The Midwest’s largest design firms continued to drive revenue despite the COVID-19 pandemic that stalled the economy, with total billings reaching $6.54 billion in 2020.

ENR Midwest’s Top Design Firms list for 2021 ranks 110 companies based on revenue across the 11-state region. The ranking shows that the Midwest’s top architects and engineers managed to hit a new revenue high despite the pandemic, even as smaller firms saw losses as billings began to dry up. This year’s total for all companies on the list was $40 million higher than the record-breaking $6.14 billion reported for in 2019 and $84 million more than the $5.78 billion reported in 2018.

As in the past, the firms on this year’s list represent a wide range of specialties including, but not limited to, environmental, transportation, warehouses, manufacturing, telecommunications, health care, water supply and hazardous waste.

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ENR Midwest Top Design Firms 2021

Some of the top-ranked firms on the list shifted revenue rankings a bit from the previous year. Burns & McDonnell, which was second last year, surged to the top spot in the Midwest.

It was followed by AECOM, which was the only other company to surpass the $500-million mark.

The top 10 also included HDR, Design Firm of the Year Stantec, HNTB Corp., WSP USA, Terracon Consultants, Arcadis NA Parsons Corp. and Kimley-Horn.

Given the hurdles presented by the pandemic, some companies adjusted their revenue expectations for the year. That was the case for Olathe, Kan.- based Terracon Consultants, which was ranked 7thon this year’s list, rising from 8th last year.

M. Gayle Packer, president and CEO, says the company had predicted a 10% revenue gain for the year, but saw only a 2% increase, which she says was caused by such issues as some states’ bans on construction and engineering work that wasn’t classified as essential; clients who halted or placed projects on hold; and some state governments that froze their budgets.

Revenue growth “was essentially flat, which we were pretty proud of [given the conditions] last year,” she says. She attributed the company’s ability to slightly increase revenue, in part, to an investment in the company’s technology infrastructure that enabled Terracon to smoothly send a large part of its workforce home to work when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

The company previously had provided most of its employees with laptops rather than desktops, and half the workforce was sent home to work in the space of a weekend. A task force was quickly formed to establish safety and business protocols for workers in the field, who Packer says were relieved that they didn’t have figure things out on their own.

“That helped our people stay focused,” she says. “We had a mantra ‘control what we can,’ which is business and safety practices,” she says.

One of Terracon’s Midwest projects was a $360,000 brownfield cleanup for the city of South Beloit, Ill. The site, in a river floodway, was contaminated by industrial uses. Terracon used traditional cleanup methods as well as crop phytoremediation, which uses a succession of crops (buckwheat and rye) to remediate the soil and which provided a cost savings for the client.

Like Terracon, Burns & McDonnell also stayed focused on business in 2020, thanks to nearly 15,000 projects nationwide and the efforts of its more than 600 employees.

B&M was the top firm on our list. Headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., and with regional offices in Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis, the firm worked on more than 4,000 projects in the Midwest.

Ray Kowalik, chairman and CEO, says the pandemic had adverse effects on some markets, such as the oil/gas and airline/airport business, which caused the company to refocus.

“We pivoted resources to those markets that were hot during COVID—logistics, food and consumer products, and mission-critical, specifically,” Kowalik says.

B&M posted its strongest sales quarter ever in the fourth quarter and anticipates revenue will grow by 10% this year, he says.

One of the company’s Midwest projects completed for CenterPoint Energy was Troy Solar Farm in Troy, Ind. It consists of 150,000 solar panels installed across 300 acres. The work was completed in January. The installation ranks among the largest single-sited solar farms in the area and has the capacity to produce solar power for more than 8,000 homes.

Kowalik says an integrated construction approach created efficiencies. “By working simultaneously on design, procurement and construction, we were able to design, procure and mobilize quicker than traditional design-bid-build delivery methods,” he says.

The company used drone imagery and mapping to obtain preliminary topography information, allowing the site design team to conduct the preliminary site assessment and acquire as-built data for the foundation.

Another company, Detroit-based SmithGroup, which placed 23rd on this year’s list, also was pleased with how it withstood the pandemic.

“Despite the many challenges that the pandemic presented, 2020 ended up being a strong year for SmithGroup,” says Dave Whitman, principal and corporate communications director. “We were able to maintain our revenue at a level that was nearly equal to 2019.” The company saw numerous projects placed on hold, but found opportunities elsewhere in high-demand areas such as health care and workplace and campus planning.

“Clients were in need of trusted partners to help them understand how the pandemic was creating or uncovering weaknesses in their business models,” Whitman says. “We were able to provide our designthinking expertise to help them work through new ways of doing their business and design the systems/ facilities that could help them adjust or excel out of the crisis created by the pandemic.”

One of the firm’s Midwest projects was the Zeiss Michigan Quality Excellence Center in Wixom, Mich. The German company is known for pioneering scientific optics and fabricating electronic measuring devices. It needed to consolidate five offices into one location.

Whitman says the machines that Zeiss produces measure to such small tolerances that they require a level of stability that usually leads to closed-box labs. SmithGroup used an HVAC system and architectural planning strategy that allowed them to create a workspace that fosters daylighting, provides amenities and links to the outdoors on campus.

Despite the challenges, Kowalik and others predict that large firms will continue to succeed by providing a diverse range of services and reacting quickly to meet ever-changing business needs. Kowalik believes these capabilities will continue to be part of their future.

“We have learned to pivot in the last year—in a stronger way than ever before,” Kowalik says. “As the markets shift, so do our teams.”