Architects Talking to Architects: A.J. Sustaita, AIA

A.J. Sustaita, AIA, is a project architect working in the education architecture department of Corgan in Houston. He is a senior editor and contributing writer for YAF Connection, the official e-magazine for young architects produced by AIA's Young Architects Forum. He is also the 2015 chair of the AIA Houston Intern/Associate Network.

A.J. Sustaita, AIA –photo courtesy A.J. Sustaita 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Sugar Land, Texas, which is a neighboring city to Houston. Technically, my family and I moved to Sugar Land when I was in the fifth grade from a small Houston community named Alief. Since the vast majority of my childhood and teenage years were spent in Sugar Land, I’ll always consider it to be where I’m truly from. It was there that I played in the backyard with my younger sister Ashley and would later go on to meet friends that I still have to this day. It’s a great city; it has a suburban feel with urban amenities. I love it so much that it’s where my wife Melissa and I decided to raise our two boys, Tristan (4 years old) and Ezra (1 year old).


My two boys, Tristan and Ezra –photos by A.J. Sustaita

If you were not an architect, what other profession would you have pursued?

Hands down, I would have chased a career in filmmaking. In fact, I did a short stint at NYU at their film school to explore that avenue. Film is an incredible art with a lot of similarities to architecture. They both begin with a creative vision and take the collaboration of an entire team of people in order to make those ideas and visions real. Looking at the two side by side, there are many shared artistic tenets between them. Film and architecture both deal with light, color, space, and scale. I’ve always loved movies for the thought and emotion they can evoke and/or inspire; so, too, with architecture. I’m a child of the 80s, so a lot of my favorite movies are from that era. The Goonies, every John Hughes film from that time, The Color of Money, and The Karate Kid, just to name a few. My favorite film of 2014 is Interstellar.

What type of advice would you offer to young professionals?

Get involved. Since becoming a licensed architect, I have made a very concerted effort to volunteer and be present at professional engagements. Those experiences have truly enriched my career, allowing me to meet some great people and make important connections that I most likely wouldn’t have otherwise. In that sense, being active in the architectural community has had an extremely positive effect on how I perceive my career. I get really excited when a good idea for a committee event or news article hits me. That excitement for whatever I may be doing outside of the firm helps to offset any stress that may be project-related. To use an NCARB term, I apply “conjunctive scoring” to my life as an architect.

The other piece of advice I have is to respect the life you have outside of architecture. We all have to make a living, but it’s critical that we be able to step back and enjoy the friends and family that make it all worthwhile. I have a great wife and two amazing sons. I’m going to be available and present for them as much as possible.

Bayardo Selva, myself, Karen Lantz and Derek Webb at the AIA Houston Holiday Party –photo courtesy A.J. Sustaita 

Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration for me comes in a lot of different forms, but what I’m truly inspired by is my father, Abram Sustaita, AIA. As the son of an architect, I’ve had the advantage of being around this great profession for all of my life. When I was a boy, I can’t remember how old, we had a conversation about what he did for a living, and what he told me has stayed with me ever since. Obviously, I don’t remember it verbatim, but his main point was this: The work that an architect does is truly special, because as we move through our careers and design buildings of all types, we’re leaving behind a legacy that will live on long past our own time. In my dad’s case, that legacy covers a very broad range of project types. At the time, he was referring to the many amphitheater venues that he designed. It was clear to see the great sense of pride that he took knowing that he designed venues where people would go and enjoy all types of entertainment.

After becoming a father myself, the respect for his accomplishments became even greater. As a small firm owner, he worked to provide for his family in a great number of ways. My parents took us on family vacations, bought my sister and me our first cars, and even put us both through college. I’m an architect today because of my dad, and I aspire to the same kinds of success he’s had. 

On the left My dad and I at my wedding. On the right The Patterson Elementary School is a pretty special project for me. It not only recieved LEED Silver rating, but also was a design completed by both my dad and me. –photos courtesy A.J. Sustaita

Do you listen to music when designing? What kind?

Sure. I listen to all kinds of music when I’m designing. What type depends on my mood at the time. I don’t have a go-to playlist that will turn me into a brilliant design machine. The music I like ranges from alternative rock, to classic rock, to pop and hip-hop. There are a couple albums at the moment that I like to play while working because I can listen to them straight through without getting bored: “Mechanical Bull” from Kings of Leon and “Modern Vampires of the City” from Vampire Weekend.

Lately, I’ve been getting down to some Pink Floyd. It’s great music with amazing lyrics. If you really stop to listen, you can easily start to zone out!

I also like listening to podcasts while I’m working. My favorites are “This American Life” and “Snap Judgment.” Both of those are from NPR. This makes me kind of sound like a hipster, but if you’re not familiar with either one, you should definitely give them a listen. They’re all about the human condition.

Architects aren’t known for their hobbies… Do you have one?

Rightfully so, the majority of my free time is spent playing with the kids. So … my hobbies are playing with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures and Marvel superheroes. There’s also a good amount of time spent chasing the boys around the park. Spending time with my wife is also a high priority. We love going out and enjoying the many great restaurants that Houston has to offer. One of our favorites right now is a sushi restaurant called Uchi. It’s amazing!

When I take time for myself, I like to play the guitar. I started playing a couple of years ago and really fell in love with it. It’s too bad I didn’t pick it up sooner. Mostly I play acoustic, but occasionally I’ll borrow an electric guitar from Dad, who also plays. Playing is a great way to unwind and clear your head. I’ve always been a music lover, but since I started playing the guitar, I have an even greater appreciation for certain bands and musicians. If I’m watching a live performance, I’ll catch myself focusing on anyone with a guitar in their hands to observe how they’re playing.

Just another afternoon selfie at the park with my eldest son, Ezra –photo by A.J. Sustaita

"Architects Talking to Architects" is a series on the Texas Society of Architects blog that spotlights members from across the state at different points of development in their career. All participants are given the same set of questions, with instructions to answer any six, giving them the opportunity to highlight the items they feel are most interesting. Is there someone you'd like to see featured in "Architects Talking to Architects"? Email to let us know.