With a staff of approximately 2,200 spread among 24 offices around the world, HOK would seem to be architecture’s Bigfoot. But a recent evolution that stresses the growth of individuals and the firm’s long-time dedication to sustainable design belie easy categorization.
George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata, and George Kassabaum founded HOK in St. Louis in 1955. They divided the traditional responsibilities of a partner in three ways: Hellmuth led marketing efforts; Obata, design; and Kassabaum, operations. Previously, Hellmuth had worked for a Detroit firm whose fortunes rose and fell with those of the automotive industry, an experience that led him to establish diversity of work as the guiding principle for HOK.
In HOK’s first decade, its roster of services grew to include engineering, planning, and interiors. Regional growth came during the 1960s as the firm won jobs in San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., and established offices in those cities. And sector-based practices started as “focus groups,” on the model of the Kansas City sports venue office that opened in 1983. HOK currently works in some 16 sectors.
Chairman Bill Valentine describes the firm’s structure as a circle connecting each person to everybody else—but which they can take shortcuts across to more closely collaborate with each other. “Our relationships change daily,” he says. In the past five to seven years, the firm’s leadership has made a more conscious commitment to making sure its vast network of people is drawn close together. Vice chairman Clark Davis says, “It’s not uncommon for us to have professionals from three or four offices working together on the same team, sharing their expertise.”
Now recognized as a green leader, HOK took an interest in sustainable design 15 years ago—before green had any particular cachet. “We’re proud HOK people were involved in the founding of USGBC and LEED,” Davis says. And HOK continues to grow, even in these difficult economic times. An office in India opened in 2008, and one in Denver earlier this year. There’s been subtraction, too: The Kansas City–based partners in HOK Sport Venue Event bought their way out of the mothership at the end of 2008, relabeling themselves Populous. While the loss of that lucrative 25-year old division might be expected to drive firm revenue down for 2009, Davis claims it will have little impact on HOK’s other practice areas. “And we’ll collaborate with them when it makes sense,” he says.
As for the firm’s future: “People assume there’s some grand, detailed plan for growth, but it’s more an openness to opportunity,” Davis observes. Valentine, a 47-year veteran, agrees: “We’ve always really wandered around.”