Katie LaCourt’s dream to become an architect was inspired in the kitchen during high school when her family was renovating their Milwaukee home.
Today, at 29, LaCourt is an accomplished architect and is among a league of women worldwide who are blazing a trail in the male-dominated field with their unique brand of female design creativity. Like these pioneers, LaCourt is making an impact on communities. During the last year, she has brought her great passion and intelligence to lead the architectural team in converting the abandoned Kmart into Cristo Rey’s new state-of-the art home in Waukegan.
“Coming here to see students enter the building for the first time and to see the smiles and surprise on their faces was such a rewarding experience,” says LaCourt, who earned her undergraduate degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota and graduate degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was her first project as the lead designer for the Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects (JGMA) in Chicago.
The top priority of the JGMA team was to bring light into the windowless structure and to create a bold and exciting new identity for Cristo Rey.
“I remember coming here and seeing this K-Mart with its crazy mezzanines and bad stigma, and trying to envision what can be,” says LaCourt. She has spent the last year commuting to Waukegan from the firm’s downtown Chicago office. “Let’s just say there were some huge challenges.”
In addition to the magnificent $18.5 million building transformation, LaCourt and the JGMA team have planted seeds that seem to be inspiring students to pursue careers in architecture.
Last summer LaCourt brought Katia Astudillo, a CRSM Class of 2015 who was interning for JGMA to see the construction in progress. A University of Illinois Chicago architecture student, Astudillo says she was impressed by LaCourt’s enthusiasm for the Kmart school renovation.
“You could tell she put in the time and effort to make this building perfect for the students and staff, but also for herself,” says Astudillo. “She inspired me in that moment because I want to someday feel the way she felt about the new CRSM building. I also admired her in this moment for being a woman who was breaking the mold and making a difference in the world through design.”
It was during college as an architecture major at the University of Minnesota that LaCourt found her passion and calling: exploring fresh ideas in designing learning environments that could change lives for young people in underserved neighborhoods. Her HGTV kitchen home remodeling aspirations were suddenly kicked up a notch.
“I saw the impact design could have on the community and how powerful it was to create a good environment for education,” she says. “You see all these beautiful buildings with all the amenities and you think that is what architecture is. But it is not just for the wealthy. It is for everyone.”
LaCourt is quick to explain that the bold colors of CRSM on the exterior and interior not only were a cost-savings measure, but the high impact of color was designed to create a strong presence and new identity for CRSM in the community.
“We wanted to say, ‘we’re here to stay,’” she says. “The color shows we don’t just blend in.”
In many ways, LaCourt is making the same bold statement in her own career. When she joined JGMA, she was the sole female architect at the time. Today, there are six women architects there. Someday, she aspires to be at the helm of her own firm.
“When my parents were renovating our kitchen and I got super involved and thought that is the career for me,” she says. “But I never realized it was such a male-dominated field until I graduated, because in school it was an about 50-50 ratio.” A survey of the world’s 100 biggest architecture practices found that only three were headed by women, and just two had as many female managers as male, according to an article in the architecture trade publication, Dezeen.
LaCourt began her architecture career working on the design of large scale urban projects, but quickly focused her attention on architecture’s impact on disadvantaged communities. She hopes to continue contributing to those kinds of projects and also to return to CRSM for the second phase of construction, when the funds are raised to hopefully build a chapel, gymnasium and space for the arts and music.
Meantime, these days she is working on building a community center for SOS Children’s Village in Chicago, which provides a home for abandoned and orphaned children.
“Right now I am just a sponge trying to learn as much as I can,” she says. “It’s a fascinating field where I get to wear a lot of hats and am learning so much.”