Taking the Lead in LEED Design

Architectural firm OWP/P's forte is meeting green standards

In 2001, John M. Syvertsen asked his employees at OWP/P a question: Why shouldn't all of the architectural firm's projects be designed to meet the highest environmental standards? At the time, it was an unusual point. High energy costs had not yet turned building owners into conservationists, as they already had in Europe. But Syvertsen had a broader mission: He wanted to do things for the world, not just in it.

Today, the 320-member firm's projects—institutional buildings such as schools, hospitals, and police stationsare built to Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standards, the green seal of approval in the building trades. The conversion has boosted business. Five years ago, OWP/P pulled in $35 million. Last year, revenue topped $52 million.

Syvertsen, 57, who speaks as if he's on a fifth cup of coffee, loves talking about the principles that have defined the business since he became president in 1999. Before that, he worked for seven years as a partner in the firm after leaving a small suburban practice. His green tendency began when he was a philosophy student at Georgetown University and became fascinated by humanity's relationship with nature. He later picked up a master's degree from Princeton University's School of Architecture.

Sunlight Benefits

Sustainability in architecture is more than green roofs and solar panels, Syvertsen says. "It's economic, social, and cultural. They're all important, and all reinforce one another."

The Loop-based firm designed Little Village Lawndale High School for Chicago Public Schools, for instance, to bathe students in natural sunlight, a benefit that has been shown to help learning while cutting electricity use. At Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, a customized mechanical system was designed to run both lighting and air circulation much more efficiently than in comparable buildings. And across all OWP/P projects, renewable building materials are used with heavy scrutiny paid to their origin—shorter distances require less fuel.

But how does OWP/P fend off ever-increasing competition in the trendiest of markets, especially from such other Chicago powerhouses as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, VOA Associates, and Loebl Schlossman & Hackl? Syvertsen says experience and expertise in its market niche set it apart. School and hospital design is so complex that only a few firms in the country can do it. Plus, the firm has been in town for 50 years, plenty of time to cultivate repeat customers. Its top client, the City of Chicago, has hired OWP/P to design several schools, police stations, and other complexes.

The city is also using the firm's consulting service to clear municipal building codes of outdated standards on energy and building materials that can stymie less-wasteful designs. In the past five years, OWP/P's consulting work has doubled, to 10% of overall revenue. The U.S. Green Building Council has also hired the firm as a consultant to help develop its LEED standards for specialty buildings.

Another client, the University of Chicago Law School, must review several bids each time it builds something, and it has consistently stuck with OWP/P. "Talk is cheap, but the reality is we've chosen them over and over again," says Douglas G. Baird, the school's former dean.

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