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Interview with Nicolas Mateus: Winner of The Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge 2023

Interview with Nicolas Mateus: Winner of The Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge 2023

In launching our inaugural Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge in February 2023, we set out to empower the next generation of architects. 


This unique platform was carefully designed to provide college students in architecture, design, or planning with the opportunity to unleash their creative potential, focusing on the historic Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, MA. By encouraging independent research and hands-on project development, we aimed to cultivate a community of forward-thinking students ready to make their mark on the future.3D Revit model of Pemberton Mill

3D Revit model of Pemberton Mill

Meet Nicolas Mateus, our first-ever Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge winner! Nicolas is from the country of Colombia and brings a wealth of architectural expertise with a Bachelor's degree from the University of the Andes in Bogotá and a year and a half of work experience in Portugal. Currently pursuing his Master's degree at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Nicolas has a fresh perspective and cutting-edge insights into the field of architecture and design.

Nicolas's winning entry, “Threads of Lawrence”, has left a lasting impact on the competition, showcasing his exceptional talent and innovative approach. In this interview, we delve into the significance of his design within the realms of architecture, design, and planning, gaining insights into the thought process that led to his well-deserved win. Join us in celebrating Nicolas Mateus's achievements and exploring the creative concepts that earned him the top spot in the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge.

Check out Nicolas Mateus' winning design in the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge! Watch his video showcasing the creative proposal for Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, MA.


Design Inspiration and Approach:


Can you share the inspiration behind your winning design?

Nicolas Mateus: “The primary consideration for me was the preservation of the existing building. I aimed to retain a substantial portion of it while introducing complementary elements to enhance the space. My goal wasn't just to work around the existing structure but to strike a balance between preserving the original and incorporating something new and compelling. In my proposal, I drew inspiration from the concept of a ship in a bottle, envisioning a scenario where one structure encapsulates another, both functioning independently yet harmoniously. 

Page one of Nicolas’ PDF design proposal

Page one of Nicolas’ PDF design proposal

In my undergraduate years at the University of the Andes, the architecture facility I worked in had a unique library housed within an old church. The library itself was a striking metallic structure, completely independent and distinct from the church's original architecture. Despite its autonomy, the design cleverly maintained a connection to the historic building. This innovative approach was one of my inspirations.

I also drew functional inspiration from the Time Out Market located in Dumbo, where an old building's facade was preserved while its interior became a vibrant and distinct space. This aligned with my vision of maintaining a connection between existing structures and new elements, which was the main idea of a boat inside a bottle.”


Overcoming Challenges and Innovation:


Were there any notable challenges you faced while developing your design proposal, and how did you address them creatively?

Nicolas Mateus: “A significant challenge in developing the design proposal was finding the right balance. I aimed to introduce something new and enriching to the project while ensuring the existing structure wasn't overshadowed. Balancing the program within the space posed difficulties—deciding what to incorporate and adapt required thorough research into the local community, particularly the younger demographic in Lawrence.

The challenge extended to integrating the project with the natural element of rivers. I navigated uncertainties about how much alteration was permissible, considering the impact on the overall landscape. Conversations with Amanda Zaslow (Marketing and Public Relations Associate at Existing Conditions) helped address doubts and clarify the approach, ultimately turning the challenge into a beneficial aspect by creatively connecting the natural element to the architectural design.”

Page two of Nicolas’ design proposal

Page two of Nicolas’ design proposal


Could you elaborate on the innovative features or aspects of your design that helped it stand out?

Nicolas Mateus: “Firstly, the integration of the natural element, where water wasn't just a border but entered the project, intertwining with a blend of both new and old architectural elements. The incorporation of vegetation further enhanced this aspect.

Another standout feature was the shape itself inside the internal structure. It not only prioritized functionality but also had an interesting facade that paid homage to the building's history as an old textile factory. The facade, resembling threading elements, served to evoke memories of the building's history.

The choice of materials, particularly the use of timber CLT (cross-laminated timber), added an environmentally sustainable dimension to the design. This decision not only contributed to an aesthetically pleasing wooden structure but also aligned with sustainability goals, given timber's low embodied carbon count. This innovative use of materials further complemented the project's connection to nature, blending with the surrounding vegetation and water elements. I would say those were interesting and innovative elements of my design.”

Page three of Nicolas’ design proposal

Page three of Nicolas’ design proposal


Advice for Future Participants:


What advice would you give to aspiring architects/designers/planners looking to push the boundaries of creativity in their work, and enter the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge?

