Giant Firm, Big Heart

March 01, 2010 |
HOK Logo
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HOK provides its nearly 2,000 employees, spread out in 23 offices across three continents, with a quality of work life befitting its stature as the largest architecture/engineering firm in the U.S. by revenue ($752 million in nonresidential project revenue in 2008, according to BD+C’s 2009 Giants 300 ranking). In 2008 revenues, the firm ranked second among university designers ($75 million) and in government projects ($323 million), third in office design ($83 million), and fourth in healthcare ($113 million).

The firm, founded in 1955 by George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata, and George Kassabaum, looks beyond its own walls to the world it serves, through environmentally and socially aware programs and activities.


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HOK prides itself on being one of the most LEED-centric A/E firms in the world. The firm has completed 64 LEED-certified projects, with more than 200 others in LEED registration. In 2009, BD+C ranked HOK third among design firms in green building revenue ($195 million), although Engineering News-Record put HOK at the top of green design firms in 2008 and 2009. With 914 LEED Accredited Professionals on staff in 2009, it ranked #2 in that category among design firms on BD+C’s Giants 300 list.

Eleven of its offices have achieved LEED-CI certification: three certified (Miami, San Francisco, St. Louis), two Silvers (Shanghai, Singapore), five Golds (Atlanta, Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Toronto), and one Platinum (Chicago). The firm has also allied with the Biomimicry Guild to find ways to integrate innovations found in nature into the design of buildings and cities.

Starting in 2008, the firm developed the HOK Energy/Carbon Tool to track “designed” energy use and carbon emissions performance against actual “constructed” performance 12 months after occupancy. HOK is using the tool to calculate the carbon footprint of each of its offices. The goal: cut HOK’s own carbon emissions by 50% by the end of this year.

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HOK invests heavily in professional development. As the first large architecture firm to win AIA’s Award for Excellence in Education (in 2001), HOK provides online training through its HOK University organizational development program in such diverse areas as BIM, CAD, conflict management, and sexual harassment.

Another important education pillar is HOK’s Project Manager/Project Architect Certification System, an internal training manual developed by HOK subject matter experts. The PM/PA system provides courses in 14 modules to teach HOK professionals the ins and outs of project management, but it is available for all employees to learn from. More than 250 PMs and PAs have been certified

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Other career development innovations include: 1) an online resource guide to prepare new hires for “the HOK experience”; 2) “reverse mentoring,” whereby younger employees teach senior-level colleagues new skills, such as how to use BIM software; and 3) talent sharing, which allows employees to work in other cities or regions of the world. Last year, 26 employees took advantage of this option.

HOK is also using social media to educate its staff and enrich its knowledge base. “Life at HOK” is an external corporate blog featuring 35 employees, on such topics as “Women of HOK,” “Five Questions With…,” and “Inside the Designer’s Studio.”



As a global firm, HOK takes pride in helping the communities it serves around the world. Two years ago, the firm issued a challenge to each of its offices to complete a service activity that involved every employee in that office. HOK staff devoted thousands of hours to renovating schools, upgrading urban parks, helping to preserve a historic site, and rebuilding an orphanage.

In St. Louis, where HOK was founded, the firm is devoting pro bono services to design a new LEED-NC Silver animal shelter to replace the existing facility and help raise $4 million to build it.

With the Kansas State University chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students, HOK has helped design the Coretta Scott King Gardens of Engagement project on the Manhattan campus.

Perhaps the firm’s most ambitious effort is in Mumbai. For the past two years, its Asia-Pacific team has been working with the Maharashtra Slum Rehabilitation Authority to redevelop the Dharavi slum into a more sustainable community that is respectful of the more than one million people who live there. (See

In 2009, the American Society of Interior Designers honored the firm and its employees with its “Design for Humanity Award” for their collective pro bono community efforts.



HOK closed its Mexico City office last year and, like many AEC firms hit by today’s eco

nomic woes, has had its share of layoffs—roughly a 10% reduction in staff in the last two years. But the firm is fighting back. It has opened a new office, in Mumbai, to keep pace with its burgeoning business in India, and it has created HOK Product Design, LLC, to enable the firm’s designers to work with manufacturers to create new products for the built environment—the latter an example of its “Blue Ocean Initiative,” whereby employees help create new uncontested business opportunities.

HOK is also investing in technology. Its Advanced Collaboration Room, which incorporates Cisco’s TelePresence and Thunder’s virtual whiteboard system, enabled more than 200 experts from six offices to successfully complete the design of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. (For more on the ARC: /HOK%2C%20advanced%20collaboration.)

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Several big wins attest to the firm’s continued strength: being named design architect for the $130 million LEED Platinum modernization of the Byron G. Rogers federal office building in Denver (funded through the stimulus program); earning a role on the design-build team for the $435 million U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Southeast Washington, D.C.; and transforming the Old San Francisco Mint (1874) into a mixed-use center. —Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief

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