To delve deeper into our coverage of the 2012 COTE Top Ten Awards, eco-structure asked the winning firms to detail their experiences with sustainable design. These offices didn’t just happen upon a winning scheme—rather, they’re all well-versed in making high-performance strategies an integral part of each project. Below we take a closer look at some of the core values that shape each firm’s ethos.

Location: Philadelphia
Principals: David Ade, AIA; Missy Maxwell, AIA; Jane Rath, AIA; and Todd Woodward, AIA
Founded: By Susan Maxman in 1980 as Maxman/Sutphin. The firm went through several ownership structures and name changes up to 2007, when it became SMP Architects.
Size: 11 employees
Little-known fact: "We started in 1980 as a firm specializing in residential renovations, many in historically significant residences. Our first office was in a Frank Furness House we renovated."

What was the biggest lesson you learned from your 2012 COTE Top Ten project, the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts Project (Kensington CAPA)?
Jane Rath, AIA, principal and president: As I said at the convention, no site is unredeemable. This site had so many negative aspects that we were afraid we couldn't even meet the LEED for School prerequisites, and the developer of the site (for whom we worked) had already contracted to deliver a LEED Gold facility. The structural supports for the El [the Elevated rail line] came down onto the property—that's how close it was. The trains generated a phenomenal amount of noise. The ground was polluted by chemicals from the site's earlier use as a rail depot. It had a bad solar orientation, it was inhabited by abandoned pets, invasive species, homeless camps, and drug dealers, and the overall perception of the site was that it was a "bad, bad place." Not only would no one walk through it, no one would walk by it. The El stop at the north end of the site was deemed by neighbors as "too scary," and indeed it had been the site of a lot of criminal activity—including murder.

What insights from this and other sustainable projects would you share with other professionals?
Green design and technology is not just for rich people. There are ways to incorporate green strategies—even ones that are more expensive than traditional systems—into every project as long as the project team is willing to look creatively at the whole picture. The school district requires all mechanical equipment to be located within the building, but by using a geothermal system at Kensington CAPA, we were able to cut 5,000 square feet out of the building for mechanical equipment, which, at $265 per square foot meant that we paid for the wells and more. The overall building program we were given at the beginning of the project was for 120,000 square feet. The building as constructed was 88,500 square feet, yet it had more program space than the program required. We challenged the school district to relax space standards, and, to its credit, the result was a smaller building that more than satisfied the program while freeing up funds to incorporate green roofs, rain water harvesting, and extensive high-performance glazing.

What is your firm's philosophy on sustainable design?
A sustainable design must make sense for each client's budget and mission. We always look to develop approaches that are appropriate for the client and, whenever possible, help reinforce what that client is about. A good example is the Cusano Environmental Education Center in Philadelphia: To teach the public about the value of marshes, we refused to fill it [the marsh] in to accommodate the building construction. The center is perched on pilings above the marsh, which flows under it. Also, the IHM Motherhouse shows that even huge, historic structures can be renovated sustainably (and there are a lot of these kinds of buildings where we come from). Lastly, the conservation of natural resources is conveyed in the building construction and related site signage at the Nature Inn At Bald Eagle, designed for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and National Resources.

What kinds of sustainable solutions are non-negotiable for your firm? What are the baseline standards your firm aims to meet with every project?
We always try to look at the best long-term solution. Daylighting always figures in, unless there is a programmatic requirement for not having it, such as a black box theater. Minimization of the use of fossil fuels and nonrenewable resources is important to us. Alternative transportation is always on the list, and we do practice what we preach. We always use SEPTA and car-share to get to job meetings. We have a long history of influencing clients not to build on sensitive sites and of orienting buildings wisely to maximize daylighting, views, and natural ventilation while minimizing energy use. We challenge our clients to justify every square foot they build. Building small is big with us.

How do you think these types of innovative green solutions might become standard?
Speaking for myself, everyone has to value these solutions, and in a country that does not value doing things for the common good, this will always be difficult. I despair when I see big corporations, who are committed to making the most money they can make for their shareholders, choose to obliterate ecosystems to get that last bit of fossil fuel, instead of refocusing their efforts on the development of alternative, renewable resources. It is happening right here in Pennsylvania, where fracking is ruining acres and acres of land. With a mindset of every-man-for-himself, how will sustainable solutions become mainstream unless we are forced by law or monetary penalties to do it? The water department here in Philadelphia has instituted penalties (actually huge charges) for Philadelphia properties that do not keep stormwater on site, and that seems to be working.

More information about the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts Project can be found here.