Anyone wanting to quickly sum up the principals of Pugh + Scarpa Architects could take a look at the parking lot of their office in Santa Monica, Calif. Lawrence Scarpa, AIA, drives a pickup truck, consistent with his bold, unpretentious personality. Angela Brooks, AIA, the mastermind behind the firm's stellar reputation for sustainable design, tools around in a Toyota Prius. And the philosophical Gwynne Pugh, AIA, rides a motorcycle to work. There you have it, Pugh + Scarpa in a nutshell: gutsy, environmentally friendly, and unconventional.

But defining this Santa Monica, Calif., firm isn't as simple as that. Pugh + Scarpa can't be wrapped up in an easy analogy or tagged by an obvious label, because its identity—and that of its principals—runs many layers deep. It designs million-dollar houses and condo buildings, affordable housing, commercial interiors, and mixed-use properties. It often teams with other firms to take on new kinds of projects, and it works with small boutique developers as well as big national ones. Scarpa works on the side as a sculptor, painter, and teacher; Pugh, an engineer as well as an architect, moonlights as a Santa Monica planning commissioner; and Brooks serves as president of the board of Livable Places, a nonprofit housing developer and policy advocate she and Scarpa helped found. At the heart of this complicated firm lies the leadership of three complex individuals.

design-minded Larry Scarpa grew up in Florida, the son of an Italian-born restaurant owner. After college at the University of Florida, the aspiring architect landed a job working for Paul Rudolph in New York—an experience that left an indelible impression on him. Among other things, he helped build the upstairs of Rudolph's iconic Beekman Place apartment. “Every project Rudolph ever worked on, that apartment had in it,” he remembers. “It was a smorgasbord of stuff.” Scarpa's biggest moment came when he found a set of drawings for one of his favorite Rudolph projects—the Milam house in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “The first drawings he did of that house were horrible and nothing that was actually realized,” Scarpa says. “I realized that he worked really hard at being an architect. I realized there was a way, even if your first idea isn't good, that you can get somewhere. It's not all God-given talent.”

This useful bit of knowledge accompanied Scarpa to graduate school at Florida, where he met Brooks, then an undergrad. (They eventually married and now have a 6-year-old son, Calder.) Scarpa taught and worked in Italy and Florida for a few years, then took a job in San Francisco with Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones. Soon, “I was ready to do my own thing,” he says, so he started working for Pugh, who was running his own firm in Santa Monica. The pair became partners in 1991.

For years Pugh + Scarpa specialized in commercial interiors, with some houses and industrial buildings thrown in. Then it partnered with San Francisco architect Steven Kodama, FAIA, to form a separate entity called Pugh Scarpa Kodama—a shrewd move that allowed Pugh + Scarpa to access Kodama's extensive housing experience. PSK parlayed one of its first commissions into a 44-unit, LEED Gold-rated affordable housing community in Santa Monica called Colorado Court. Finished in 2002, the project won international attention for its sophisticated design and holistic approach to sustainability, and it put Pugh + Scarpa on the multifamily housing map for good.

Now Scarpa—the design leader on the majority of Pugh + Scarpa's projects—acts as its most public face. In addition to frequent guest-teaching stints, he lectures 12 to 15 times per year on campuses and at museums around the country. “One, you have to do it if you desire to do [projects in] anything more than your local community,” he says of his outside commitments. “And two, there's a message to deliver to people.”

That message could cover any of the many topics he and the rest of the firm feel strongly about: modern architecture, sustainability, density, and regional materials and methods. “The only way we in the United States think of historic preservation is restoration,” he says. “If you look at Europe, there are so many wonderful buildings that have been enriched by modern interventions—look at Carlo Scarpa, at anything he's done.” (The two Scarpas are not related.) The firm's yen to broaden its already wide range of project types and to design projects outside Los Angeles is a strong one. “We feel a pent-up energy,” Scarpa says. “We want to expand more into different project types. We're doing a lot of housing now, but we think we can do a whole lot more educational work and civic buildings.”

big picture Gwynne Pugh's opinion of Pugh + Scarpa seconds that notion. “I think we're a very versatile firm,” he says. “We'll use whatever technique to make things happen. In our early projects, a lot of times we'd get involved as engineers and then architects, or vice versa. It gave us a very fluid way of being.” He knows that the 20-person company can't be everything to everyone, however—hence his enthusiasm for partnering with other architects. The firm currently has a handful of Pugh Scarpa Kodama projects under way. It's also joint-venturing with San Francisco's David Baker + Partners, Architects on adaptive reuse housing in Valley Village, Calif. “It's a perfect match,” says Baker, FAIA. “I like to work with people who are better than me.” Another Pugh + Scarpa collaboration, with fellow Santa Monica firms Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners and Koning Eizenberg Architecture, recently won the commission for a large mixed-use community in the city's downtown area. Global powerhouse Perkins Eastman leases office space from Pugh + Scarpa, and the two firms teamed this year to design a proposed mixed-use project in East L.A.'s Boyle Heights neighborhood.