Recipient of the prestigious AIA Minnesota Firm Award, Perkins and Will’s Minneapolis studio is changing its approach to design, process, and practice as if its future—and perhaps the profession’s—depends on it

By Joel Hoekstra

Practice, then preach. That might be the mantra of Perkins and Will’s Minneapolis studio if the 72-person studio wasn’t located in the aw-shucks Midwest and thus allergic to boasting. Instead of preaching, the firm quietly but firmly seeks to persuade—and only after conducting considerable research, conferring with various partners, reflecting on past experience, and sometimes even carrying out experiments on itself. Case in point: In 2016, eager to better understand the experiences of clients who had converted to a “free address” workplace, Perkins and Will became the first architecture studio in the state to go fully mobile.

Former AIA Minnesota president Meredith Hayes Gordon, AIA, describes Perkins and Will’s approach to design, process, and practice as “radical” in the best way—innovative, boundary-pushing, future-oriented. From practice innovations and advocacy efforts to teaching and pro bono work, the Minneapolis office is testing limits and traditions. The aim isn’t attention or recognition but rather the honing of a set of principles and practices that can deliver a healthier future for the profession. Says Hayes Gordon, who nominated the studio for the AIA Minnesota Firm Award: “Perkins and Will is bridging disciplines to drive innovative thinking, build leadership, and engage communities.”

The firm employs a front-loaded design process that identifies key design drivers early on in discussions with clients. Whenever possible, every constituency involved in or affected by the project is represented at the table. “The more voices in the room, the better,” says David Dimond, FAIA, design director of the Minneapolis office. “Getting people on board and collaborating from the start is key. We want everyone to leave the room after that first or second meeting and say, ‘Yes, that’s our greater purpose.’”
Once the large group has agreed on the overarching objective, the Perkins and Will team breaks the stakeholders into smaller groups so decisions can be made more efficiently. The process can be challenging to manage, at least at first, but it results in far fewer “back to the drawing board” moments as the project moves along. “It’s an integrated design process, which is different than an integrated project delivery,” says Dimond. “We’ve found that it consistently helps us make complicated projects more cost-effective and sustainable.”
Clients don’t always list sustainability as a top priority at the outset of the project, but Perkins and Will always makes the case for it in early conversations. “We try to show clients that sustainability ultimately benefits their business, their employees, and the community that supports them,” says managing director Tony Layne, AIA.
The firm can lay claim to numerous LEED-certified designs, including three of the largest LEED-Platinum projects in Minnesota: the Wells Fargo East Town project in Minneapolis, a recent addition to the Land O’Lakes campus in Arden Hills, and the Great River Energy headquarters in Maple Grove. Other projects that demonstrate the firm’s forward-thinking approaches to energy efficiency, water conservation, daylighting, and other environmental values include the renovation of the St. Louis County Government Services Center in Duluth, which rejuvenated a poorly performing 1980s structure that might otherwise have ended up in a landfill; and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, which uses 45 percent less energy and 42 percent less water than a comparable structure built to state code requirements.
In addition, the Minneapolis studio is dedicated to shaping performance standards and policy changes related to resilience. “We started working on the issue after witnessing the impacts of extreme rain in Duluth in 2011,” says Douglas Pierce, AIA, a longtime senior project architect in the Minneapolis office and now global resilient design director for the firm as a whole. “The damage from that torrent of water, and the damage from other extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, convinced us that climate change was no longer just a concern for the future; it was now a crisis with physical impacts in real time.”
Pierce also chairs the U.S. Green Building Council’s RELi Steering Committee, which last year published the second version of its resilient design criteria for next-generation communities, buildings, homes, and infrastructure.
It’s easy to pay lip service to social responsibility; it’s much harder to put in the kind of elbow grease required to make a lasting difference in the community. Over the last 10 years, Perkins and Will worked on 35 pro bono projects, donating the equivalent of $627,000 in labor. Charitable work is deeply satisfying for employees, says Jennifer Christiaansen, AIA, director of operations for the Minneapolis studio. “Service is in our DNA as architects and designers,” she explains. “Our job is to understand individuals, organizations, and communities, to reimagine solutions to their needs, and to create places that make people’s lives better.”
Beneficiaries of the firm’s pro bono work include the Center for Victims of Torture, the Forest Stewardship Council, Fairview Children’s Hospital, and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The firm also organizes two staff volunteer days every year, often partnering with Hearts & Hammers, which provides exterior-home-improvement assistance to veterans, senior citizens, disabled individuals, and others in need.
For Perkins and Will, social-responsibility initiatives go hand in hand with a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, both at the office and in the wider world. Says Christiaansen: “We believe good design should be accessible to all.”
“The new Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota was awarded to Perkins and Will because of the previous success the U had had with the firm’s front-loaded integrative design process. Throughout the process, we appreciated Perkins and Will’s strong partnership in finding solutions for design challenges and coordinating with onsite contractors to resolve field issues while preserving the design intent of the project.”
—McGough Construction executive vice president John Pfeifer
“They are tireless innovators and advocates for making the built environment more ecologically and socially sustainable and leveraging the entire industry to meet larger global sustainability objectives. We can unequivocally say that our environment and our communities are better off and on a more positive trajectory because of the team at Perkins and Will.”
—Forest Stewardship Council president Corey Brinkema