Erin Coulehan

Editorial photography by

Jordan Licon

Additional photography provided by

In*situ Architecture 

Architectural innovation is transforming the landscape and lifestyles of the El Paso community that is amplifying beauty, functionality, and legacy from streets to structures. El Paso’s human geography continues to evolve as the urbanization of neighborhood, like downtown, draw people out of their homes and into the heart of the city 

In*Situ Architecture is a collaborative architectural practice led by William Helm, AIA, and Edgar Lopez, AIA, that is reshaping El Paso’s architectural footprint while also preserving historical integrity. Helm founded the practice in 2011 with a goal to set a new standard in contemporary design — and is succeeding. The practice is at the foundation (and forefront) of the community’s cultural renaissance, with a number of private and public structures designed to enhance the Borderland.

“In*situ Architecture is a vibrant local firm sensitive to the unique challenges of designing and building historical renovations. Jordan Foster Construction has partnered with Bill Helm and Edgar Lopez on numerous projects over the years, including the award-winning Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park. We look forward to our continued partnership,” says Darren Woody, Chief Executive Officer of Jordan Foster Construction.

Under Helm’s and Lopez’s leadership, In*Situ is intentionally-diverse and offers specialized expertise from a variety of markets that work to complement El Paso’s existing geography and express the duo’s love of the community.

Helm, who has lived in El Paso for 25 years, appreciates the region’s unique environment and notes the juxtaposition with his childhood. 

“I grew up in northeast Indiana in a rural community on my grandfather’s farm,” says Helm. “It was an idyllic childhood; we could go out and run the farm all day. It was a different time, we’d spend 12 hours a day out playing on the farm, or in the woods and in the barns, and we didn’t have to worry about much. My mom was home with this all day long, every day. So that was wonderful.”

Both Helm and Lopez say they knew since childhood that architecture was their calling.

“I just like designing buildings. I started drawing rural farm buildings by just sketching them when I was in first grade. Just as I was sketching the buildings I saw around me, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Perry, looked over my shoulder and said, ‘What are you doing? Oh, you should think about architecture.’ So, like that it just stuck,” says Helm. 

Early exposure to the work of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan deepened Helm’s interest and certainty that architectural design was for him.

“My parents took us on a lot of road trips to visit friends elsewhere, and so I think from the age of like, 10, when we went to visit one of my dad’s good friends who lived in New York City, and then that did it for me. I fell in love with the urban environment and buildings and cities.”

Today, Helm is the principal in charge at In*Situ where he works hand-in-hand with Lopez to make history by building a better city one project at a time. 

“Our mission is to leave the city more beautiful than we found it for the next generation, and that’s what we’ve been busy doing for the last 10 years,” he says. 

Lopez experienced a similar early calling to architecture from the other side of the border in Mexico.

“I’ve loved to build bridges and buildings since I was very little,” says Lopez, “and I would burn them because of pyromania,” he deadpans. 

His father and others added tinder to his fire by discouraging his passion to become an architect. 

“They would tell me, ‘You’re never going to make it! There are so many architects,’ so then it became a challenge,” says Lopez. 

Lopez is In*Situ’s principal project architect, and has practiced with leading architectural firms in the United States and Mexico. 

For both Helm and Lopez, El Paso is home and they continue their passion for making their mark on the community. 

Helm left for graduate school in 2003 and returned in 2008 to co-manage another architecture office, which is when his and Lopez’s paths crossed through an introduction by mutual friends. They began studying for the Architectural Registration Exams together and as they studied began brainstorming the kind of architectural practice that they would like to form.

Helm left for graduate school in 2003 and returned in 2008 to co-manage another architecture office, which is when his and Lopez’s paths crossed through an introduction by mutual friends. They began studying for the Architectural Registration Exams together and as they studied began brainstorming the kind of architectural practice that they would like to form.

“I left [El Paso] for  Buffalo and that’s how I came full circle and then back to architecture. I just couldn’t shake architecture out of my blood,” says Helm. “It was a really good time for somebody, like myself, who already had this predilection for historic architecture, and preservation, to jump into the middle of what was going on downtown.”

The Plaza Hotel’s historic renovation is testimony to the expertise and artistry that goes into In*Situ projects. Helm provided insight during the early phases of predevelopment, where he assisted in assembling the design team from across the country. 

