Designed by Lake|Flato, the World Birding Center in Mission, Texas, won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award in 2006. Over the past decade, the firm has won twice as many Top Ten Awards as any other firm.
Paul Hester Designed by Lake|Flato, the World Birding Center in Mission, Texas, won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award in 2006. Over the past decade, the firm has won twice as many Top Ten Awards as any other firm.

Now in its 20th year, the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Awards have become what the Institute calls “the profession's best known recognition program for sustainable design excellence.” Every year, a panel of expert judges chooses 10 projects exemplifying what COTE calls “the integration of sustainable performance and design excellence.”

As I wrote in ARCHITECT earlier this month, COTE recently released Lessons from the Leading Edge, an in-depth report studying performance metrics and common design strategies among the 189 past Top Ten winners. The report, which I authored on behalf of the COTE Advisory Group, represents the most comprehensive study to date of the Top Ten program.

In addition to examining the winning projects themselves, the report also reviewed the architects that designed them. Between 1997 and 2015, a total of 127 firms, ranging from single practitioners to global companies with thousands of employees, have won a Top Ten award (although several firms had combined forces as joint ventures on single projects). Among these firms, 28—roughly one-fifth—have won more than once. Of those, only 16 have won more than twice. If Top Ten represents what Fast Company once called “the greenest buildings of the year,” could these frequent winners be considered America’s “greenest” architects?

Architecture Firms With More Than Two Top Ten Awards, 1997–2015

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Source: AIA COTE Lessons from the Leading Edge (2016)

Two firms, HOK and Lake|Flato, have won an impressive eight awards each. All but one of HOK’s wins occurred before 2004, while Lake|Flato did not receive its first award until 2006. In fact, in the past decade, the Texas-based firm has won twice as many Top Ten awards as any other firm. What explains its historic run? As we included in the report, co-founder David Lake, FAIA, told me that every project the firm takes on begins with an integrated design charrette: “Early in the process, before we even think about design, before we even know what the building looks like, we set goals for performance, resource conservation, and site contextual cues that are put up for everyone to see. Everyone is there—building owner, building users, and the entire design team, not just the principals. If everyone sees these early, everyone knows what we’re heading toward.” Lake|Flato’s sustainability director, Heather Holdridge, added, “We see the beauty and integration of engineering as helping push the quality of design. It’s not another layer—it’s integral.”

Brad Kahn via Flickr Creative Commons license The Bullitt Center, in Seattle, designed by the Miller Hull Partnership. With seven AIA COTE Top Ten Awards, Miller Hull has the third most wins of any firm.

Also at the top of the list is Seattle-based Miller Hull. With seven wins between 1998 and 2015, the partnership arguably is the most regularly awarded firm on the list, garnering a Top Ten award every two to three years since the program’s beginning. Meanwhile, five-time winner Brooks + Scarpa, in Los Angeles, holds the distinction of having designed the most projects that have won both a COTE Top Ten Award and an AIA Institute Honor Award. Only 13 projects have ever done this, and only two firms have done it more than once: Lake|Flato, with two projects, and Brooks + Scarpa, with three projects. “Consistently for us, good design means good performance,” says Angela Brooks, FAIA, managing principal of Brooks + Scarpa. “We have never separated the two.”

Of the 16 design firms that have won more than two Top Ten awards, half are located in California, Oregon, or Washington. Of the eight firms that have won five or more awards, all but one are in those states and all but two are in California. (HOK is a global practice, but it has a major office in San Francisco.)

Brooks + Scarpa has designed the most projects that have won both an AIA COTE Top Ten Award and an AIA Institute Honor Award.

With 41 Top Ten projects, California has nearly three times the number of winners of any other state. Bill Leddy, FAIA, the 2013 COTE chair, and his San Francisco firm, Leddy Maytum Stacy, are six-time Top Ten Award recipients. In Lessons from the Leading Edge, Leddy speculates that California has so many successful examples of sustainable design because of “a more temperate climate, greater governmental involvement, and arguably more progressive clients.” During the presentation of the 2013 Top Ten Award winners, he recalled an audience member asking, “What single thing would make it easier to make excellent sustainable architecture?” Another attendee responded, “Apparently, move my practice to California.”

This summer, COTE will conduct further research on the culture and practices of high-performance design firms, focusing on those that have won multiple Top Ten Awards. We hope to identify common practices that any firm, irrespective of size and location, can cultivate to integrate better performance with better design.

And, as always, the 2016 class of Top Ten winners will be announced on Earth Day, April 22.

April 22 editor's note: See the winners of the 2016 AIA COTE Top Ten Awards here.