A look back at the 10 buildings designed by Minnesota architects that have won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award, the most prestigious honor in the country for sustainable design excellence

Introduction by Christopher Hudson

Launched in 1997, the American Institute of Architects’ COTE Top Ten Awards celebrates the integration of design excellence with advanced environmental performance. The ten represents both the number of design and performance measures against which the submissions are judged (see sidebar) and the number of awarded buildings each year.

With the selection of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center in 2019, Minnesota architecture firms have now brought home a total of 10 COTE Top Ten Awards. Not surprisingly, six of the awarded projects are learning centers. LHB was the first Minnesota architecture firm to receive the honor twice, and VJAA matched that achievement in 2009. The University of Minnesota Duluth is the lone two-time winner among Minnesota building owners.

In the following pages, Architecture MN revisits all 10 projects, highlighting what they were designed to be, how they achieved an elite level of building performance and sustainability, and why the owners and architects were motivated to create leading-edge facilities.



When AIA National established the COTE (Committee on the Environment) Top Ten criteria in the 1990s, sustainable design was largely considered a specialized pursuit. Today, the organization views sustainable design and quality design as one and the same, and so it has evolved the COTE Top Ten into a more universal Framework for Design Excellence. The framework breaks the 10 measures down in the following way:

Designing for Integration: What is the big idea behind this project—and how did the approach toward sustainability inform the design concept?
Designing for Equitable Communities: How does this project contribute to creating a walkable, human-scaled community inside and outside the property line?
Designing for Ecology: In what ways does the design respond to the ecology of this place?
Designing for Water: Sustainable design conserves and improves the quality of water as a precious resource.
Designing for Economy: Providing abundance while living within our means is a fundamental challenge of sustainability.
Designing for Energy: Sustainable design conserves energy while improving building performance, function, comfort, and enjoyment.
Designing for Wellness: Sustainable design supports comfort, health, and wellness for the people who inhabit or visit buildings.
Designing for Resources: Sustainable design includes the informed selection of materials and products to reduce product-cycle environmental impacts while enhancing building performance.
Designing for Change: Reuse, adaptability, and resilience are essential to sustainable design, which seeks to maintain and enhance usability, functionality, and value over time.
Designing for Discovery: Has the building performed in ways that matched expectations during design?

“The COTE Top Ten Awards are the perfect blend of science and art, recognizing architecture that meets our profession’s highest ideals through its 10 metrics and representing the highest level of design excellence. In terms of architecture awards, it is the highest bar we have as a profession. Its winners point our way forward.”

Julie Snow, FAIA
Snow Kreilich Architects
COTE Advisory Group member



Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center
Chaska, Minnesota
MSR Design, 2016

What: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s 7,530-square-foot Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center provides interactive learning opportunities about bees and other pollinators, their agricultural and ecological importance, the essential ways human lives intersect with theirs, and the alarming decline in the health of pollinator populations. The design connects each interior program space to demonstration pollinator gardens, beehives, and future food-production plots outdoors. The bee center serves as exemplar of its program’s urgent call for conversations on and best practices in our natural environment by inviting visitors to deepen their understanding of, and connection to, the natural world around them.
How: The practical beauty of traditional farm buildings inspired the bee center’s simple forms, siting, material selections, and sustainability strategies (including a robust envelope, radiant systems, a geothermal field, and photovoltaics), which deliver thermal comfort and advanced energy performance. The project is designed to be net-zero with the future expansion of a roof-mounted, one-kilowatt photovoltaic array. One hundred percent of the stormwater is managed onsite, and on-site wetlands supply irrigation for the demonstration gardens’ native plantings. The design team collaborated on a year of post-occupancy research and analyzed real-world performance through three interrelated lenses: people, space, and systems.
Why: “The project team chose a simple, authentic, experientially rich approach to sustainable design as a natural extension of the project’s core mission to connect visitors to the surrounding environment,” says designer Chris Wingate, Assoc. AIA. “Minnesota’s B3 (Buildings, Benchmarks and Beyond) sustainability program also helped galvanize the client and design team to work toward achieving progressive performance metrics from day one.”


Warroad U.S. Land Port of Entry
Warroad, Minnesota
Snow Kreilich Architects, 2010

What: A product of the U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence program, this border station is composed of three low buildings (office, commercial inspection, and secondary inspection) connected by canopies. Its two-tone wood exterior reflects the area’s long history of wood-based industry and craft: The outer shell is stained the dark gray of tree bark to anchor the building in the vast northern Minnesota landscape, while the portals are lined in warm heartwood to convey welcome to those entering the U.S. from Canada. Building volumes are inflected, widening sightlines for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and easing the turns required to move traffic through the port. “The facility’s flexibility and functionality are extraordinary,” says GSA regional chief architect Robert Theel, FAIA.

