Born in Beijing, China, Lai garnered several prestigious awards from Princeton University and received two degrees, a B. Arch (magna cum laude) in 1958, and an MFA. Arch in 1960. In 1960, he moved to Aspen, where he worked for five years for Samuel Caudill. In 1965, he left to join the faculty at the University of Texas, and later Arizona State University, to teach architecture and planning. During his Aspen years, he chaired Aspen’s Committee for Experimental Pedestrian Mall (1960) and served on the City Planning and Zoning Commission (1963-1965).