courtesy HKS

Building a better design practice can go hand in hand with empowering the communities you work in. Here, 10 firms from across the United States share the initiatives and priorities that help shape their studio cultures.

Float Studio

Foster Knowledge-Sharing

The beauty of being part of a team? Learning from your co-workers. That’s the thinking, anyway, behind Float School: an in-house program at New York–based Float Studio wherein staffers with particular expertise offer training for the rest of the team. “If someone produces really beautiful rendered elevations, for example, they will present a guideline and talk through their process in more detail. Or, if someone has had to dive really deep into something for a project—standards above typical for accessibility, for example—they will share their learnings,” says firm partner Nina Etnier. “[These trainings] have led to the development of pretty thorough employee guides.” Since the creation of these resources means the need for Float School “isn’t as pressing as it was a couple of years ago,” Etnier says, teammates have found a new way to teach each other: Each Wednesday, employees are free to pin an image on a shared inspiration board and discuss it with the group. Recently, this practice spurred a look at the work of Cuban artist Tomás Sánchez. “It’s been a nice way to encourage the team to explore creative influences off the computer,” Etnier says. “We want to keep the inspiration coming from all angles!”

courtesy HKS

Build a Culture of Giving

Want to help more underserved communities? Try the Citizen HKS model. Launched by globally based HKS nearly a decade ago and supported by company-wide fundraising efforts, the public-interest design program has aided people around the world through sustainably minded, equity-focused projects. Case in point: Citizen HKS’ recent master plan for StationSoccer, a program that aims to create a series of small soccer fields around Atlanta’s transit stations for kids in the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. “The project aims to empower underserved youth through equal access, educational and community programming, and sports,” says Citizen HKS director Lisa Adams.

Art Night at Hickok Cole's Washington, D.C. office
Angi Kwak Art Night at Hickok Cole's Washington, D.C. office

Support Your Local Creatives

For one month each fall, the Washington, D.C.–based firm Hickok Cole partners with the local nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts to transform its studio space into a gallery filled to the brim with artworks from local creators. While employees and office visitors can admire the curation all month long—people can also enjoy the works virtually—the month culminates in a final celebration: Art Night. Packed with artists, art fanatics, and members of D.C.’s AEC community, the vibrant affair serves as an auction and a fundraiser to bolster WPA’s mission of supporting artists and ensuring that they receive fair pay. This past year, Hickok Cole’s 22nd annual Art Night featured works from 107 artists and raised a record-breaking total of $156,900 that goes directly to WPA—making for a total donation of $1.6 million over two decades.

Detroit Collaborative Design Center

Become a Better Partner

Since its inception in 1994, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center has maintained one primary goal: breathing life into local projects through community-engaged design. Part of the University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture and Community Development, DCDC partners with community groups and nonprofits—particularly those that can’t hire for-profit firms—on everything from architectural design to stormwater infrastructure. “We all live, work, and play in buildings and neighborhoods, but we don't always get to inform [them],” says Christina Heximer, Assoc. AIA, DCDC’s co‑executive director. “Community engaged design is about all people being able to make decisions about the physical environment they interact with every day.”

MA's studio
courtesy Montalba Architects MA's studio

Think Creatively About Benefits

In 2015, the Santa Monica, Calif.–based Montalba Architects wanted to launch a benefit that would set the firm apart in the competitive world of design hiring, while showing employee appreciation and promoting staff retention. Thus, the MA First Time Home Purchase Assistance program was born, offering employees who had been with the firm for at least six years a loan covering 2% of the value of their prospective home (capped at $800,000). According to a statement from MA, “The idea was to create a loan that would be fully forgiven three years after it was given. We wanted to help staff with this landmark step of buying their first home as a thank you for being a valued member of our staff and as an investment in their future with us.” As of today, six MA employees have taken advantage of the benefit.

The HPZS team
Jamie Kelter Davis The HPZS team

Consider Workplace Transparency

The woman-led and -owned HPZS has turned its thoughtful gaze inward, recently undergoing the process to receive Just 2.0 certification from the International Living Future Institute. Likened by the ILFI to an equity-focused “nutrition label,” the voluntary certification aims to increase workplace transparency. “The Just program holds up a mirror to [our firm’s] mission and asks what are we doing to ‘preserve’ and ‘sustain’ the health and prosperity of the people we intersect with, and can we do more?” explains HPZS principal Kelly Moynihan, AIA. “It’s a question that too often goes unanswered in the throes of running a business, where profits and power are typically the drivers in decision making and goal setting.”

