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BNIM Receives 2011 AIA Architecture Firm Award

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

The American Institute of Architects’ Board of Directors awarded the 2011 AIA Architecture Firm Award to Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell Architects (BNIM), the Kansas City, Mo.-based firm celebrated for advancing the design of sustainable architecture from nearly its inception to today, when it’s become a preeminent force fundamentally re-shaping the built environment. The AIA Architecture Firm Award, given annually, is the highest honor the AIA bestows on an architecture firm and recognizes a practice that consistently has produced distinguished architecture for at least 10 years. BNIM will be honored at 2011 AIA National Convention in New Orleans.

AIA President George H. Miller, FAIA, notified BNIM principal Steve McDowell, FAIA, by telephone immediately after the Board made its decision. “Thank you George!” McDowell said. “That’s incredible!”

Architects, educators, researchers

From its founding in 1970 to today, BNIM has been a crucial voice in defining and developing the art and science of sustainable architecture at its every historic juncture. In 1990, principal Bob Berkebile, FAIA, became the founding chairman of the first AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), whose awards would soon become a leading guidepost in the development of sustainable buildings. Three years later, at AIA headquarters, Berkebile hosted the first meeting to establish a green building certification non-profit, which would eventually become the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). That year he also worked on a pilot design study for a Montana State University building that became an early template for the LEED rating system.

Just this year, BNIM became one of two firms to complete a building that met the world’s strictest green building certification system: The Living Building Challenge. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is a biological wastewater filtration facility that produces no waste, recycles all its water, and generates all its own energy. BNIM’s close, influential relationship with the USGBC continues to this day, as the firms weighs in on how to move LEED beyond its current highest Platinum standard.

“Because of their continuous leadership when it came time to determine the next level of performance with the LEED system, I could think of no more qualified firm to be part of crafting this tool,” wrote USGBC CEO and president Richard Fedrizzi in a recommendation letter. Fedrizzi also called BNIM “already the firm of the decade. I can honestly say that no firm has done as much to place the profession on its current trajectory towards a truly sustainable future as BNIM.”

The architects at BNIM (led by named partners Berkebile, Tom Nelson, FAIA, David Immenschuh, and Steve McDowell) describe themselves as Midwestern regional architects, but aren’t limited to any specific style or design language. Always rigorously sustainable, their buildings can be woodsy with familiar vernacular references, or refined with high-tech glass and steel compositions of pure building performance. BNIM has a national presence with offices in Des Moines, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego, but it has truly left an indelible mark on Kansas City, its hometown base. This is because of the sheer number and variety of buildings the firm has designed there, but also because of the professional influence its architects have wielded as mentors, teachers, and practitioners.

“[BNIM] is a classic example of a ‘teaching firm,’ one in which the continuing education of its staff is intrinsic in its operating mode, and one that outreaches directly to regional architecture schools and exerts a pervasive national influence,” wrote John Gaunt, FAIA, dean of the University of Kansas architecture school, in recommendation letter.

One important aspect of BNIM’s academic pursuits is sustainability research. Most significantly, BNIM has maintained a near clairvoyant focus on building performance research from early on in its history. The firm has never been content to only include prescriptive sustainability design features in its buildings and rest on the assumption that these projects are better off than “standard” construction. Sustainability is always a moving target for BNIM. They’ve continually defined and redefined how far it can go. For almost 10 years, BNIM has been studying the costs of building green, and more importantly, the economic and societal costs of not building green. Perhaps most impressively, BNIM has been able to develop a deep reservoir of clients who want to see these experiments translated into finished buildings.

“No firm is more committed to the conservation of our natural realm through a studious, artful, and scientific shaping of buildings, balancing the art in architecture with the science of conservation and engineering,” wrote David Lake, FAIA, of Lake Flato in a letter of recommendation.

Regenerative Design

BNIM’s work has garnered two AIA National Honor Awards, 20 state and local AIA awards in the last two years alone, and numerous COTE Top Ten Green Awards. A few examples of their work include:

--The Freight House Pedestrian Bridge in Kansas City, Mo., which relocated a freight bridge built in 1892 and renovated it as a pedestrian link in downtown Kansas City by threading a walkway through existing trusses, thereby drawing together varied layers of the city’s industrial history.

--The Bannister Federal Complex in Kansas City, Mo., a 1940s warehouse that BNIM converted into a General Services Administration (GSA) office building. It features a sky-lit atrium and a “light sculpture” projected on to walls, ceilings, and surfaces.

--The Lewis and Clark State Office Building in Jefferson City, Mo., was the first state office building in the nation to attain LEED Platinum certification. BNIM’s design takes formal cues from the nearby limestone bluffs and Missouri River.

--The Richard Bolling Federal Building in Kansas City, Mo., which opens up a 1964 bunker-like federal complex with a new entrance pavilion and reflecting pool that reaches out to the public, yet still fulfills strict security requirements.

--The Greensburg Comprehensive Sustainable Masterplan in Greensburg, Kan., a plan to help the tiny town (nearly wiped off the map by a 2007 tornado) become a model green eco-community. Greensburg will be completely powered by renewable energy, and all city-owned buildings will be LEED Platinum rated.

The firm’s design philosophy--called “Regenerative Design”--takes the common aspiration that buildings should do less harm to the environment and pushes it to its logical extreme: buildings that actively help to restore and rehabilitate the earth. “The work of BNIM Architects makes them implicit advocates of this pragmatism in which what a building can do matters as much as what it looks like,” wrote Rodolphe el-Khoury and Andrew Payne, AIA, in the forward to firm principal Steve McDowell’s project monograph Nurture. “[Their buildings] are bio-technical instruments, living machines.”

In 40 years, the architects at BNIM have progressed from small regional upstart located in the middle of the country’s vast interior to bringing buildings to life at the forefront of their profession. This might be a long time in the life of a person, or even an architecture firm, but in the life of their buildings--which will surely be celebrated and studied for many, many decades to come--it’s probably only a blink of an eye.


The Bannister Federal Complex in Kansas City, Mo. Image courtesy of Assassi.

The Freight House Pedestrian Bridge in Kansas City, Mo. Image courtesy of Assassi.

City Union Mission’s Christian Life Center in Kansas City, Mo. Image courtesy of Assassi.

A rendering of the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology in Athens. Image courtesy of BNIM.


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Previous recipients of the AIA Firm Award include Pugh + Scarpa (2010), Kieran Timberlake (2008), Muphy/Jahn (2005), Polshek Partnership (1992), Venturi, Raunch, and Scott Brown (1985), I.M. Pei and Partners (1968), and SOM (1961).

Visit the AIA Honors and Awards Web site.

See what the Committee on the Environment Knowledge Community is up to.


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