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The greening of an architecture firm

By Maggie Koerth-Baker, Contributing Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200705 issue of BD+C.

It's been more than 70 years since Larry Perkins and Philip Will founded Perkins & Will in Chicago. The ampersand in the logo has been replaced by a plus sign, but the Perkins+Will of today remains dedicated to the founders' early concern for sustainability, energy efficiency, and community involvement.

Today's Perkins+Will employs more LEED Accredited Professionals than any other design firm in North America—753, or more than 60% of its total workforce of some 1,200 employees. Since last July, the firm, ranked #3 among architecture “Giants” by Building Design+Construction (2005 revenues: $110 million), has seen a 66% increase in the number of LEED APs on staff.

Perkins+Will's interest in the environment extends to its own operations. The firm's Green Operations Plan for its offices—16 in the U.S., two in Canada, and one in Shanghai—encompasses transportation, water use, energy, consumables, indoor air quality, and renovation/construction.

One of the more tangible results of Green Ops is the company's public transportation incentive package. Employees can obtain a $50 monthly stipend to put toward bus, train, or other public transit. In the Atlanta and Minneapolis offices, so many employees take advantage of this opportunity (as many as 50% in both cities) that the firm was honored for its role in providing some of the best public transportation options in town. In addition, P+W encourages employees to consider foot-powered commutes by offering on-site bicycle storage and, in new offices, shower facilities that make cycling to work a more practical option.

Through its Green Ops Plan, the firm has been able to make good on its commitment to preserving natural resources. In Atlanta, recycling saved 200,000 gallons of water in 2006 compared to 2005. The Chicago office is using 100% post-consumer recycled paper, which keeps 12,000 pounds of waste out of landfills and saves 200 trees a year. The firm at large purchases 100% green power from wind-generated sources. Indoor air quality in the Washington, D.C., office is being improved via a centralized green space filled with toxin-removing plants.


Perkins+Will's LEED-CI Gold Seattle office.

The touchstone for the Green Ops Plan is the Seattle office, which earned the first LEED-CI Platinum rating for commercial interiors in Washington state. The office uses half the energy of a typical space, saves 40% on water usage, and recycled 98% of its construction waste.

Growth through acquisition

The firm has been experiencing a period of significant growth, thanks largely to several major acquisitions. In 2002, it acquired the award-winning Chicago firm Eva Maddox Branded Environments, headed by Eva Maddox, FIIDA, Associate AIA, LEED AP. In 2004, it brought Vancouver's Busby & Associates into the fold—an addition that added even more experience in sustainable design and planning with the addition of Canadian green building pioneer Peter Busby, C.M., AIA, FRAIC, LEED AP. More recent acquisitions include Ai, MBT, Fuller & Associates, and CNI Design.

“Our progress this year is particularly remarkable because our success is not about just a few of us, one market sector, or one office,” says president and CEO Phil Harrison, AIA, LEED AP, who works out of the Atlanta office. “Our success and growth, more than ever before, is about all of us across the firm.”

Growing staff, growing needs

Over the past five years, acquisitions have helped expand staff by 37%. Fifteen percent of new hires also come from a heavily promoted employee referral program.

Perkins+Will uses an innovative process by which potential employees are identified from their publishing histories. The HR team keeps regular tabs on professional journals, publications, periodicals, and white papers to find top candidates who are active in their professional fields. The firm maintains relationships with former employees and even with those who have turned down job offers, thus keeping the Perkins+Will name in the mind of future hires or rehires.

Once new hires are inside the door, the firm works hard to help them stay at the top of their game. The Associates Program identifies individuals with a passion for design, innovative consideration for the needs of clients, a strong concern with environmental stewardship, and skill at working collaboratively, moving them into positions of leadership. The Perkins+Will Learning and Development initiative provides a continuing education program based on an analysis of the specific needs of employees. Topics range from in-depth tutorials on software tools, to the firm's history, to sustainable design.

Mentoring is also a major part of the Perkins+Will workplace. Mentorships are crafted on a case-by-case basis and may include peers or even clients in addition to senior staff. This program involves shadowing, on-the-job training, and participation in firmwide task forces. In recent years, the mentoring program helped prepare successors for three major management positions, including Harrison's succession to president and CEO from his predecessor, Henry A. Mann, AIA.

The Chicago office offers another form of mentoring through the Champion Program, which pairs each new employee with a champion from the firm's Associates Program. Ideally, the champion should come from a discipline other than the new hire's, so as to encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and learning. Champions meet with their assigned charges throughout the year and into the annual review process.

Finally, Perkins+Will's concern for its people's well-being doesn't end as employees age. The firm has no mandatory retirement policy. Instead, employees are empowered to sculpt their later years with the firm as they see fit. Many transition into temporary or part-time roles, enabling them to use their expertise to mentor younger staff and, in many cases, even train their own replacements. This benefit keeps Perkins+Will functioning at a high level of quality and service, even as the generations change.

Last June, Perkins+Will recognized the contributions of staff with a supplemental paycheck, handing out approximately $2.7 million companywide. The supplemental payout was a well-received thank you for the hard work Perkins+Will employees had put in during the previous year, one of the firm's most successful.

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