2011 Architect 50 / Number 1: Perkins+Will

By Fred A. Bernstein for Architect magazine
As co-director of Perkins+Will’s firmwide sustainability initiative, Paula Vaughan, AIA, has consulted on hundreds of projects, including one very close to home: the firm’s office in Atlanta, a 1980s building that it gutted and rebuilt with an impressive array of green features. Since moving in several months ago, Vaughan has been busy evaluating (and adjusting) the building’s performance, as well as giving tours to everyone from architecture students to Perkins+Will competitors. Of the knowledge the firm developed in designing the new office, she says, “We’re not seeing it as a secret competitive edge, but as something to share with the entire profession.”
Perhaps that openness is the firm’s competitive edge. How else to explain the firm’s rise in revenue over last year (just one reason it tops the ARCHITECT 50). The firm has, for the most part, resisted cutting fees, says president and CEO Phil Harrison, FAIA, despite recession-related pressures. His concern isn’t about short-term profits. “You can go for a long time at break even,” he says. “The problem is devaluation of your services, and what that will mean, long-term, for the profession.” So instead of discussing fee reductions, Harrison says, he talks to clients about bigger-ticket items such as cutting energy use and speeding up construction through prefabrication. Pretty soon, any “give” in the architect’s fee is dwarfed by architect-initiated savings.
The firm’s buildings are also winning design awards, confirming the appeal of what Harrison calls “human-centered modernism”—a crisp but inviting look that is becoming recognizable as something of a firm style—though Harrison says it’s not the result of an aesthetic predilection so much as a commitment to certain principles. Those include “honest use of materials” and, of course, sustainability (which leads to generous use of glass for daylighting).
With more than 1,000 LEED accredited professionals, Perkins+Will has made U.S. Green Building Council standards part of its DNA. But Harrison says that the firm isn’t naïve enough to think that “we’re done as long as we’ve followed the checklist. Our firm strategy is to go beyond LEED, especially on the energy front.” To that end, the firm’s micro-grant program offers employees the chance to spend up to 40 hours of their time—at firm expense—on building-related research.
Perkins+Will has accomplished all of this without a major overseas expansion. (Only three of its 23 offices are outside North America.) One reason is that sectors in which the firm is most active—including education and healthcare—are strong domestically. Harrison would welcome growth abroad, he says, but, “frankly, we’ve been busy with the work we have here.”

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