Architecture and planning centers on human experience and bringing people together. Few firms have structured their office around these ideas like Ayers Saint Gross. Founded in 1912, the firm has over a century of experience, including a majority of their work in support of colleges, universities, and cultural facilities. Today, the 185-person firm has offices around the country, including in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Tempe, AZ.
Since 1998, Ayers Saint Gross has released an annual “Comparing Campuses” compiling important data sets about higher education and medical campuses around the country. Building on this feature and highlighting the firm's approach to shared ownership, the following interview brings together president Luanne Greene, principal Amelle Schultz, as well as Sustainability Director and architect Allison Wilson. Together, they share their perspective on the practice and what it means to design for inclusive planning and community.
As president of Ayers Saint Gross since 2016, Luanne Greene has worked on design and planning projects with colleges and universities across the country. She believes that design can improve the lives of individuals and strengthen communities. Her collaborative vision for the firm centers on elevating design, reducing carbon, integrating data to support decision making, and advancing equity in all forms.
Amelle Schultz is a principal at Ayers Saint Gross with an expertise in landscape architecture, campus planning, and landscape planning. Her work spans the entire spectrum of design, taking the macro-scale of planning and translating it seamlessly to the details of landscape architecture. Her goal is to create campuses, cities, and cultural landscapes that are equitable and sustainable, connecting people to nature and fostering a sense of belonging.
Allison Wilson believes the built environment should address the social, environmental, and economic realities of today's world. As Ayers Saint Gross’ Sustainability Director and an architect, she supports high-performance building and planning objectives across the firm, leading a team of analysts that perform daylight and energy analysis to fuel metric-driven design principles.
Why were you interested in studying design?
Allison: When I was a child, my grandfather built model boats from his own designs and started making birdhouses and miniature cities with me from scrap wood when I showed an interest. My grandfather was incredibly important and influential to me and that love of making things never went away. In high school, I took drafting classes and realized I was leaving my friends earlier and earlier to draw each day and it registered for me that this was something I might want to study in college if I was willing to have less time with my friends to explore it. I went to the University of Maryland, got more and more hooked, and never looked back.
Amelle: I always loved art and design, but I also loved nature so to me, where the two met was where I wanted to build my career. I researched and found landscape architecture and it has been a good fit of where these interests overlap. I should also mention that I had an art teacher in high school who really encouraged me. My art teacher told me, “You have the power to make a profession in the arts. Don’t give up on that dream just because you feel this need to follow a more traditional path.”
Luanne: My story is a lot like Allison’s in that I always gravitated toward three-dimensional problem solving — the classic Legos and Lincoln Logs, but also hanging out with my dad in his shop and just tinkering and puttering. I also remember going to geometry class for the first time and realizing, “Oh, wow, these are my people.” I loved exploring that understanding of three-dimensional space. I didn’t know there was such a thing as landscape architecture, but I’m sure if I had known, I would have gone in that direction. And even before I went into architecture, I always had an interest in bigger picture things like how decisions get made, and the politics and economics of it. So it makes sense that I ended up working with larger-scale planning issues as well as detailed design.
How does local context inform your work?
Amelle: Context is fundamental. As a landscape architect, your professional responsibility is to respond to the local place, the local flora and fauna, the climate, and natural systems as influencers for your design solutions. Often, part of a campus brand is their local context. Many times, that is why someone will choose a particular college — because they want to go to the mountains or they want to go to the desert. We need to keep those local environments in mind in everything we do; even celebrate them.
Luanne: This layers on to what Amelle said, but we also look at the context within the sphere of higher ed. Because we’re working within higher ed institutions, we need to think about how their specific context relates to that of their peer institutions, or where this person went to graduate school, or where they first taught as professors, or any number of things. It’s a very specialized encyclopedia of reference.
Allison: These are all very technical answers for how context influences our work, but we also think about the people side of things. At the end of the day, we design for people. While it’s true that there is far more that unites people than divides them, the individual people and culture of any place vary. We are authentically curious about people, their needs, and how their spaces can best support them in achieving happier, healthier lives. We invest our time and energy in understanding the people who will inhabit our projects, their goals and outcomes, and design accordingly.
How did the Comparing Campuses project originate and why is it valuable?
Luanne: In the early days when we started it, there was no Google Maps or Google Earth. We wanted a way to look at the context and key metrics of these organizations we were working with, including data about how they were using their campuses and built spaces. Initially in the 90s, it was a challenge to get the data. Once we kept doing this year after year, collecting this information gave us the ability to share how lessons learned and problems solved at one institution might have relevance to another place.
Allison: It’s important and valuable to clients because it provides insights across the entire swath of higher education that many don’t have the opportunity to see because they’re more isolated within their individual institutional context. At first it was just about the figure grounds and the scale of the spaces and built footprints, but over time it’s really involved into comparisons on current topics of interest whether that’s changes in enrollment, carbon, or character of outdoor open space. What its value is today is so different than what it was in the beginning.
Luanne: In some way, the quantitative data side of the poster was the precursor to our firm’s emphasis on data visualization, research, and space analytics. You can see the road from when we began collecting the data and getting a handle on it to us creating these new analytical tools to support the quantitative side of decision making. These posters reflected this shift in thinking we were having, the onset of our interdisciplinary problem solving and really thinking holistically as opposed to just through the single lens of architectural design.
