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A proud history, a vibrant future

By Peter Fabris, Contributing Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200705 issue of BD+C.

SmithGroup has a rightful claim to the title of the country's oldest architecture/engineering firm. Sheldon Smith founded the firm in Ohio in 1853 and moved to the emerging town of Detroit, Mich., in 1855. Upon his death in 1868, he was followed by his son and grandson. The firm was incorporated in 1903 as Field, Hinchman & Smith and renamed Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in 1907. In 2000, it became SmithGroup.

While justifiably proud of its history, today's SmithGroup has its sights set clearly on the future. The 800-plus-employee firm was ranked seventh in 2006 among A/E firms nationally by Building Design+Construction, with 2005 revenues of $119.9 million. In recent years, SmithGroup has ramped up its sustainable design credentials, snatching green guru Russell Perry, AIA, from William McDonough & Partners, in 2005, to lead its sustainability effort.

With a staff that is inspired by the ability of design to make a difference in some of the most pressing issues facing society, SmithGroup nurtures a vibrant workplace where architects and engineers seek to expand the boundaries of the profession.

The firm concentrates its work in four major areas it calls “national practices”: healthcare, learning (higher education), science & technology, and workplace. It further structures itself into 30 or so design studios. At each of the firm's 10 locations—Ann Arbor and Detroit, Mich.; Chicago; Los Angeles; Madison, Wis.; Minneapolis; Phoenix; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C.—one of the design studios makes a presentation on a current project. This multidisciplinary critique provides those who are not working on the project the opportunity to offer input and learn from their colleagues—benefits that are good for morale. “We appreciate competing values,” says Carl Roehling, FAIA, SmithGroup president and CEO since 2002. “We synthesize different points of view into something better.”

Under Roehling, who is based in Detroit, and the firm's chair and design director, David R.H. King, FAIA, LEED AP, who works out of the Washington office, SmithGroup has shown a willingness to give the unconventional a try. By scheduling its standard workday at eight and a half hours, employees can earn the opportunity to take 15 Fridays a year off. According to a companywide survey, the work schedule policy ranks as one of the firm's top benefits among employees.

Roehling maintains that productivity has not suffered under the new schedule, and the numbers bear him out: 37 weeks at 42.5 hours per week plus 15 weeks at 34 hours comes to 2082.5 hours a year—two and a half hours more than if employees worked a conventional 40-hour week. If a client needs attention, then employees are expected to work all or part of what would have been an off-Friday, says Roehling.

Making sustainability a priority

SmithGroup is credited with designing the first LEED Platinum building, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Md., and recently earned Platinum for the Science & Technology Facility at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo. Currently, the firm has 60 projects that have either achieved LEED certification, are registered with the USGBC, or were designed using LEED as a guide. SmithGroup is starting to evaluate its green projects on a post-occupancy basis in order to assess the effectiveness of various designs and materials in achieving sustainability goals.

Last year was a watershed, as the firm made an organization-wide commitment to boost its green credentials. In 2006, under Perry's tutelage, the number of LEED Accredited Professionals at SmithGroup jumped 179%, from 87 to 243, meaning that more than 30% of the firm's 800 employees now have that designation.

In order to make that dramatic leap, dozens of employees made a personal commitment to study for the LEED accreditation exam. Coordinators in each business unit spearheaded the ongoing green education effort. This group takes part in monthly videoconferences to coordinate activities. The firm created an Intranet site, “The GreenHouse,” with a searchable database for research, project information, articles, product literature, events, a discussion board, and related information on sustainable design.

Roehling sees the green movement gaining momentum among the firm's clients every year. “It's becoming a mainstream value system,” he says. Recalling the OPEC oil embargo and ensuing energy crisis of the 1970s, he notes that many of today's corporate leaders are the same people who took up the energy conservation mantra back then, “but they're now in a position to put those ideas into practice.” Boosting the firm's sustainability credentials not only makes good business sense, he says, but also helps employees further their careers.

