Last year, this magazine launched the Architect 50, our twist on a top firms ranking—one that recognizes ecological commitment and design quality as much as profitability when measuring the country’s very best A, AE, and AEC firms. And what a year we chose for the debut.

Esteemed firms—including, but not limited to, the global “alphabets”—had seen their revenues fall sharply and responded with layoffs. Capital was scarce; new projects were exceptionally tough to win, and pencils-down orders on projects in hand became all too common. Somehow, though, we were able to produce a robust ranking our first time out. It helped that firms were being assessed on their revenues from 2008, a year that a lot of firms started (at least) with a backlog.

Embarking on our research for the second annual ranking, we were not sure what to expect. Would firms want to take part in a year when competition is especially fierce? Would partners worry about revealing weak financials, or that the ranking would just yield more bad news? In the end, some firms did decline to participate—but not many. Firm leaders had been enthusiastic about the Architect 50 on its launch, and most seemed eager to repeat the experiment.

The differences between last year’s ranking and this year’s are not dramatic. Three of our top five firms (overall) are holdovers. Some commercially focused firms that were prominent last year have dropped off the list; conversely, this year’s biggest upward movers tend to be those with a bedrock of public-sector and infrastructural projects, like Denver’s Fentress Architects and Chicago’s Epstein.

The Architect 50 survey was administered from early January through mid-March to 161 firms, most of which were invited (a small number applied to the editors; all firms are welcome to). They completed a short entry form, which our research consultant, entered into a database before performing a thorough analysis. Although we tried to be as systematic as possible, the ranking is less than perfectly scientific, and it comes with a couple of caveats:

• We asked firms to indicate a range for number of staff and for revenue. This was meant to allay any worries that firms had about disclosing their exact revenue; it also provides some “wiggle room” to accommodate small fluctuations in staff size. However, this year, employee numbers dropped precipitously at many firms. Readers should bear this in mind.

• Last year, we asked respondents to check boxes indicating which major awards they had won; this year, in order to be more comprehensive, we asked firms to submit full lists of awards and honors. However, this meant that minor recognitions crowded out prestigious awards, even when weighted appropriately. We weighted the scoring strongly in favor of awards that carry national distinction—chief among them, AIA Honor and COTE awards and P/A Awards.

Congratulations to the firms that made the cut.

Click here to see details on the methodology that we used to create the ARCHITECT 50 ranking.

1. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
New York
Revenue (range): $200–$349.9 million; Employees: 500–999
SOM’s exceptional haul of awards in 2009—including four AIA Honor Awards—
helped launch them into the top spot, despite a dip in revenue.
Scoring: Revenue per employee: 202; Sustainable practices: 232; Awards: 394 

2. Perkins+Will
Revenue: $350 million or more; Employees: 1,000 or more
Once again, Perkins+Will proves that its blood runs green. Its commitment to sustainability and design chops earn green, too.
Revenue per employee: 187; Sustainable practices: 363; Awards: 271

3. DLR Group
Omaha, Neb.
Revenue: $70–$99.9 million; Employees: 250–499
DLR has parlayed its K–12 and justice expertise into a rising national profile, one enhanced by its recent acquisition of WWCOT.
Revenue per employee: 125; Sustainable practices: 299; Awards: 351

4. Fentress Architects
Revenue: $100–$199.9 million; Employees: 100–249
Now that government and infrastructure work are the name of the game, few firms are better positioned than Fentress, an aviation and public-sector expert. Revenue per employee: 471; Sustainable practices: 232; Awards: 38

5. HOK
St. Louis
Revenue: $350 million or more; Employees: 1,000 or more
Despite the split from its former subsidiary, HOK Sport Venue Event (now Populous), in late 2008, HOK is holding steady in our top five.
Revenue per employee: 187; Sustainable practices: 315; Awards: 224

Revenue: $2.5–$4.9 million; Employees: 10–19
Vincent James and colleagues had a terrific 2009, scooping major awards for projects in Beirut, New Orleans, and their home state of Minnesota.
Revenue per employee: 138; Sustainable practices: 115; Awards: 400

7. ZGF Architects
Portland, Ore.
Revenue: $100–$199.9 million; Employees: 250–499
ZGF is as green as its Pacific Northwest roots would suggest, while its strength in healthcare, infrastructure, and government work has kept it chugging through the recession.
Revenue per employee: 220; Sustainable practices: 299; Awards: 133

8. Epstein
Revenue: $100–$199.9 million; Employees: 100–249
Employee-owned Epstein rocketed up the list from 63rd place last year.
Revenue per employee: 471; Sustainable practices: 81; Awards: 73

9. Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects
Revenue: $100–$199.9 million; Employees: 100–249
Since hanging their shingle in 2006, SOM veteran Smith and partners Gill and Robert Forest have pushed high-square-footage projects toward greater energy efficiency through technological innovation.
Revenue per employee: 471; Sustainable practices: 95; Awards: 13

10. Gensler
San Francisco
Revenue: $350 million or more; Employees: 1,000 or more
The executive architect of Las Vegas’ CityCenter, 2,000-person-strong Gensler proves more every year that designing interiors is just one of its many diverse talents.
Revenue per employee: 187; Sustainable practices: 278; Awards: 108