Amelle: As Luanne and Allison suggested, the Comparing Campuses poster has evolved from one that focused on the comparison of physical components of campuses, to a poster that is focused around the themes and challenges we see higher education campuses facing. It allows us to dig deeper into these areas to inform our work, help our clients, and start a larger conversation.
How do you pick your topics for Comparing Campuses?
Allison: We look for things that seem timely and relevant based on the work of our practice and our own inherent curiosity. We strive to pick topics that we think institutions will see value in thinking about as well. In 2021, we looked at open spaces on campuses and in 2020, we focused on embodied carbon. Both of these themes were particularly timely.
Amelle: In the context of the pandemic, there was a huge emphasis on outdoor gathering space and the need for it, both for its calming effects, but also because it was a safer and healthier place to meet. So many campuses are rediscovering that outdoor spaces are a large part of their value propositions and are actively trying to provide more and more opportunities for people to use those community-building areas. This is always something we worked with our client to provide, but it became more evident of the past two years of the pandemic.
Luanne: When it comes to choosing issues, we think about what is going on in the world that our clients might be grappling with. The idea of preserving carbon is not only an important issue to the world, but it’s also an issue that higher ed is trying to wrap their hands around and understand better. In the past, we’ve looked at things like student life, sustainability, innovation districts and economic development, and the oneness between institutions and their communities. Each of these posters really reflect the kinds of industry trends and conversations going on in higher ed during those times.
What are some recent projects you’ve been working on, and are there common themes you find important?
Allison: Most if not all our projects carry a deep-seated belief that climate change is happening, and we have a responsibility to develop lower carbon structures – both embodied and operational. We’ve had some successes through a series of planning and design projects at Arizona State University, Purdue University, and Grinnell College, among many others. Another remarkable success story has been our work at Ringing College of Art and Design. Our first housing project we did there was one of their first LEED buildings on campus and it was our first LEED Version 4 project that got certified. Since then, we’ve completed several more projects there that have achieved LEED statuses, including a dining hall that will potentially achieve LEED Gold. That shows a clearly increasing investment in high-efficiency work, but also spaces that are beautiful and well-designed.
What are some major changes you see in education or planning?
Allison: People are more interested in resilience than ever – with resilience being both support for mental and physical health as well as responsiveness and adaptiveness to climate change and the shifts it will produce.
Luanne: I’m also seeing more leaders trying to determine how they can use data to make good decisions. There’s a little bit of wheel slippage in terms of, what are the data points that are really helping? They’re trying to make sure that where they invest the measurement time and tools really does yield benefit.
Amelle: Just as our whole world has been looking deeply at the inequity issues that are embedded in our culture, so has higher education. We are seeing these issues, which were always part of the conversation, becoming the headline of the conversation. Working with underrepresented groups to help advance those discussions and working to design physical spaces that better welcome a more diverse community is at the center of much of our current work.
Allison: I think there’s also a change in attitude about higher education. More and more people, whether they’re first-generation students or 50th-generation students, are thinking about the value proposition that you are supposed to go to college, learn something, and come out with something on paper that says you have more professional value and your time is therefore worth more. If a college can’t deliver that because there’s greater wage stagnation in the market, that sort of undermines why people go to college. Given the impacts of the student debt crisis, I think my generation will think differently about sending our children to college and we will empower them to think differently as well.
Ayers Saint Gross is an employee-owned design firm. Can you explain more about this model and how it works?
Allison: We all own the firm. People earn shares in the firm each year as a portion of their income and over time become fully vested in those shares. It means that there is a financial incentive to stay with the firm long-term as well as shared value in accelerating operational efficiency. We all benefit from shared efficiencies and successes together and we all share the burden of leaner times together. The Comparing Campuses project ties in with us being an ESOP because we see the importance of information-gathering, record-keeping, and passing that knowledge along. A large part of the value of our firm is the knowledge that is held within. Investing in things like Comparing Campuses and other research efforts underpins part of that value proposition.
Luanne: The decision to become an employee-owned firm was inspired in part because we’ve been around for more than 100 years and we want to be around for the long run. That doesn’t happen by accident. In our industry, we see enormous consolidation and we always want to control our destiny so that we can continuously serve our clients in meaningful ways. We created this employee ownership structure in part to bring the same level of stability and long-term thinking to ourselves that we are bringing to our clients.
Amelle: For me, it is pretty simple. Being part of an ESOP means we all, no matter what role or years of service with the firm, have a vested interest in Ayers Saint Gross’s success. Everyone's contributions and voices help to build toward a common vision.
As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
Allison: Low-carbon buildings and issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Our industry carries a lot of responsibility in these overlapping conversations and we are tasked with accelerating our world toward a more sustainability, more equitable future.
Luanne: We need to think about our humanity. In this day and age, everyone is talking about the idea of resiliency when it comes to energy, but I also think we should think about human resiliency in the landscape of a COVID-informed culture. How can we use design to support health and well-being, especially in a place like a college or university campus?
Amelle: Part of being a designer is being open to listening to the times – when things need to be challenged or changed, and being able to adapt and respond. I like to think that these things we’ve highlighted here are extremely important as things we’re focusing on currently, that over time, we’ll have made great advancements in these areas and will be refocusing our efforts on something else.