How: The site, on the southern edge of a tamarack bog with uninterrupted winter winds from the north and west, allowed for the project’s most sustainable features. The supersaturated soils provided ideal thermal transfer for a ground-source heating and cooling system, a first for the U.S. Land Port of Entry program. The site design took care to collect, move, and filter stormwater runoff from the port’s vehicular traffic areas before returning it to the surrounding bog. Plantings of tall trees and canopies over outdoor inspection areas create a more comfortable microclimate for border-station staff.

Why: “We share with the leaders of the General Services Administration the imperative that we reduce the energy usage and resource consumption of our nation’s buildings as we provide safe, efficient, comfortable, and healthy workspaces for federal employees,” says Snow Kreilich Architects’ Julie Snow, FAIA.


University of Minnesota Duluth
Swenson Civil Engineering Building
Duluth, Minnesota
Ross Barney Architects (design architect) and TKDA (architect of record), 2009

What: The architects started by asking, “What do engineers need to learn, and what forces do they need to control?” The University of Minnesota Duluth’s 35,300-square-foot Swenson Civil Engineering Building (pictured above) was designed to teach students about materials, how they go together, how they age, and how they resist forces inherent in nature.

Engineers create structure to move water, retain earth, and span long distances. Duluth’s engineers are particularly occupied with mining taconite in Minnesota’s Iron Range. This professional focus and the special features of the region inspired a design that could not be anywhere else, for any other discipline.

How: The building exterior uses rusting steel, precast and poured-in-place concrete, and reclaimed wood to create a place for designing, constructing, and testing structure. Taconite-filled drums collect stormwater for experimentation in laboratory flumes. Excess rainwater is carried by taconite rock drains to onsite retention or absorbed by the vegetated roof.

The south wall is a puzzle of interlocking precast-concrete panels. Steel kickers used for temporary support during installation remain to demonstrate the construction process. Wood scuppers made from recycled pickle barrels teach reuse of salvaged materials. On rainy days, the building demonstrates hydraulics and kinetic energy, as water pours from the scuppers.

Teaching continues inside with exposed mechanical and architectural systems. Structural glass partitions and clerestories allow daylighting and views to laboratories. Precast-concrete weld connectors are exposed; gabion walls of taconite separate the corridor from laboratories; a glass floor landing overlooks the labs, demonstrating the strength of glass.

Why: “Sustainable principles were an integral design impetus,” says Ross Barney Architects’ Carol Ross Barney, FAIA. “With an educational facility whose curriculum directly impacts the natural environment, this notion of building as pedagogical tool became a guiding concept. Designed to display building systems as a teaching tool, the building showcases structural and mechanical processes and stormwater-management techniques. It acts as a working classroom where design plays an integral educational role and civil engineering processes are illuminated.”


University of Minnesota Duluth
Bagley Nature Area Classroom Building
Duluth, Minnesota
Salmela Architect, 2010

What: A 2,000-square-foot teaching facility for UMD’s 59-acre nature preserve. Perched on a hilltop clearing above Rock Pond, the building is composed of a low classroom volume backed by a narrower, two-story service zone housing mechanicals and storage. The teaching and gathering space looks out through a wall of glass to a patio of recycled granite pavers with a fireplace and recycled-wood benches. A solar array and a vegetated roof signal the building’s environmental intentions.

How: The design combined a series of passive and active strategies to meet the school’s ambitious environmental goals for the project. Energy demand is reduced with high-R-value continuous insulation, high-performance windows, and airtight building construction, allowing the grid-connected photovoltaic panels to produce more energy than the building uses. The large south-facing windows maximize direct solar gain in winter, while operable windows on the east and west sides provide cross-ventilation in the warmer months. Solar tubes bring daylight into the middle of the classroom, and electric lighting is controlled by motion sensors and photocells. A heat-recovery ventilation system distributes fresh air evenly within the building and recovers 85 percent of the heat before venting the air.

Why: “UMD staff and our team saw an opportunity to advance public awareness of sustainability with this unique project,” says David Salmela, FAIA. “The building received LEED-Platinum certification and a COTE Top Ten Award, but its greatest success can be seen in how often it is used by students and faculty from across the university, as well as the general public.”


Great River Energy Headquarters
Maple Grove, Minnesota
Perkins and Will, 2008

What: Great River Energy (GRE) is a not-for-profit, member-owned electric utility cooperative and Minnesota’s second-largest electric wholesale supplier. GRE’s headquarters is housed in a 166,000-square-foot, four-story office building with a concrete frame and glass curtain walls. The project, which opened on Earth Day 2008, was Minnesota’s first LEED-Platinum-certified building.

