new role, Mariana will work with LPA integrated teams to develop inclusive planning processes to design high-performance environments that inspire learners and reflect their communities. Throughout her career, Lavezzo has been a passionate advocate for active outdoor learning spaces; a collaborative design process; and the importance of making students the center of the design process.

In an interview, she discusses the impact of international experience on her work, rethinking the approach to school planning, and the importance of planning through the eyes of students.

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Menchaca Elementary School

What do you think is the main asset that you bring to LPA?

That would be my experience. My roots are in single family residential design, design build. Right after grad school, I had to learn how to innovate right away to meet shoestring budgets. Then I worked in hospitality before following my passion into schools planning and design 16 years ago. Shortly after starting in schools, I worked with an international firm, so I had the opportunity to travel all over the world and really learn about different pedagogies and incorporating different cultures and rituals. It was taking the ideas that would come from the pre-design and planning phases and working through how to manifest those into physical space to support the client’s vision for the future with room for evolution. On every project, I learned something new from the educators, from the students, from experts in other disciplines, from my own team. I feel like I have become a cross-pollinator of those different ideas.

Are there certain themes that you feel are important in your work?

When I was a designer, it was a constant challenge to try to see the world through the students’ eyes, to make it relevant to them. And now as a planner, it really is about engaging them in a very authentic way. I keep hearing talk about the student voice, but really, it’s the voices of the learners, engaging them in a meaningful way.

I always say when we start planning, we’re not just doing this project, we’re writing a story together. We’re going to co-create together and that process includes not just the adults. The process includes children and youth because they are a unique group that already has a lot to contribute to a planning engagement process, just as they are. They are the experts on their own lived experiences and bring us that perspective.

I have found students get really excited about the process. It’s really giving them this empowerment, this learning experience about putting democracy into practice, and they can help shape their world. Wherever they are in the world, they learn that they can collaborate with other people and they can create a vision together. That’s really exciting to me.

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What has changed in recent years about the planning process?

At the master planning level, things have changed since COVID and our country’s stronger effort to end systemic racism and really make sure everybody’s included. I’ve worked on reinventing a set of questions and processes to really go at it from an equity-based approach. It’s not the typical visioning questions but digging deeper to analyze what you have now on this campus. How does the environment make you feel? What spaces make you feel safe or comfortable? Happy or frustrated? How are spaces supporting your ability to learn and to find your spark?

And then there is the challenge of, how do you make all cultures feel included? What are the common threads between all these different cultures? By learning a lot about each other in the process, we create a sense of belonging for everyone. And when it’s built, they know they were a part of that process.

You have to be more aggressive in your attempts to create equity in the process perhaps than traditionally.

Definitely. When I worked on Sacramento City Unified School District, we learned very quickly that we need to be focusing on students and teachers first, and then the neighborhoods, and then the facilities. Normally, as architects, we go straight to the facilities.

Instead of a typical master plan for the 73 campuses, we developed a list of priorities for each campus. On each project, the architect and builder can go back to design guidelines that support the educational vision and make sure that they’re following that priority list and design guidelines to give each and every student an equal chance to thrive. The campuses that really need more work are going to get it, and many of the projects will not be the glamorous type you often see on the edges of campuses to show how the bond funding is being spent.

We found by really digging in deeper with these questions of students and teachers, and what they need for their health and their wellness and to feel a sense of belonging, then we know everything is going to fall into place the way it should with the facilities.

How did your international work affect your design approach?

Working through all the bureaucracy and all the pain points was a great learning experience for me, to find that balance of working through things together. We really need to use the pre-design process to make people feel very comfortable and they feel it is OK not knowing the answers. We’re going to work through this together because we’re following a strategic plan.

By learning a lot about each other in the process, we create a sense of belonging for everyone. And when it’s built, they know they were a part of that process.

What do you like about coming to LPA?

When I shifted from international work to California public school work and started seeing the different firms out there, LPA was my favorite. I have always admired the innovative work and held it up as a benchmark to aim for both from a planning perspective and aesthetically. Especially, I felt in interior architecture they’re giving it a lot more attention and that’s something that stood out to me. I am doing a deep dive on how we can help clients use the outdoors as a purposeful learning environment. I am thrilled we have an in-house landscape architecture team to make that outdoor planning more fluid. I appreciated that as soon as I learned about LPA and I got to know (Director of K-12) Kate (Mraw) through seeing her at conferences and presentations, and then collaborating with her on a few conference workshops. In the process of putting together a presentation with her, I really got to see under the hood of LPA’s process and how they are engaging the community and authentically engaging students.

You share a broad definition of sustainability.

It’s important to factor sustainability into planning, and I don’t mean just being carbon neutral or energy efficient, but really looking at it in a holistic way. In the early planning stages, how do we explore environmental quality, economic development of the neighborhood. That’s another lens that we want to use.