ZGF Architects
ZGF Architects vaulted into the top spot overall and in the sustainability category thanks to the firm’s healthy financials (it posted a 17 percent increase in net revenue in 2015) and its relentless push for higher building performance. The two are intertwined, according to managing partner Ted Hyman, FAIA. “They feed off of each other,” he says. “If we can show [clients] we’re bringing value in terms of design, it affects the bottom line. It takes care of itself.”

Rather than leave things to chance, though, ZGF recently brought in a chief financial officer who previously worked for two law firms (“he’s given us a really different perspective,” Hyman says) and a new “chief people officer” to spearhead talent development. The new hires have had a major impact, he says.

But the architecture is what counts, and ZGF has a knack for designing super-efficient buildings that don’t skimp on aesthetics. Its design for a future expansion of Nike’s world headquarters in Oregon is as kinetic as a runner in motion, while a new cancer center at the University of Arizona echoes its desert surroundings with walls clad in coppery metal sunscreens. The cancer center incorporates the latest evidence-based design principles and technologies, and the Nike expansion is targeting LEED Platinum—a rating the firm also achieved with its headquarters for Clif Bar and the J. Craig Venter Institute for genomics research in La Jolla, Calif.

University of Arizona Cancer Center
Nick Merrick/Hedrich Blessing University of Arizona Cancer Center

Then there’s a level of innovation so pioneering that rating systems don’t recognize it yet. In Basalt, Colo., the architects were tasked with designing a new office for a one of the nation’s pre-eminent environmental nonprofits, the Rocky Mountain Institute. Working with a client as committed to energy efficiency as they are, the architects designed a building that has no central heating (in the Rockies!) and that is expected to be net-energy-positive. Months after move-in, “we are getting feedback now that the thermal comfort of the occupants is very high,” says partner Kathy Berg, AIA, “and that the building is performing even better than it modeled.”

Hyman observes that some technologies ZGF adopted early, like chilled beams and air-sampling systems, quickly entered the mainstream. Now, the firm is trying to anticipate—and drive—the next curve of change. “Net-zero has to become the baseline,” Hyman says. “As a group of architects, we all have to figure out how we do that and build a business case for it.”

Breakthroughs are more likely to come from outside architecture than within it, Berg believes. “It’s really incumbent on us to think about what’s going to affect how we create buildings and places, and to work closely with great collaborators” to design the future we want.

Check out the list to find out which firms rose to the top,and discover who made the cut in each of the three categories: business, sustainability, and design.

Read more about top firms William Rawn Associates (business) and Marlon Blackwell Architects (design).

Also check out some key data submitted by firms and our methodology.