Yes, SOM made the list, coming in at No. 2. But as partner Gary Haney says, Frankly, we arent the biggest anymore. Five of the firms leaders gathered for a photo shoot on the roof of their New York building.

Yes, SOM made the list, coming in at No. 2. But as partner Gary Haney says, “Frankly, we aren’t the biggest anymore.” Five of the firm’s leaders gathered for a photo shoot on the roof of their New York building.

Credit: Noah Kalina

The Largest Firms. The Giants. The Top 100, 200, 500. If you’re a regular follower of architectural media, you’re no stranger to their ever-proliferating firm rankings—rankings that are usually based on the size of a workforce or on annual revenue. Why would Architect throw its hat into this already crowded ring?

Simply put, because size is just one, not-terribly-revealing measure of an architecture firm. We designed the Architect 50 quite simply to promote a more well-rounded definition of success. The criteria for inclusion comprise a trifecta of critical goals for every practice: profitability, sustainability, and design quality.

A cynic might say that, by scoring firms based in part on profitability (i.e., revenue per number of employees), we reward scrooges who run their offices like sweatshops. Au contraire: We see profitability as an essential counterweight to the “big firms” tilt of most rankings, a way to recognize practices of any size whose good works rest on a bedrock of financial health. That’s no small feat in these economically troubled times.

Is it possible to excel in all three categories, to make money by designing beautiful, green buildings? Yes, as you’ll see from the scores in our lists of 1–10, 11–30, and 31–49. (A three-way tie prevented us from ending with a perfect 5-0.) However, we also rank the top 10 scorers in each individual category. There’s not much overlap among them, meaning that a perfect score is not yet in sight.

Maybe next year. Maybe your firm?

Scoring

Firms' scores were calculated based on the online surveys they completed. The highest possible score in the revenue per employee and sustainable practices categories was 200; in awards, it was 260. (So a “perfect” score would be 660.) Each piece of relevant data was assigned a points value: For example, firms got 35 points if 60 to 79 percent of their employees were LEED accredited. For more information, see the Methodology box on page 53.

Methodology

How were the ARCHITECT 50 firms identified and ranked? Firms' scores were based on an online survey that one or more of their employees completed. Our initial goal—to get hundreds of leading firms to participate—required a multi-pronged approach. First, the editors of ARCHITECT put together a “core list” of firms we thought deserved consideration, based on their standard of work and (yes) their inclusion in other industry rankings. This list had 229 firms.

To cast the net wider, we invited 16,000 randomly chosen subscribers to our e-newsletter to take the survey. And we placed an ad in our December 2008 issue inviting readers to do the same. By these two methods, we identified another 520 firms, for a total of 749. The survey was open from Dec. 16 to March 13 and offered the incentive of a $2 donation to Architecture for Humanity per each completion. (The donation will be made in June.)

Foreign-based firms, engineering-led firms, and sole-proprietor firms were eliminated (sorry, folks!), and before long, we had 334 firms, then 165. The ARCHITECT 50 was drawn from this last group of 165. The editors made valiant attempts to verify survey data with the communications departments of all 165 companies, but it's possible that a few eluded us.

These 165 companies were then ranked on three variables: revenue per employee (based on 2008 gross revenue), sustainable practices, and 2008 awards. Each variable drew on objective information supplied via the online survey; in the case of awards, firms could be given a limited number of additional points after review by an editor.

For the revenue per employee variable, we simply divided revenue (survey respondents indicated a revenue range) by employees (also given as a range). For sustainable practices, we used several variables from the survey, such as percentage of LEED projects in 2008 and green policies, to come up with an overall score. As for awards, we compiled a list of as many as we could think of, then gave a points value to each one, according to its prestige (as we perceived it). Foreign awards were not considered, nor were “top firm” accolades in other publications.

The First Annual Architect 50