President and CEO Phil Harrison
Noah Kalina President and CEO Phil Harrison

“Juggernaut” may be too strong a word, but the growth of Perkins+Will over the last two decades has certainly seemed unstoppable. Since 1995, the firm has mushroomed in size, from two offices to 21 and from about 300 employees to more than 1,600. An M&A spree a few years ago resulted in Perkins+Will enfolding Vancouver’s Busby + Associates Architects and New York’s Guenther 5, among other practices. Such acquisitions have enabled the parent company to deepen its expertise in certain project types, while geographic expansion has let the architects work in closer proximity to—and collaboration with—their clients, says Phil Harrison, the firm’s president and CEO.

Established in Chicago in 1935 by Larry Perkins and Philip Will, the firm quickly made a national name for itself in education and healthcare. But by the mid-1990s, with offices only in Chicago and New York, Perkins+Will found itself doing many projects in association with other architects, and in need of stronger skill sets in certain areas (like interiors). Strategic growth “has led us to do higher-value design,” Harrison says.

Harrison’s own rise has tracked with the overall growth of the firm. Now 44, he joined Nix, Mann and Associates “more or less straight out of graduate school” at Harvard, where he’d imagined himself joining a boutique firm. After Perkins+Will acquired Nix, Mann in 1995, Harrison started taking on national responsibilities for science and technology work … and the rest is history. Harrison describes his job as “creative problem solving,” adding, “I think it’s important that our firm is driven by qualitative factors—design excellence and environmental responsibility. That leads to our [financial] success.”

According to Harrison, the firm’s decentralized structure avoids the downsides of a traditional “hub-and-spoke” organization, in which the spokes are likely to underperform the hub. With corporate officers and design principals like Ralph Johnson and Allison Williams spread around the country, Perkins+Will ensures that employees can get face time with them while preserving the character of each office. “You end up having common threads between projects, but distinct voices,” Harrison says.

Perkins+Will recently counted its thousandth LEED-accredited staff member, a big milestone for a firm that’s intent on greening the built environment. (So much so that it reached the Architect 50’s No. 1 spot for sustainable practices.) Following a recent staff reduction of 2 or 3 percent, the firm is “staying level” in terms of personnel, Harrison says, while trying to meet the increasingly high expectations of clients, who may now insist on LEED Gold or integrated project delivery.

“I think the relevance of design in our society is growing, as we’re more densely populated and living in cities,” Harrison observes. “The role of the design professional is more important.”