Nicolas Mateus: “The uniqueness of contests like the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge lies in their open and free-form nature, unlike many real-life competitions that impose strict guidelines. My advice would be to embrace this freedom and explore what genuinely interests you.

Identify a theme or concept that resonates with you, something you're eager to delve into. In my case, it was the convergence of environmental and natural elements with architecture, emphasizing the preservation of existing structures. Use the opportunity to push boundaries and challenge yourself creatively. Step outside the constraints typically found in other contests. The runner-up, Stephanie Colon, explored her theme to an exploratory level, providing a great example of how to approach the challenge. 

Ultimately, my advice would be to just have fun with the process. Infuse your interests into the project, and propose ideas that genuinely excite you. Push your interests to the extremes while aligning with the contest prompt.”


How do you find inspiration and maintain your passion for creative work?

Nicolas Mateus: “Finding inspiration and maintaining a passion for creative work isn't a constant process. There are days when creative blocks occur, and the energy or direction feels lost. Passion in architecture is something ingrained—if you're passionate about it, you thrive; otherwise, it can lead to dissatisfaction.

Discovering this passion might involve exploring interests beyond architecture and connecting those passions back to the field. It's not a one-size-fits-all scenario; each individual's inspiration stems from diverse sources. For instance, a friend found passion in football, translating it into a desire to construct sports stadiums. This diversity of influences shapes our passions, which can change over time.

In architecture, inspiration can derive from various avenues, from observing projects to contemplating how a city works; this is something we are explaining in my studio project this semester. At some point in this field, you enter wanting to build beautiful houses, then the scope expands to addressing fundamental questions about human behavior, lifestyle changes post-pandemic, and the altered dynamics of residential spaces. These evolving interests fuel passion and inspiration, driving architects to envision and shape a better, more adaptive future.”


Reflection on Success and Future Aspirations:


How would you describe the significance of winning the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge for your career?

Nicolas Mateus: “It's truly an honor and a big confidence boost. When I entered the contest, my primary goal was to create a compelling project for my portfolio, not necessarily with the expectation of winning. The surprise of being nominated and ultimately winning was genuinely humbling.

While the monetary aspect is appreciated, what stands out most is the potential for mentorship, internship opportunities, and networking. These elements, as we discussed, are invaluable. For someone like me, who recently came to the United States without an established network, relying solely on the merit of my work, this win represents a big step forward in my career.”


What are your future aspirations and goals within the field of architecture/design/planning?

Nicolas Mateus: “In the short term, my immediate goal is to graduate. Looking ahead to the long term, I would love to go on to the signing. I have a particular interest in residential architecture, a niche that not everyone shares but one that I find particularly engaging.

My future goals involve continuous growth as a design professional. I envision furthering my career, building valuable contacts within the industry, and eventually establishing my practice and getting licensed. In the future, I would love to remain in the United States.

The dream is to immerse myself deeply in architecture, shaping a fulfilling career. While these are ambitious aspirations, I believe in the journey of continuous learning and improvement. The support from initiatives like the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge is invaluable in helping me progress toward these goals, and I am genuinely thankful for the opportunities given.”



Nicolas Mateus has displayed remarkable growth in the architecture field, marked by innovation, passion, and dedication to pushing the boundaries of creativity. His unique perspective, as demonstrated through his winning project in the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge, reflects a deep connection between architecture, environmental elements, and the preservation of existing structures.

Nicolas is genuinely passionate about residential architecture and envisions establishing his practice. His goals revolve around ongoing learning, professional growth, and making a meaningful contribution to the field of architecture.

This challenge has played a pivotal role in Nicolas's career, providing not only recognition but also valuable mentorship, internship opportunities, and networking avenues. As he looks toward the future, Nicolas embodies the spirit of an aspiring architect, driven by passion and a thirst for innovation, and we eagerly anticipate the continued impact of his contributions to the field.

A special thank you to our very own experts and esteemed guest jury, Graham Clegg, Principal of STUDIOS Architecture, and Kevin Deabler, Principal at RODE Architects, for their invaluable contributions and insights that enriched the Existing Conditions Innovation Challenge.

Get ready for the 2024 Innovation Challenge! Mark your calendars for the launch in early 2024. If you have any questions or are interested in participating, reach out to our Marketing and Public Relations Associate, Amanda Zaslow, at Don't miss the chance to win prizes, gain valuable experience, and showcase your innovative designs. Stay tuned for updates! Remember, participants must be actively enrolled in a college program related to architecture, design, or planning.


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