The complex anchors Elm Creek Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in suburban Maple Grove, Minnesota, and overlooks Arbor Lake, a man-made lake resulting from gravel excavation. The 12.5-acre site was designed to link GRE with Main Street, the Arbor Lakes Retail District, and a metro-wide transit terminal. It can accommodate expansion and a future parking deck over the surface lot without reducing green space, increasing runoff, or reducing existing bioswale capacity.

How: GRE’s new office environment was designed to showcase workplace productivity, energy-efficient technologies, and a collaborative culture. The facility cuts fossil-fuel use by 75 percent, carbon emissions by 60 percent, and water use by 90 percent—all while providing abundant daylight and outdoor views, exceptional indoor air quality, and a superior work environment within a reasonable budget—demonstrating that green design can be efficient, affordable, comfortable, and healthy.

Key design strategies included creating quality space rather than quantity of space; design for daylight; a first-ever combination of lake geothermal heat pumps and low-velocity, under-floor ventilation; and a commercial-scale, onsite urban wind turbine. Within two years of opening, the project attracted almost 15,000 visitors from nearly every continent on the planet.

Why: “The project continues to demonstrate that comfort, workplace productivity, and energy efficiency are 110 percent compatible,” says Perkins and Will’s Doug Pierce, AIA. “While some of the technology could be updated, the design for daylight, views, and modular flexibility are timeless. And the low-velocity displacement ventilation can do an amazing job of delivering fresh air and removing floating contaminants from the workspace. That’s priceless.”

American University of Beirut
Charles Hostler Student Center
Beirut, Lebanon
VJAA, 2008

What: Perched on an incline rising from Beirut’s coastal Corniche (pedestrian promenade), the 204,000-square-foot Charles Hostler Student Center arranges sports facilities, a theater, an amphitheater, a café, and underground parking into multiple building volumes woven together on many levels by courtyards, circulation paths, and spectator areas. The resulting design synthesizes architecture and landscape, including rooftop gardens, into interconnected, environmentally diverse spaces for people to gather in, as students and faculty seek shade during the day and Mediterranean breezes at night in Beirut’s hot and humid climate.

How: “Evoking the masonry-bearing wall construction of traditional Lebanese buildings, VJAA organized the center into a series of roughly parallel, sandstone-clad, concrete-framed ‘strong walls’ that shade outdoor spaces and control temperature swings inside the buildings,” wrote Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA, in our November/December 2008 issue. “The walls play a part in a series of sustainability strategies, including rooftop solar collectors to heat water for the pool and showers, radiant and displacement cooling, operable skylights to induce stack-effect ventilation, precast and aluminum louvers sized to keep glass areas in shade, green roofs to reduce the heat-island effect, cisterns for annual water collection for irrigation, vine-covered trellises and water walls to cool exterior spaces, and chilled seawater to help cool the entire lower campus.”

Why: “The university was interested in developing a model for sustainable design that was specific to the traditions and cultural context of the region while introducing 21st-century techniques and technologies,” says VJAA’s Jennifer Yoos, FAIA. “We visited the campus again this past December and found the building in heavy use. The environmental strategies and social programming around the building’s microclimates have yielded a much-valued building.”


Tulane University
Lavin-Bernick Center
New Orleans, Louisiana
VJAA, 2007

What: A 1950s student center—a modernist bubble that was rigidly compartmentalized on the inside and mechanically cooled on even the most temperate days—was transformed into a dynamic university hub that responds to its climate and cultural context. The 150,000-square-foot project reused and expanded the existing concrete structure and foundation and reprogrammed the building to integrate microclimates with social activity. The renovation, which was 50 percent complete at the time of Hurricane Katrina, continues to serve as a model for sustainable design that is appropriate to New Orleans.

How: The new building creates healthy spaces that emphasize natural light year-round and natural ventilation, especially during spring and fall. The envelope allows the center to remain open to daylight and to natural cooling and fresh air when possible, while tempering the effects of solar gain with shading and low-E (low-emissivity) glazing. The building is divided into thermal zones related to the particular requirements of offices, gathering spaces, and retail. Radiant-cooling surfaces, solar chimneys and large moving fans, and water walls provide air turbulence and radiant conditioning for spaces and increase thermal comfort where needed. The project was launched prior to the widespread availability of sustainability guidelines, so the architects worked with German climate engineer Matthias Schuler of Transsolar to develop innovative systems and strategies for energy performance.

Why: “We believe in a fusion of modern technology and an understanding of traditional methods of passive design that are inspired by local contexts and traditions,” says VJAA principal Vincent James, FAIA. “By working this way, sustainability has an added value: It helps the building resonate with local traditions and represent a particular place and culture.”


