William Hellmuth, 61, has been president of St. Louis design firm HOK since 2004. An architect, he is the nephew of co-founder George Hellmuth, for whom the firm was named, along with partners Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum. Today, HOK has 1,600 employees in 23 offices on four continents. The firm is responsible for the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, the Tokyo Telecom Center and the National Air and Space Museum, among other projects.
HOK ranks at No. 36 on ENR's Top 500 Design Firms list, with $409 million in 2013 revenue. The firm last month said it would acquire, in a deal set to close by late October, San Francisco-based sports-facility design specialist 360 Architecture, adding 180 employees; in 2008, the firm spun off its former sports-entertainment practice. Questions and answers were posed and edited by ENR correspondent Tony Illia.
ENR: Why are you getting back into sports design with the 360 purchase?
Hellmuth: Sports-facility design is a large, high-profile market. It's a place where HOK belongs as an industry leader. We have always wanted to get back into sports architecture with a firm that shared our collaborative culture and goals for design excellence. By acquiring 360 Architecture, we're adding one of the industry's top design practices. Two of the firm's founders and senior principals, along with 10 other staff members, are past employees of HOK. The 360 office and its people will immediately play an important role in HOK's global network as an important, full-service regional office. Kansas City, Mo., will become HOK's 24th office, and Columbus, Ohio, will be the 25th. Our respective cultures and values are a strong fit. We expect there will be some changes in financial reporting, structure and other functions. In the meantime, it will be business as usual.
How has a collaborative project approach changed the design process?
We have an interdisciplinary design approach that collaborates well with engineers, planners, owners, architects and consultants. New technologies greatly aid an integrated design process, giving us the ability to have the building structure, mechanical systems and other pieces available on one shared model. We have specially designated collaboration rooms equipped with ultra-high-resolution videoconferencing and virtual flip-chart technology in all of our offices, so team members can work together as a group in real time. It has helped us to communicate and collaborate over long distances in a seamless way on projects such as the 3,500-acre, 26-building King Abdullah University of Science and Technology campus in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, which was designed and built in two and a half years with input from 11 geographically disparate HOK offices.
How has biomimicry changed your approach toward project design?
Biomimicry enables us to think about sustainability in an attractive and appealing way that is also understandable and energizing. It has inspired the fundamental visual and sustainable aspects of design, which are now based on something other than just the building program or how things get put together. It's a powerful new way of thinking.
Where do you see the industry going in the next decade?
We're seeing significant increases in transit-oriented development. Community planning is increasingly being oriented and organized around public transit corridors, including walkable distances and population densities. It has impacted the quality of life, sparking revitalization and luring people from the suburbs back to the urban core. HOK does a lot of transit-oriented, development-related work with mixed-use, commercial and residential projects, combining multiple uses into a single location for a live, work and play environment. If placed in the right location, stadiums and theaters can become a catalyst for city growth. That's why we're excited about our agreement to acquire 360 Architecture. We can't wait to get back at it.
What could architects be doing better?
Architects could be better advocates for design excellence and sustainability in the political arena. Our political voice is not as developed as it should be. Many sustainable aspects of design should be law. Although Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans nine years ago, we're still inching toward designing for climate change from a political and legal standpoint. We need to push for more stringent building energy codes, which needs advocacy at high government levels. In Germany, meeting code means designing a building to be 60% more energy-efficient than required by [the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating & Air-Conditioning Engineers]. We have a long way to go. A lengthy political discussion is needed in America. We need to be mindful of the balance between economics and sustainability, but architects' voices could be louder.
Has green design gone mainstream?
Yes, and it's a great thing. We can achieve sustainability levels within the framework of speculative construction, an important thing for widespread acceptance. Today, the general population is expecting sustainability as a normal design feature. At a corporate level, sustainability is crucial to attract the top students today, which says something about our educators who are raising the level of awareness.