On April 28th, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) gave the 2017 National AIA Architecture Firm Award to LEDDY MAYTUM STACY Architects of San Francisco. This is the highest honor that the AIA bestows to a firm. We recently sat down with the firm’s three founders, Bill Leddy, Marsha Maytum, and Richard Stacy, to capture their thoughts about creating and sustaining an architecture practice based on their shared values for sustainability, social equity, aesthetics, and functionality.
Q: When you founded this practice in 2001, the three of you had already worked together for many years. What were you trying to accomplish by forming this partnership, and how has that partnership grown over time?
Richard Stacy: We started working together very early in our careers, and found that we had a shared value system. Because the three of us have worked together for over 30 years, I think our relationship has grown organically. Even though we’re all different, which I think makes a better firm, we have a shared approach to architecture. That has strengthened us as a partnership and served us well throughout the years.
Marsha Maytum: We wanted to do projects together that we felt were meaningful to our communities and beyond. What we hoped to accomplish was to do our very best work and to make a difference. Bill talks about poetry and pragmatism, and that is a theme in our work. We believe that architecture is the interconnection and intermingling of great beauty, technological performance, and social equity.
Bill Leddy: Architecture has a bigger job to do than simply to be beautiful and interesting to experience. It has a greater responsibility to society to address bigger social issues, including climate change, social equity, and housing for disadvantaged populations. We decided to apply architectural design to these larger societal ideas. The idea of marrying poetry and performance within our projects is the idea that buildings have really two different kinds of jobs to do. First, they need to function properly, which includes using less energy and being healthier for the occupants. But at the same time, they still need to inspire us. They still need to attract the people who want to work there, study there, and live their lives there. Architecture today needs to be high performing in terms of both aesthetics and function.
Q: How did you come to see architecture as a path for helping to create social equity?
Maytum: Our interest in the social component of architecture stems from our experience in college in the 1970s. It’s always been a core value for our firm to bring in the sociological, psychological, community-based, and urban design aspects of making the built environment. Sustainability—although we didn’t call it that in the 1970s, we called it environmental design—was a key part of our education. We believe that finding ways to make the architectural profession a leader in sustainable design and social equity is an important part of what we do.
Leddy: Too often, architects design buildings that seem to address only the wealthier segments of society. We’ve been interested for many years in the idea that architecture is for everybody, and that everyone has a right to inspiring places to live and work. It’s a social justice issue.
Stacy: We’ve focused our work over the last 15 years on clients who serve underserved populations, and we find that very rewarding. It’s one reason young people want to work with us.
Q: What’s the relationship between sustainability and good design, and how have your clients embraced that?
Leddy: Architects have the opportunity to reinvent what design excellence means, to take what we thought of as design excellence in the late 20th century and completely reinvent it for the 21st century, with sustainability and carbon reduction in mind. Sustainable design strategies are simply one more aspect of architectural expression. We don’t see design excellence and building performance as separate. We see them as completely entwined.
Stacy: I’ve been pleased to see the progress that the affordable housing community has made in embracing sustainable design. Affordable housing nonprofits have a long-term perspective. They own and operate their buildings for decades afterwards, on very tight budgets, with residents who are also on very tight budgets, so they really understand the long-term benefits of energy-efficient and healthy environments. When we first started designing affordable housing, this was not the case, but now these organizations have become leaders in sustainable design for housing.
Q: Can you give us an example of an enlightened client?
Maytum: One example of an early enlightened client was the Thoreau Center for Sustainability. That project was part of the transformation of a historic army base, the Presidio [in San Francisco], into a new national park. Our client wanted not only to make a great new nonprofit center focused on social equity and justice and environmental issues, but also to prove that you could turn an historic landmark structure into a healthy, sustainable, energy-producing environment. This was before the days of LEED. We were working with the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on photovoltaics and had one of the first displays of solar cells that were available for the public to see.
Q: How does a small firm like yours stay true to your mission while also remaining a profitable practice?
Stacy: Most of our clients are, as we say, mission-driven clients. We provide great value for our services, and we put our heart and soul into every project. These kinds of clients are interested in the long term. They either develop one building in their lifetime, or they own and operate multiple buildings for years and years. Because we’re giving them buildings that are going to serve them for a long time, they greatly appreciate the value that we bring to the table.
Maytum: Architecture is an art, but it is also a business. We need to provide paychecks for everybody every two weeks. Richard, Bill, and I have ridden the waves of seven recessions during our careers, and so we are fiscally very conservative and responsible in how we run our practice. We want to make sure that we support the people who work here and provide opportunities for them to grow and learn and also volunteer in the community. Within our business structure, we provide everybody in the office with paid time to volunteer. All of these things are about making a smart business.
Leddy: We live and work in San Francisco, notoriously one of the most expensive cities to build in, or live in, in the country. And so we’ve designed our firm to be a very lean organization. We also work on a variety of different project types so that when one project type slows down, another might keep us going. Our practice expresses our shared values. This work is too hard to do without having a greater sense of fulfillment day in and day out. We see every project as an opportunity to attract clients who want to do these kinds of projects. We all work on projects that we care passionately about.