Architects are masters at taking novel ideas and turning them into physical spaces. The firms on this year’s list of the 10 most innovative companies in the architecture industry have pushed the limits of what it means to build. One found ways of applying sustainable design at the scale of a stadium, ensuring that every event under its roof can happen without producing any net carbon dioxide emissions. Another firm developed a method of building floors that slashes excess material use, eliminating most of the concrete and steel that undergird the skyscraping floors of urban high-rises. Another firm is pushing the standard billboard into the realm of technicolor alien spaceships with a bold street-side advertising/art structure right in the heart of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
This year’s honorees include some of the biggest names in architecture, such as stadium giant Populous and HKS, which has made air quality a new focus in the pandemic age. Some smaller firms are also honored this year, including Detroit-based Prince Concepts and New York-based SO-IL, which are making their names in designing unique takes on housing. The clients behind the projects on this year’s list also run the gamut. Fast-food giant McDonald’s called on Ross Barney Architects to redesign a flagship restaurant in Chicago and turn another, at Disney World, into an environmental overperformer. Amazon chose to keep its name off the sustainable stadium it sponsored in Seattle, choosing the heart-on-its-shirtsleeves name Climate Pledge Arena. Moody Nolan, the largest Black-owned architecture firm in the United States, made itself its own client when it decided to build giveaway homes for the needy in each of the cities where it has offices. The companies that commissioned these projects understand the value of design—and in pushing the boundaries of what design can do. The designers behind the projects on this year’s list are proving that bold ideas can make the leap into reality.
For greening and sheening a mid-century landmark in rebuilding Seattle’s arena
Populous has built a sustainable new sports arena in Seattle that proves these behemoth buildings can have a smaller environmental footprint. The new Climate Pledge Arena (Amazon is the title sponsor) is home to the NHL expansion franchise Kraken as well as the WNBA’s Storm. The arena will operate all events at zero carbon and purchase offsets, including those for transportation. The arena seats 17,200 for hockey games, 18,200 for basketball games, and more than 17,000 for concerts, and it anticipates hosting more than 140 events each year in the 750,000-square-foot space, almost double the size of the former arena. The firm did all this while preserving the historic roof that was designed by Paul Thiry for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Populous submerged all of the loading docks underground and built a 190-foot tunnel to access them so that the building could offer 360-degree access and curtain walls of glass, further accentuating the majesty of that roof. The arena boasts that it is the first in North America where someone can walk around the building in its entirety while never losing sight of what’s inside. Passersby can even see into the seating bowl from the north courtyard.
Instead of the traditional center-hung scoreboard, Populous designed dual triangular video boards that float over each end of the playing surface and are made to resemble two massive bows of a ship (in a nod to Seattle’s maritime history). The boards serve up 5,400 square feet of scores, stats, and other dynamic content. That’s enough surface area to more than cover an NBA court. The decision to build these boards was based on an analysis of sight lines and game action. Because play stoppages often result in activity at the ends of the ice or court, fans are already focusing their attention there so the boards are more conveniently just above where the action is about to resume. Above those scoreboards, Populous installed 160,000 square feet of acoustic baffles hanging from the ceiling, each one architecturally arranged to showcase main structural beams and tune the arena for concert acoustics. Because of the roof’s pyramid shape, the previous arena suffered from reverb and echoes during concerts. This design shrinks the space above acoustically so that even though it can accommodate over 17,000 people for a concert, it sounds like a more intimate space. The arena also incorporates touchless technology everywhere from the ticket scanning to the locker rooms, among other fan-centric experiences built into the arena.
Populous is No. 32 on this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.
2. Prince Concepts
For transforming industrial Quonset huts into versatile urban residential pillars in Detroit and Fort Worth
Prince Concepts is a developer that brings high design to fallow, overlooked land. It has been instrumental the last few years in building up the Core City area of Detroit, via its cool Quonset hut buildings, which, starting late last year, it started to adapt for multiunit apartment buildings, generally stretching an industrial building type to do new things. It is now bringing this concept to Fort Worth, Texas, with a 22,500-square-foot project called PS1200 in which a full third of its area is devoted to creating public space in the city’s Near Southside district.
3. Ross Barney Architects
For energizing Rogers, Arkansas, with a new park project and McDonald’s restaurants with a net-zero design
The Chicago-based firm, which designed the Chicago Riverwalk, created a park that’s reinvigorating Rogers, Arkansas, a fast-growing community in the northwest corner of the state near Walmart’s headquarters that had previously been bereft of thoughtful design. The project (commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation) expanded an existing park near downtown by turning parking lots and a former auto-body garage into green space and integrating a plaza into a community gathering space for a farmers market and converting an old farm-implement storage facility into an event space for concerts and more. Ross Barney also worked with McDonald’s on two interesting projects: redesigning the company’s global flagship restaurant in Chicago to make it a LEED Platinum certified building and developing the first-ever net-zero fast-food restaurant with the McDonald’s in Disney World. Solar panels generate the restaurant’s annual energy needs, and operable louvers in the dining room allow the building to breathe throughout the day.