HPZS received its certification in January, becoming the second Chicago-headquartered firm and the only woman-owned Illinois architecture firm to do so. “We found … [that the certification] harnessed the work we were doing internally to be a more flexible and empathetic company and gave it a lane, a path,” says HPZS president and CEO, April Hughes, AIA. “During the evaluation process, we were obviously happy to see that HPZS is excelling in many areas ... But we also noted that we needed an increasing focus on physical health in our office and ensuring that HPZS promotes inclusion and ethnic diversity. It can be hard to say ‘We aren’t diverse enough. We aren’t inclusive enough.’ And do that publicly is what Just has you do, exactly.”

courtesy Mithun

Help Research Flourish

In keeping with its legacy of research, Seattle-headquartered Mithun cemented a research and development policy in 2016, implementing a framework designed to convey the “power of grassroots-driven research initiatives,” according to the firm. “Mithun R+D reflects our firm belief in the power of designer-instigated research to advance design knowledge and its application—leveraging areas of personal interest for global impact,” says Jason Steiner, Mithun partner and a director of Mithun R+D. With a current output totaling more than 10,000 hours and $1,000,000 in research funding, the firm encourages study within five broad categories: resilience, health and well-being, carbon, artificial intelligence, and construction technology.

Recently, some of that research has taken the form of “Designing Beyond the Binary,” a project led by K Kaczmarek, Jake Minden, and Claire Joseph. Working to examine the everyday built world through a lens of gender equity, the team conducted studies and interviews to distill tools that aid designers in creating inclusive spaces. “At a young age I felt that spaces were not built for trans people like myself,” Kaczmarek, also a Mithun interior designer, says. “That feeling is what inspired me to become a designer and what makes me so excited about the future of architecture. Research like this is what inclusive design is all about.”

The Early Phase Integrated Carbon assessment tool
EHDD The Early Phase Integrated Carbon assessment tool

Invest In New Tools

This much is clear: Decarbonizing the built environment has never been more urgent. But deciphering the best strategy for minimizing a project’s carbon footprint? That’s a little murkier.

Enter EHDD’s Early Phase Integrated Carbon assessment tool, or EPIC, launched in 2022. Helmed by firm climate strategist Jack Rusk, Assoc. AIA, EPIC uses basic project information (like a building’s location and main structural system) to project operational and embodied carbon, plus the effects of reduction strategies. “We realized we didn’t have a good tool to help us go beyond just intuition at the early stages [of a project], when you can make the biggest impacts and help your clients make the best decisions,” says Brad Jacobson, FAIA, EHDD partner and chief operations officer. EPIC, Jacobson explains, fills that need.

Although the firm initially created EPIC for internal use, EHDD—based in San Francisco and Seattle—has since shared the program with the design community for free. Now, Rusk estimates it has some 1,500 users. “Climate action is something everybody should be involved in,” he says, noting the team’s plans to release an updated version of the program this year. “[We thought,] how do we give everybody tools to participate?”

courtesy Studio Gang

Reimagine the Potential of Your Studio Space

When Studio Gang moved into its Chicago headquarters—an adaptive reuse of an Art Deco Chicago landmark—in 2015, the firm transformed the roof into a verdant ecosystem all its own. The resulting 5,000-square-foot space teems with more than 70 carefully selected plant species hardy enough to withstand winter in the Windy City while providing an urban haven for local insects and animals. In the years since its creation, the roof has housed sustainability initiatives including composting, beekeeping, and exploring designs that prevent bird collisions. The roof also features what the firm calls a “transparent pavilion,” a glazed event space that has hosted a variety of public and office gatherings.

Studio Gang, however, makes use of its headquarters from head to toe: In 2021, to correspond with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the firm converted its basement into a rotating gallery space. Since its inception, the Studio Gang Gallery has hosted mock-ups and exhibitions open to the public, including a recent exhibition curated by the firm in collaboration with Blue Tin Production, a local clothing manufacturing cooperative.

courtesy Relativity Architects

Encourage Healthy Habits

After many sugar-filled mornings at their Los Angeles office—fueled by pastries and cakes—Tima Bell, Assoc. AIA, and Scott Sullivan, AIA, had an epiphany. “Scott was raised on an organic farm in San Diego, and we talked about how we put out this unhealthy morning food,” says Bell, who co-founded Relativity Architects with Sullivan in 2013. “We realized we could do better.”

So, in late 2022, the partners ditched the sweets for something new: a weekly, free spread of fresh fruits and vegetables sourced from a local farmer’s market. Bell and Sullivan encourage employees to take their fill of the haul, which typically includes everything from juicy jalapeños and tomatoes to mangos and oranges. “It’s one of my favorite things to walk in and see all those fresh vegetables and fruits in the office,” Bell says. “By the end of the day, 90% of it is gone because everyone grabs three or four things and takes them home.”

Promoting nutritious eating habits has bolstered the firm in various ways. “The healthier [our employees] are, the more productive, involved, and committed they are,” says Bell, who adds that staffers are also encouraged to take walks after lunch. “It pays off for us to make sure we’re doing at least a little bit toward that end.” Plus, the architect adds, the initiative has fostered socializing inside the firm. “We have communities surrounding food because people are constantly in and out of the kitchen,” says Bell, who often uses goodies from the farmer’s market to make fresh guacamole for the team. “It’s really beautiful.”

This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.