BNIM, which earned top honors in the sustainability category this year, has long been a pioneer of environmentally ambitious design. Founded in Kansas City, Mo., in the 1970s, and now with 86 employees across three offices, the firm was built on a commitment to transform the way buildings serve people and nature. “I went to school during the first energy crises in the 1970s and came out fired up about making buildings more efficient,” says Steve McDowell, FAIA, the firm’s director of design. By 1989, McDowell was among a group of AIA members to present a resolution at that year’s convention called the Critical Climate Rescue, which helped spur the creation of COTE, the USGBC, and LEED. BNIM would go on to develop the Living Building concept of design, and be among the first to earn LEED Platinum for one of its projects.

Last year, the firm, which has signed on to AIA’s 2030 Commitment, demonstrated a robust commitment to energy modeling, using tools that analyze how design decisions influence the life cycle of a building, including outputs such as carbon. After years of tracking performance to see how their models stood up to real-life scenarios, BNIM standardized their measurements in 2018 by incorporating ARC, a digital platform for tracking building performance, and Energy Star Portfolio Manager into some of their post-occupancy services. They also have a research partnership with the Salk Institute to test the effects of daylight on human health. Last year, they coalesced their ambitions for green building into a 2020 Sustainability Action Plan, which includes the goal of identifying strategies for disaster planning when considering a project site.

Asilong Christian High School in Kenya
courtesy BNIM Asilong Christian High School in Kenya
Asilong Christian High School
courtesy BNIM Asilong Christian High School

The Architect 50 sustainability judges were particularly struck by the firm’s Asilong Christian High School in Kenya, a COTE Top Ten winner that they deemed “a wonderful project.” Its triple bottom-line design responded to climate, community, and education needs in a remote area. Harnessing the abundance of solar energy, the building operation requires no carbon-based fuels, and local labor was trained in brickmaking and construction and contributed to the completed project.

The green ethos has become so baked in at BNIM that the word “sustainability” isn’t bandied about as it once was. “It’s so much a part of who we are and how we work, it’s almost redundant to use that word. We are truly focused on outcomes,” McDowell says. “Is our work making people healthier? Is our work contributing to a more vital and regenerative ecological system? Is our work helping organizations to function better? Is our work connecting people to nature? All those things mean sustainability. We don’t have sustainability workshops like we used to 20 years ago because our design workshops are sustainability workshops.”

Top 50 Firms in Sustainability

Rank Organization Score
1 BNIM 100.0
2 The Miller Hull Partnership 99.0
3 WRNS Studio 98.3
4 HDR 97.6
5 SmithGroup 97.5
6 Mithun 96.7
7 Touloukian Touloukian 95.7
8 Bruner/Cott & Associates 95.5
9 Perkins and Will 95.3
10 HOK 95.1
11 Lake|Flato Architects 94.8
12 Opsis Architecture 94.0
13 Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture 93.9
14 Hacker 92.9
15 SRG Partnership 90.2
16 LPA 90.1
17 Hennebery Eddy Architects 89.2
18 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill 88.7
18 GWWO Architects 88.7
20 Leddy Maytum Stacy 88.3
21 ZGF Architects 87.8
21 DLR Group 87.8
23 Sasaki Associates 87.5
24 Archimania 87.2
25 Ayers Saint Gross 86.3
25 EYP 86.3
27 Ballinger 86.1
28 Dattner Architects 86.0
29 EHDD 85.9
30 Kaplan Thompson Architects 85.8
31 Richärd+Bauer Architects 85.1
32 LMN Architects 85.0
33 ELS Architecture and Urban Design 84.6
34 CBT Architects 84.3
35 Hastings 83.9
36 Page 83.8
36 Fergus Garber Young Architects 83.8
38 Behnisch Architekten 83.4
39 Mahlum Architects 83.2
40 EskewDumezRipple 82.9
41 Kirksey 82.6
42 Leers Weinzapfel Associates 82.3
42 Weber Thompson 82.3
44 ZeroEnergy Design 82.1
45 Clark Nexsen 81.6
46 Payette 80.9
46 Bora Architects 80.9
48 CannonDesign 80.7
49 Studio Ma 80.5
50 HGA 80.1

Sustainability Portfolio Judges

Sean Airhart

Margaret Montgomery, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, Well AP, is a principal and global sustainable practice leader for NBBJ, a global design firm based in Seattle. She leads initiatives and projects that are focused low-energy, high-performance design. She has served on the board of AIA Seattle and co-chaired its What Makes It Green program.

Jean Carroon, FAIA, a LEED Fellow, is principal at Goody Clancy, a Boston-based firm. The 2019 president of the Boston Society of Architects, her practice focuses on the creative reuse of existing places and buildings to shape a resilient world. Her book Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings was published by John Wiley & Sons in 2010.

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