For helping buildings breathe easier
The firm designed the luxury condo building Hall Arts Residences in Dallas (the location of HKS’s global headquarters), which opened in 2020, earning the first WELL building standard certification for a multifamily structure, which measures air and water quality, light, and comfort, among other metrics. HKS minimized indoor air pollutants by incorporating dedicated outdoor air systems (DOAS) to separate the supply of outdoor air from heating and/or cooling systems. This pumps ventilated air through the building to mitigate pollutants circulating between residences. It also added multilevel air-filtration systems to capture fine and coarse particles such as VOCs and pollen. The architecture firm also used its own Chicago offices as a “living lab” to design displacement air distribution ventilation, which it implemented within its 100-year-old, historically protected office building and mo
re than 13,000 square feet of office space. For its efforts to improve the air and water quality to give workers confidence in their well-being while at work, HKS’s offices earned WELL Gold certification.
5. Block Research Group
For breaking new ground with flooring that uses 70% less concrete and 90% less steel
Floors account for more than 40% of most multistory buildings’ total mass. They are usually made of concrete—which accounts for an estimated 8% of global carbon emissions—and that means that they represent a significant chunk of the emissions caused by constructing a building. Philippe Block, a professor of architecture who has his own group within the Institute of Technology in Architecture (ITA) at ETH Zurich, has been developing this idea of a new approach to concrete construction for more than a decade. The first building to install Block‘s reimagined slabs is a research building in Switzerland called the HiLo. It features Block’s bold curved concrete floors, which from the floor below soar over the space. They use less than 1.25 inches of concrete arching over a skeleton-like framework of thin supporting steel bars. Block has partnered with the global construction firm Holcim to offer the floors for industrial construction starting in 2023.
For creating a new kind of architectural entertainment experience
Illuminariums are massive immersive theaters that are designed to enable visitors to experience real-world filmed content and re-created worlds in an immersive environment. Illuminarium‘s Atlanta location opened in July 2021, and several more (including one in Area 15 in Las Vegas) are underway. The concept is something like walking into a high-definition documentary film, which is being projected on walls 350 feet wide and 22 feet tall and also on the ground, creating an immersive space not just to watch but to move through and interact with. The company’s Winterland experience in Atlanta created a variety of holiday scenes: an enchanted village, the Northern Lights, forest creatures darting through a snow-covered landscape, and a surround-sound orchestration that brings Winterland to life.
7. Tom Wiscombe Architecture
For reimagining the billboard for the digital era
Last summer, the firm debuted what’s known as Sunset Spectacular, a three-sided, craglike, 67-foot-tall tower of steel that looks like it could have been mined from a metallic alien world. Vertical digital screens adorn the two sides oriented toward the street, and the ground level has an opening into which pedestrians can enter to see a light and video show projected onto its interior hull. It’s part Blade Runner, part Star Trek—and it’s a next-generation billboard in the heart of the Sunset Strip, an outdoor advertising mecca rivaled only by Times Square. Wiscombe‘s design features aggressively nonrectangular vertical signs. Intermixed with advertising, the billboard’s two digital screens will also feature displays of art. Late at night and early in the morning, the screens will display interstitial videos, such as stars slowly moving across the sky or the subtle glow of an L.A. sunrise. Though advertising is clearly the main purpose for the structure, the screens will also try to fade into the background when possible—particularly in the very late and early hours, when advertisers are less likely to pay for screen time. Wiscombe has designed its tesseract structure to appeal to pedestrians and encourage them to enter the space.
8. Moody Nolan
For launching an industry-nudging campaign of donating housing in underserved neighborhoods
The firm’s architects are putting their money where their skills are, creating the Legacy House project, a planned annual gift that will grant a free home to a family in need in one of the 11 cities where Moody Nolan has offices. The first home has been completed in Columbus, Ohio, and a second is permitted for construction in Nashville. The first Legacy House is a 750-square-foot, three-bedroom home with a modernist angular roof. Built on an empty mid-block lot in the Linden neighborhood of Columbus, the home has a large porch designed to provide both privacy for the residents and a visible connection to the neighborhood. At its heart, Moody says, the project was intended to be a catalyst, encouraging others to give back in a similar way.
9. Lever Architecture
For making environmentally friendly mass timber projects a reality, through testing and design
The Portland, Oregon-based Lever has been a pioneer in mass timber construction, but this is the year it appears to have taken the concept from novelty toward the mainstream. It completed its U.S. headquarters project for Adidas, as well as the headquarters for Meyer Memorial Trust, a community-based not-for-proft also in Portland. Lever now has 10 mass timber projects either completed or under construction.
For pushing a form of apartment building design that prioritizes outdoor space and social interaction, even in tight settings
Brooklyn-based architecture firm SO-IL, which is known for modern and minimal designs for buildings including a social housing project in Leon, Mexico, and art galleries around the world, has struck upon a novel way to bring the public-private space of the stoop—a Brooklyn architectural signature—and inject it even into residential apartment buildings, creating a space in front of every unit. It successfully did this with a project in Brooklyn itself, which debuted in August. Instead of the typical building layout with apartment doors lining a narrow hallway, SO-IL’s design turns the building inside out, dividing it into three buildings that are separated by courtyards. Each is ringed with exterior walkways on each level that lead to the units and look out across the courtyards at the other walkways. In front of each unit, a small semi-covered room serves as a mini-stoop, neither fully private nor fully public. (Moving away from the interior corridor is the signature innovation.) Two additional projects are in the works and both build on the circulation and outdoor-space ideas explored in the Brooklyn condos. For one, a 13-story tower that will break ground later this year, there are porchlike foyers at the entrance of the units, and corridors on the building’s exterior add more opportunity for light to enter the building.