Samuel Lasky
Joe Pugliese Samuel Lasky

In the inaugural ARCHITECT 50 ranking in 2009, William Rawn Associates (WRA) found itself in the top spot. Since then, the Boston firm has kept busy, picking up not only new projects, but also a series of prizes, including a 2010 AIA Housing Award (for its residences at Swarthmore College) and a slew of honor awards last year from AIA New England and the Boston Society of Architects, helping to land WRA again near the front of the ARCHITECT 50 pack.

As anyone reading this magazine knows well, the economic climate has made it all the more difficult to grow an office. Years ago, to avoid the bust that’s now assailing so many, WRA took an approach that turned out to be remarkably prescient: Don’t fall for the boom. The 35-person firm maintains a self-imposed limitation of only five projects in active design at once. “There have definitely been times when we could have grown to a firm of 100 people, but we shied away from that, because the thing that was near and dear to us was design,” explains Douglas Johnston, AIA, one of the firm’s three principals.

Accordingly, WRA takes a farsighted approach to hiring, avoiding the project-by-project recruiting that fires off a turbulent staffing cycle. “This has kept us off the roller coaster,” Johnston says. “We’re not immune from economic realities,” he concedes, “but we have remained strong throughout the recent maelstrom.” The slow-and-steady approach does not just apply to human resources: Ultimately, the principals believe, it allows the firm to deliver the best design. “We’re small enough that we don’t have a deep corporate culture getting in the way of the design process, yet we’re large enough to take on big projects,” Johnston figures. “We are able to take on work of real consequence and scale—right now, we are simultaneously doing two $100-plus-million projects—but with a size where I don’t have to worry if I know everyone’s name.”

“Our process and organization is built on the principle of a meritocracy of ideas,” says principal Clifford Gayley, AIA. Not only does this keep design quality high, the principals reason, it also allows for cultivation of the next generation of leaders (see sidebar on Samuel Lasky, AIA).

When William Rawn, FAIA, founded the firm in 1983, he was intent on building a generalist practice, one that could take on different program types, scales, contexts. Given that the firm has recently designed libraries, urban university buildings, a federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a 234-room W Hotel and Residences in Boston, and a synagogue in Wellesley, Mass., he seems to have done just that.