Tofte Cabin
Tofte, Minnesota
Sarah Nettleton Architects, 2000

What: “In summer 1997, Medora Woods purchased 5.7 acres of woods with a small 50-year-old summer cabin on the North Shore of Lake Superior,” wrote Camille LeFevre in the March/April 2001 issue of Architecture MN. “A Jungian analyst who studies Americans’ increasing psychic and physical disconnection from community, place, and nature, Woods wanted to renovate the cabin for year-round use without the materials waste, site destruction, ongoing maintenance, and energy consumption such projects usually generate.” Working with Sarah Nettleton Architects, Woods revamped the 942-square-foot retreat to be a demonstration of sustainable design for architects, builders, and other visitors from around the world.

How: A diverse team of local and national experts applied a systems approach of ecological sustainability based on in-depth research of options in 2000, when there were few standards and no accepted rating system. Renewable-energy features include an array of photovoltaic panels on the garage roof, a wind-powered generator, and a ground-source heat pump for in-floor heating. Daylighting strategies bring light deep into the home during winter while minimizing heat gain in summer. Materials and finishes range from recycled and sustainably harvested pine and a copper roof to low or no-VOC paints.

Why: “The infrastructure was not in place [at the time] to support a lot of this sustainable-design approach,” says Sarah Nettleton, FAIA. “Because of Medora’s willingness to commit to her ideas in realizing this approach to design and construction, she supported my research and our deep look at reinventing the process of sustainable design.”


The Green Institute’s
Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center (now Greenway Office Building)
Minneapolis, Minnesota
LHB, 1999

What: The Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center (PEEC) was created to connect an under-employed labor force to employers in ecologically sound businesses. Rooted in community resistance to the county’s plans to construct a solid-waste transfer station at this site, local activists succeeded in building a base for better employment opportunities. The PEEC, a multi-tenant office/manufacturing building on a brownfield site, was seen as an expression of the Green Institute’s mission, which is to “create community-based models to protect and nurture our natural and urban environment through education and sustainable economic development.” The project was the first in Minnesota to use LEED Pilot in design.

How: Design features relative to energy performance include energy reduction by 50 percent through solar orientation, sun-tracking daylighting, advanced glazing, shared common space, ground-source heat-pumps, an air-to-air heat exchanger, efficient lighting, and controls. Resource conservation measures include the use of recycled materials and construction materials (such as steel joists, wood, and brick) derived from salvaged sources. Minimizing use of interior finish materials was emphasized, and finishes were selected based on their long life span, low off-gassing, and potential for disassembly and reuse. Locally produced materials and an aggressive construction-site recycling program were utilized. Features to reduce the impact on ecology included a roof garden, native landscaping, rainwater harvesting, and gray-water use.

Why: “The Green Institute’s mission and the vision of longtime Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioner Annie Young pointed the institute in the direction of creating the most sustainable building in Minnesota,” says LHB CEO Rick Carter, FAIA. “LHB had been working on the Material Reuse Center for the same client. We were ‘pushed’ by this client in a way we never had been before, and it made us better architects.”

Northland College
McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center
Ashland, Wisconsin
LHB (architect of record and environmental consultants) and HGA (design architect), 1998

What: Located on the southern shores of Lake Superior, Northland College has focused on the environment and sustainability for decades. The 40,000-square-foot McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center is used in curriculum for 114 residents learning about energy performance, materials, building life cycles, and sustainability. The primary goals for the project were developed as a collaborative process between the design team, students, staff, and the broader college community. A memorandum of understanding included in the construction documents listed the measurable sustainability goals; it was signed by all major stakeholders, including the contractor, to ensure the established goals were met.

How: One of the project goals included being 40 percent more energy-efficient than code required. Estimates generated by energy modeling software predicted a likely 50 percent reduction based on analysis of more than 30 strategies. Computers monitor the building’s renewable systems, including a 20-kilowatt Jacobs Wind Electric Company turbine, a solar domestic hot water system, and three photovoltaic arrays. Other sustainability features include operable windows instead of air-conditioning, indoor-air-quality monitors, low-flow showers and toilet fixtures, composting toilets, an energy recovery unit, high-efficiency gas boilers, and sensor-controlled lighting. Resource efficiency was addressed with recycled-content materials, biocomposite counter surfaces, low-maintenance masonry, and regionally harvested wood.

Why: “Northland College set out to create a new residence hall to meet the needs and interests of its students, model its environmental mission, and provide a living and learning lab for environmental studies,” says LHB CEO Rick Carter, FAIA. “The end result supports teaching, learning, living, working, and outreach, all while incorporating environmental practices.”