Developing the next generation

SmithGroup's successful internship program is a strong recruiting resource. Each office employs between two and 32 interns each year. Nearly half of all interns eventually join the firm. Interns get exposure to the full gamut of project tasks, including the ability to contribute their own designs.

In 2004, the Detroit and Chicago offices introduced a lunchtime learning program that puts interns together with some of the firm's top managers and studio leaders to hear firsthand about executives' specific roles, how they got started in the industry, and what they feel are the keys to success.

“I had complete submersion and exposure to the various components that make a team, and ultimately the project, a success,” says Lisa Pallo, a former intern who became a full-time employee in Washington. “The generous mentoring and promotion of such a positive team dynamic is the reason I decided to work at SmithGroup full time.”

The firm is open to creative incentives for recruiting. For instance, an employee referral program offered a trip to Paris, France, rather than the usual cash bonus (which usually starts at $1,000 and can go higher).

Serving the community

SmithGroup has a strong commitment to charitable work. Three years ago, every office was encouraged to adopt a nonprofit organization. “We want every office to be involved in their community,” Roehling says. “You can give money, but the gift of time is even more valuable.”

For example, the Phoenix office helped raise over $90,000 last year for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Employees in the San Francisco office have been regular participants in the annual Sand Castle Competition for LEAP, a nonprofit organization that integrates art into Bay Area schools.

For the past six years, SmithGroup's Washington office has participated in the national CANstruction program, an annual event in which design firms compete to build the most creative structure entirely from cans of food, cardboard, tape, rubber bands, and wire. All the food and proceeds from a raffle are donated to the Capital Area Food Bank.

The Detroit staff has adopted Children's Center, an organization that provides medical and counseling services to at-risk children and their parents. SmithGroup employees helped the organization develop a long-term vision and provided master planning services for the center's proposed expansion. “This was a perfect opportunity for the firm to offer help doing what it does best,” says Roehling. “Our challenge was to show how architecture can help with the mission of educating children.”

Many of the office employees in Detroit also give up their lunchtimes on Mondays to volunteer at the city's St. Aloysius Outreach Center, which serves the homeless, the working poor, and the elderly poor. The volunteers make sandwiches, stock shelves, sort clothes, work in the pantry, and prepare hygiene kits.

With a tradition that goes back more than 150 years, SmithGroup still has its eye on the future.

More Employee Benefits at SmithGroup
• Employees have 23 days off a year, not including vacation days.

• Employee Activities Teams organize social events such as bowling, ice cream socials, and an engineering version of TV's “Jeopardy!”

• The firm is seeking socially responsible funds for its 401(k) investments and is implementing sustainable practices in day-to-day activities.

• Each office does pro bono work to benefit nonprofit organizations.
Learning for Life
Since 1980, SmithGroup's Detroit office has sponsored the “Learning for Life” initiative for a local Explorer post, a division of the Boy Scouts of America. The program introduces as many as 40 Detroit-area high school students per year to exciting career options. Since 1980, SmithGroup volunteers have worked with more than 700 students.

In the photo, Kizzie Stevenson, a senior at Detroit's Cass Technical High School, gets some helpful advice from SmithGroup architect André Sharon, himself an alumnus of Cass High, the Explorer program, and Lawrence Technological University, in Troy, Mich., which Stevenson will attend in the fall as an early-admission student.

Sharon says his Learning for Life training, under SmithGroup architect Bob Smith, gave him a sense of the day-to-day life of designers, because “we didn't really know what architects and engineers did.” The program also helped him learn how to make presentations. “In college, I was already used to being critiqued, so it was no big deal to defend my projects,” he says. After grad school and a stint at another firm, Sharon joined SmithGroup in 2000 and immediately “enlisted” as a mentor.

“The program has evolved quite a bit since my day,” he says. “We expose the students more to the allied disciplines—structural, lighting, M/E—and it's much more comprehensive. We bring in guest speakers, and we help them with soft skills—working well with others, time management, and so on.” At the end of the two-year program, SmithGroup hosts an awards ceremony for successful participants.
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