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: Portland, Ore.
Principals: Thomas Hacker, FAIA; Jonah Cohen, AIA; Will Dann, AIA; Kacey Jurgens, AIA; Jane Barker, AIA; Becca Cavell, AIA; Charles Dorn, AIA; David Keltner, AIA; Corey Martin
Founded: 1983
Size: 49 employees
Little-known fact: "THA’s studio office is in Portland’s first reinforced concrete structure. When we completed the building historic renovation in 2003, it also was the first LEED Silver–certified architectural office in the United States."

What was the biggest lesson you learned from your 2012 COTE Top Ten project, Mercy Corps?
David Keltner: The decision to reuse a historic Portland landmark was crucial and contributed immensely to the success of the project’s sustainable mission. Not only were all available resources optimized, but also the renovation revitalized a forgotten Portland landmark and breathed new life into a blighted site and struggling neighborhood. Furthermore, the robust structure and small glazing percentages in the existing building allowed the new addition to be much more open and transparent, with strong connections to the Willamette River and the mountains to the east.

What insights from this and other sustainable projects would you share with other professionals?
While advances over the past decade have made it possible to achieve LEED Gold certification with little impact on a project's the overall cost, achieving LEED Platinum still has cost implications that require the client's added commitment and resources. With Mercy Corps, LEED Platinum became feasible through a partnership with the Lemelson Foundation, which saw the project as an opportunity to advance its own interest in applying innovative technologies for social benefit. Our role was to help build the case that convinced both organizations to move forward, and for us, this experience underscored the importance of taking time to make sure clients understood options and their implications. This was critical in advancing sustainable design to the point we are today, and will be critical to advancing the industry in future.

What is your firm's philosophy on sustainable design?
Since THA’s founding 29 years ago, our work has been rooted in a keen understanding of the connection between the well-being of our communities and the natural environment. Today our fundamental commitment remains unchanged and is reflected in our holistic view of sustainability—one that encompasses its social, cultural, and environmental dimensions. We continue to work to advance our sustainability goals dramatically through the use of rapidly evolving design tools and technologies, innovative strategies driven by in-house research, and collaborative partnerships. Our commitment to sustainability encapsulates our philosophy in three points:

1. We create places that strengthen the community, enrich the culture, and enhance the lives of the people they serve.

2. We celebrate our connection to the natural world and protect the Earth’s resources in both our designs and our business practices.

3. We collaborate with others who share our core values, and support positive change for individuals and communities at both local and global scales.

We feel it is important to walk the talk, and work continually to minimize the environmental impact of our own office. We were certified as a carbon-neutral business in 2010, a process that involves setting goals for ongoing improvement, and we are working towards having all of the products in our building meet the Living Building Challenge Red List.

What kinds of sustainable solutions are non-negotiable for your firm? What are the baseline standards your firm aims to meet with every project?
Our focus is more on goals than solutions. All THA projects are to meet the Architecture 2030 Challenge and aspire to net-zero energy and water performance. Our decision to pursue a project factors in obstacles to achieving our sustainability goals; in short, we won’t pursue projects that are likely to fall short.

How do you think these types of innovative green solutions might become standard?
LEED and other building certification programs already have significantly broadened market acceptance for sustainable design solutions, which has helped to lower costs for materials and systems. Also, thanks to the accumulation of post-occupancy performance data, architects and clients can make more informed decisions about the advantages and disadvantages about different solutions, which reduces risk. The design team’s role is to continually advance their own practices and to exchange information about these rapidly evolving systems, products, and client strategies. This knowledge sharing will help everyone—clients, consultants, contractors, and architects—to bring innovations into the mainstream and to make more ambitious programs such as the Living Building Challenge—which today is cost-prohibitive for most clients—the new standard.

More information about Mercy Corps is available here.