A recent addition to the Overland Sustainability team, Sandra Montalbo shares her research on “The Habits of High Performance Firms” and how Overland measures up.

I joined Overland Partners in late March this year after finishing an almost yearlong project as the Committee on the Environment (COTE) Scholar for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), researching and writing “The Habits of High-Performance Firms“.

Lessons from the Leading Edge” the precursor to “Habits” explored almost twenty years of data from COTE award winners. Which firms were winning these awards? How many times did they win? Where were they located? What design strategies did they use? This comprehensive, retrospective study was driven by Lance Hosey, FAIA, LEED Fellow of Harley Ellis Devereaux (HED,) and produced by the AIA. This research found that of the nearly 130 design firms that won COTE Top Ten Awards, only two dozen did so more than once, and only slightly more than half of those won three or more times. The report briefly remarked on the similarities between these firms and concluded that “more in-depth research would be useful to study the effects of size, structure, and culture on a firm’s ability to perform consistently well.” It was the foundation for “Habits” and defined the parameters for my work.

Researching Habits

I spent almost all of 2016 researching and writing “The Habits of High-Performance Firms,” trying to understand what makes high-performance firms great. I traveled from San Antonio, TX, after having visited Lake Flato Architects, to Emeryville, CA, to visit Siegel & Strain Architects. From there I traveled to San Francisco to visit Leddy, Maytum & Stacy Architects and EHDD Architecture, then to Los Angeles to meet with Brooks + Scarpa, followed by BNIM in Kansas City.  I flew to Seattle to visit Miller Hull Architects, and Mithun, traveled to Portland, OR, to visit with SERA. And, finally, my last stop was Kieran Timberlake in Philadelphia, PA. In total, 7 cities, 10 firms, 86 interviews, representing 802 people.

This report seeks to answer questions identified in “Lessons from Leading Edge.” What habits do HPFs cultivate that set them apart? What practices do they pursue to integrate sustainable performance and design excellence? Survey and interview topics included demographics, organizational structure, role in industry, HR policies, leadership selection, employee selection, leadership goals, leadership dynamics, firm initiatives, partnerships, feedback loops, philosophy, culture, hiring practices, performance evaluation, software analysis, energy-modeling, benchmarks, water-reduction, and post-occupancy evaluation methods, etc.

My initial weeks at Overland were spent running my own informal audit on the firm. What type of projects were they doing? What percentage of their projects are considered “high-performance”? What software were they using? What analysis were they running? How did they evaluate the success of a project? Who is running the analysis? Does everyone in the firm have a base competency in building simulation? Do they perform post-occupancy evaluations? I found myself reflexively running Overland through the same analysis I had spent a year compiling.

Measuring Habits Up

Overland has compiled a string of successes in their thirty years, quietly, and under the radar. They are one of only two dozen that have won AIA’s National COTE Award more than once. They have also received recognition for sustainability with two COTE awards from the local AIA San Antonio Chapter in 2015 and 2016 for their own office and the University of Texas at Austin Liberal Arts Building, respectively. In 2015, the firm was recognized by Architect magazine’s “Top 50 in Design” and “Top 50 in Sustainability” in 2016. The Architect 50 ranks the top 50 firms in the U.S. based on business, sustainability, and design.

Overland’s headquarters, itself, is an adaptive reuse building and also a national COTE Award winner. The building operates at a 73% reduction from the national average for a comparably sized building. Overland’s 65kW PV solar array offsets 63 percent of the building’s energy consumption. 90 percent of the building area is daylit. The living alley’s garden contains organic vegetables and herbs, minimizing asphalt while promoting a healthy lifestyle.

These barrels were installed a few years ago as the rainwater harvesting system to water the office's community garden.

These barrels were installed a few years ago as the rainwater harvesting system to water the office’s community garden.

Maintained by the Sustainability Team and Interns, Overland's vegetable and herb garden provides food to staff and their families.

Maintained by the Sustainability Team and Interns, Overland’s vegetable and herb garden provides food to staff and their families.

Overland Staff Gender Comparisons to AIA and HPF StatisticsIn 2015, Overland reported 42 percent of staff were women, while the national average is 31 percent. AIA research suggests that women are underrepresented in the field of architecture, in “Diversity of in the Profession of Architecture.”  More than 70 percent of female respondents felt that women are underrepresented in the profession.


Overland Staff Ethnicity Comparisons to AIA and HPF StatisticsOverland reported 34 percent of staff as ethnic minorities with a national average of 21 percent. When you have people with diverse backgrounds, different ethnicities, different countries, together on a design team, it can make for better design. Everyone brings their own unique backgrounds and life experiences to the work.


Overland Staff Education Comparisons to AIA and HPF Statistics

49 percent of staff had a master’s degree or above. In all ten HPFs surveyed, education is the single most important priority in new hires, next to experience. HPFs tend to have a higher number of employees with graduate degrees. Spending two to three years ( the average time to obtain a master’s degree) more time focused on education means these designers have strong, advanced design skills.


Overland LEED Comparisons to AIA and HPF Statistics

33 percent of staff were LEED accredited compared to 23 percent for the national average. LEED was one of the earliest third-party industry certifications that focused on sustainability.  It has gained recognition for defining the parameters of sustainable design. While LEED does not focus on the triple bottom line—including social and economic factors in addition to environmental—it was a starting point for many firms unsure of how to approach sustainable design when introduced in 1998.


Overland Energy Modeling Comparisons to AIA and HPF Statistics

Overland performed energy modeling for 49 percent of their projects. Early energy modeling in the conceptual phases of design can significantly lower energy consumption of a building by helping designers optimize orientation, building envelope materials, and fenestration.



Overland Daylight Modeling Comparisons to AIA and HPF Statistics

68 percent of their projects used daylight modeling. Increased natural daylight can have a significant impact on the overall health and performance for people. It also reduces the amount of artificial lighting needed to light a space, thus reducing the amount of electricity used as well as carbon emissions.



Sustainability As A Norm

Overland is deeply committed to sustainability. In 2015, they signed on to the American Institute of Architects 2030 Challenge. The 2030 challenge reinforces the firm’s commitment to creating carbon neutral newly constructed buildings, developments, and major renovations by 2030. It provides a framework for the firm to incrementally work their projects, year by year, through passive and active design strategies.

Measurements of the firm's 2030 commitment are shared on the walls with staffers.

Measurements of the firm’s 2030 commitment are shared on the walls with staffers.

Beyond adopting sustainability into design, Overland also practices it in their lifestyle. Many employees bike to work.

Beyond adopting sustainability into design, Overland also practices it in their lifestyle. Many employees bike to work.

The halls at Overland are lined with posters of the firm’s carbon footprint based on in-house operations, in addition to the predicted Energy Use Intensity (EUI), which tracks project-by-project for 2015. It is a daily reminder of the firm’s commitment to the AIA 2030 Challenge. The firm also recently reviewed their design team in the form of an internal sustainability survey to ensure they are on track to meeting their sustainability goals.

The people at Overland live sustainability too. Many people within our firm ride bikes to work to minimize their carbon footprint. The firm invests in its people, providing in-house continuing education and training on topics related to climate analysis, software, presentation skills, detailing, etc. They support their designers by offsetting professional organization dues, conference, and certification fees.

Overland is right on-par with what these high-performance firms are doing in terms of hiring practices, employee benefits, building performance, community involvement and advocacy. I am thrilled to be a part of this organization that is whole-heartedly committed to positive environmental, economic, and social change.


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