“Edgar and I really love practicing in El Paso as an architect here. I think it comes back to El Paso being a big city but with a small town feel, where everybody knows everybody and you can very quickly have an impact if you choose to make your career here,” says Helm. 

Today, it’s difficult to drive through the city without seeing a structure that In*Situ has touched.

“What I love about my profession,” says Lopez, “is that I can see myself when I drive through the city and know that I’m one of the reasons a building is there.” 

In*Situ works on a number of public projects that expand and enhance the experience of the city for residents. 

Lopez designed the Paseo de las Luces, a $6.4 million project along the southern corridor of El Paso Street that features Art Deco archways with strings of hanging lights. 

“Edgar took really great design cues from the architecture of the street to develop and those archways became the centerpiece of the street,” says Helm. “It’s been really gratifying to see that it has become an icon; it’s all over social media and always gets featured. It’s become an identifier of the city itself.”

While Helm and Lopez don’t pick favorites when it comes to projects — “it’s like asking my favorite kid!,” Lopez says — both agree that the Westside Natatorium is very special. 

The project was one of In*Situ’s first and was made possible through a 2012 Quality of Life bond after an extensive process that included advocacy efforts by local swim clubs who would be utilizing the aquatic complex.

“The biggest and most vocal community group were the users; it was the swimming clubs that had really pushed the projects,” says Helm of the pressure of making sure the In*Situ surpassed expectations. 

In*Situ worked with the City of El Paso Museum and Cultural Affairs Department’s public art program and internationally-acclaimed artist and architect, Marc Fornes, to integrate a major work of public art into the architecture of the structure. The result is a work that frames the entrance of the building with a sculptural canopy called “Marquise.” 

In*Situ was (and continues to be) lauded for the project, but Helm and Lopez agree that it’s the approval of the swim community that means the most and recall the first swim meet.

“To see the joy of the kids in the pool that day,” says Helm. “They had a facility that was not just a box over a pool. Instead, they ended up with this facility that has a grand view of the mountain. We routinely receive comments — even to this day — that that’s people’s favorite place in the city to swim.”

In*Situ’s success is buttressed by the partnership between Helm and Edgar, a yin and yang relationship where each is strong individually and empowered by the other.

“We’ve created a space where, on a daily basis, people love to come to work because we create and we resolve problems. It’s stressful sometimes but I love it, and we work together so well because we are so different,” says Lopez. “Bill is business-oriented and I’m more into the design point — even though he is a really good designer and has a really good eye — but I think that’s how we complement each other.”

In*Situ is currently working on renovating The Kress Building, and celebrated the project’s groundbreaking in late Spring. 

“This is an incredible project which supports our vision for a vibrant and dynamic El Paso community,” said El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser. “I am excited to see the completed project of this historic building which will further the redevelopment of our city.”

The renovation of The Kress Building is made possible through a private-public collaboration between Foster’s Franklin Mountain Investments and the City of El Paso. In 2022, El Paso City Council authorized a performance dependent incentive up to $2,049,000 for the Kress Building’s redevelopment, while Foster invests $18.4 million in the project.

“I am extremely proud to see the official beginning of what will be one of the more complicated construction projects we’ve undertaken in Downtown El Paso,” said Foster, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Franklin Mountain Investments. “We look forward to bringing the iconic Kress Building back to life and preserving much of its original character and iconic look.”  

The redevelopment and preservation of The Kress Building’s three levels is an extensive project that In*Situ can’t wait to bring to fruition, which includes a basement-level “grotto” style luxury spa that will connect to The Plaza Hotel via underground tunnel. Additionally, The Kress Building’s first floor will revive the beloved original soda fountain and lunch counter, as well as a coffee shop, bar,  multitude of culinary spaces, and more. The second floor will be available for private screenings, events, and entertainment. 

“This building means so many different things to residents in our City, and it’s gratifying that we can help bring back some of those memories,” Foster added.

At In*Situ, Helm and Lopez are able to not only revive history but also set the foundation for the city’s future.

“This era of rebirth for downtown feels a bit like it must have felt for Henry Trost when his brother convinced Henry to move to the Sun City to make his mark in architecture here,” says Helm. “The opportunity for us is not unlike Trost’s — we could have worked anywhere in the world, but we made the choice to invest our life’s work in this city we love so much – knowing we can help take the city to the next level.”

“The work we create is not an ephemeral thing,” says Lopez. “That’s one reason we’re so excited about The Kress Building — to bring it back to life.”