BWBR is awarded AIA Minnesota’s 2015 Firm Award for its enduring dedication to design collaboration and dynamic client relationships

By John Reinan

In a profession where famous firms are often named after an individual designer, BWBR stands apart. The St. Paul–based firm believes the best architecture comes from collaboration, not solo inspiration. “We don’t work in a vacuum and then try to sell the client an idea,” says Pete Smith, AIA, the firm’s president and CEO. “We engage the client in the design process. It’s the client’s design as much as it is ours.

“We are a very collaborative group,” he says. “We really believe we build relationships first and buildings second. And we do that not only with our clients but also with our peers.”

For more than 90 years, BWBR has brought that collegial approach to its work. What’s more, the firm has consciously sought to carry its ideals into the future, creating a culture that will live beyond any single leader or leadership group. For its excellence in nurturing young designers and architects, coupled with a legacy of lasting design across a range of building types, BWBR has been selected to receive the prestigious AIA Minnesota Firm Award.

“The breadth of the work BWBR has done over the years really shows what architects can do in their communities,” says Tim Dufault, AIA, president and CEO of Cuningham Group Architecture and president of AIA Minnesota. “They are continuing the legacy of their founding partners in creating and crafting high-quality architectural solutions for the Twin Cities metro area and beyond.”

But the firm excels at more than just creating buildings for a blue-chip client list that includes 3M, HealthPartners, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of Minnesota, Dufault adds. “One of the characteristics of BWBR that has impressed me for a very long time has been their focus on building the next generation of architects,” he says. “It’s important for firms to be looking at that. In fact, it’s one of the biggest challenges architecture firms face. Senior leaders are looking at their firms and trying to figure out how they’re going to make that happen.”

At national meetings of large-firm principals, says Smith, other executives are amazed that BWBR leaders step down in their 60s. “If we didn’t do that, really sharp people would be leaving in their 40s to start firms of their own,” he says. At BWBR, the generational transitions are carefully planned and managed, he adds—sometimes decades in advance.

“All of our leaders have grown up in the BWBR culture,” says Smith. “We identify future leaders years in advance. When we see that a person has the right attributes, we nurture that person.” The firm looks for four qualities in future leaders, says Smith: self-awareness, resourcefulness, empathy or “servant leadership,” and interest in lifelong learning.

The firm cultivates those qualities through programs such as BWBR YOUniversity, a regular two-day retreat that gathers a cross-section of employees. As the name suggests, the organizing principle is that you—the people of the firm—bring the culture to life.

BWBR takes the same thoughtful and measured approach to its work with clients. The firm has consciously mapped out a client strategy centered on community-focused buildings in areas including healthcare, education, government, and corporate. “You look at what these clients have in common,” says Smith. “They have complex buildings, which require a higher skill level. Because they own their buildings, these clients are looking for quality—quality in the design, the materials, the systems.

“And they have a mission, whether we’re talking about a church, or a hospital, or the State of Minnesota.”

The signature BWBR design is clean and strong, projecting a sense of solidity and rootedness for its institutional clients while opening itself up to the community. There’s light, there’s air, but there’s also heft. “Because our clients are looking for long-term sustainability, they’re looking for timeless,” says Smith. “So we tend to use more natural materials: stone, glass, metal.”

BWBR’s approach has led to rapid growth in the wake of the Great Recession. Since 2012, the firm’s revenue and workforce are both up approximately 50 percent. With 153 employees and gross revenue of $37 million, BWBR ranks among the top 60 architecture firms in the nation. About 80 percent of its staff is associated with project design, a percentage that includes 67 licensed architects and nine certified interior designers.

Smith says he was “frankly, blown away” when told the firm was being honored by AIA Minnesota. “It’s not that I don’t think we’re worthy—it’s that we don’t seek recognition,” he says. “The idea that our peers would recognize us is quite an honor. And we really see it as an honor to the legacy of BWBR—to the past leaders and the past staff. Our values have remained consistent over BWBR’s history.”