Awards are nothing new to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). In fact, SOM has the distinction of being the only firm to win the AIA’s Architecture Firm Award twice, first in 1962 and again in 1996. Two awards received in 2008—a P/A Award for the Al Sharq Tower in Dubai and an Urban Land Institute award for Beijing Finance Street, a massive mixed-use development—did much to cement SOM’s place in the top five of the first Architect 50.
Founded in 1936, SOM long ago secured its place as one of the world’s leading multidisciplinary design firms. In addition to setting the standard for the modern skyscraper in 1952 with Lever House in New York, the firm reshaped the skyline of its hometown Chicago with icons such as the 100-story John Hancock Center and the 110-story Sears Tower. Today, amid innumerable corporate firms with three- and four-letter names, SOM spells blue chip like no other.
SOM maintains offices in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., London, and Shanghai—along with small outposts in Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. “We are an old-fashioned partnership,” says Gary Haney, a design partner in SOM’s New York office who sits on the executive committee that runs the business of the firm worldwide. “Over the years we have looked at corporate structures and other things, and always come back to enjoying the idea of independence. So that’s fundamental.”
One SOM tenet is a strong commitment to sustainability—to this end, the firm has partnered with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for a new research initiative, The Center for Architecture Science and Ecology. The firm is also a BIM pioneer, utilizing that technology in 85 percent of projects. And design remains a top priority in its culture.
“Frankly, we aren’t the biggest anymore,” Haney says. “What differentiates us is [that we] work at a very large scale with a very high level of design.” To reinforce that position, nine years ago the firm launched the SOM Journal, a periodic design review of its own projects, chosen by an external jury of architects and scholars and edited by outside writers. One unanticipated result: Landing a project in the journal has stirred fierce interoffice competition.
Until now, profitability was not a concern for SOM, whose gross revenue in 2008 exceeded $380 million. “This year is going to be a lot less,” Haney says, noting that the economy forced staff reductions of about 25 percent firmwide. Still, as SOM retrenches, Haney says he has gained a new appreciation for the value of architectural staff. “There’s a very high level of skill and training required to produce architecture today. So you need to be really careful about just cutting, cutting, and cutting.”