The Essential Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill served as architect, interior designer, structural engineer, and MEP engineer of the U.S. Census Bureau Headquarters in Suitland, Maryland. The building featuresa brise-soleil composed of wavy, white oak panels, which reduces solar glare and integrates the structure into its wooded, 80-acre site. Credit: Photo courtesy SOM © Eduard Hueber | archphoto

An innovative design creates a sensation. Creating innovative designs, year after year over decades, establishes institutions. One such institution is Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Familiarly called SOM, it’s easy to tag the firm as a design industry monolith, a masterful globe-girdler. Images come to mind of knights-errant in pursuit of their visions. Indeed, the sun never sets on SOM’s realm.

Buying into that mythology is a deceptive convenience. It renders a skewed perspective, utterly failing to capture SOM’s essentiality. Instead, consider this case for the essential SOM from two members of the firm’s New York City office.

Stephen Apking, FAIA, Interior Design Partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Photo: M. Cody Pickens Photography

Stephen Apking, FAIA, Interior Design Partner, and Lois Wellwood, IIDA, Director and Interior Design Practice Leader, were leading a Q&A session at a design school. A student’s question there illustrates a perhaps widely held misconception of how large firms do business.

The design student asked, “Could you tell me how you make the client do what you want them to do?” The SOM duo condensed two careers of experience into a memorable four-word reply. “That’s not our approach.”

Clients hire SOM for its expertise, training, taste and experience. There’s a culture of research in emergent topics and experimentation at SOM. The firm’s clients recognize the boost their business goals receive from what SOM provides.

Mr. Apking summarizes all of that with understated eloquence. “When we begin working with a client, we don’t want to come in with a preconceived notion of what is best for them and try to coerce them into that. Our goal is to make our clients’ dreams a reality.”

Those coming to SOM share a holistic perspective toward their projects. Engaging SOM surrounds these clients with like-minded thinkers, ones having a proactive curiosity. There’s a strong likelihood for clients finding that SOM has already researched the challenges or opportunities they are facing.

Consequently, the firm’s advice takes on an added dimension of authority. Ms. Wellwood understands the gravitas of the trusted advisor mantle. “I think our research and mindfulness about what’s coming before it happens means the space our client moves into a year from now will respond to what they’ll need then and where they are evolving.”

Lois Wellwood, IIDA, Director and Interior Design Practice Leader, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Photo: SOM, Lucas Blair Simpson

“The in-house research that we’ve been doing gives us a jump ahead,” said Mr. Apking. “We’re better prepared when we’re meeting and working with our clients.” He describes immersive research into what’s happening with the upcoming generation. Their schooling, their work habits, their values, and their priorities will influence design for future workplaces.

“We also work closely with experts outside SOM, and we’ve been strategic with our choices for research partnerships,” he said. “There’s no substitute for bringing in other smart people to work with our clients and us.”

Those whom SOM taps as collaborators are ahead of the curve in learning and exploring problems creatively. A sampling of SOM’s go-to resources includes a renowned cultural anthropologist, academics in progressive learning at the University of Illinois, and the School of Education’s learning laboratory at California’s Stanford University.

These partnerships help the firm prepare for the yet-to-be expressed need. They lay the groundwork for the ideal but unrealized solution.

Ms. Wellwood explains, “When there wasn’t a solution, we figured it out, which is something that SOM has always done.” She continued, saying, “These solutions have become hardware, conference tables, flooring and certainly all the buildings and the spaces that we’ve designed together with our clients.”

That mutual creationism bypasses design’s occasional misbegotten assumptions and clichés du jour. The furnishing known as a foosball table might come to mind in that connection.

“There was a time when putting in some foosball tables, and a few things like that, was cool and interesting and fresh,” said Ms. Wellwood.

SOM’s award-winning design for the U.S. Census Bureau Headquarters accommodates for the fact that, every ten years for the census-taking, the agency’s staff expands and contracts by one-third. The complex consists of two long, low-slung curving volumes separated by a courtyard. Credit: Photo courtesy SOM © Eduard Hueber | archphoto

For her, that wasn’t getting deep enough. There was more to what was happening. Feeding her curiosity was an awareness of a different form of connection developing between people and the places they were working. They were staying at work for extended periods, and that was driving changes in their utilization of the workplace.

“We did research that asked, ‘What specifically is it that makes the tech market unique?’” said Ms. Wellwood. What their study revealed was behavior in search of a proper design concept. “It was about focused heads-down work, flowing into ample opportunities for rapid collaboration, with a quick return to a focused environment.”

Lest there be generalizing about these findings, Ms. Wellwood dispels any ‘one-size-fits-all’ ideas about the maturation of the tech market. Or any other market for that matter. “When we talk to clients, they tell us, ‘Yes, we appreciate what Google has done, but we’re not Google.’”

SOM conceived an open plan office with flexible, vertically-stacked neighborhoods of employees. These neighborhoods are connected by stairs as well as two-story common areas with pantries and spaces to gather. Credit: Photo courtesy SOM © Eduard Hueber | archphoto

Elemental to design is gathering project information at the start. It’s in the designer’s job description. Unsurprisingly, the process gets a makeover in SOM’s hands.

“We have a rigorous process in terms of how we go about our work,” said Mr. Apking. Embedded in that process is a demand for asking questions, for digging deep.”

In their digging, are they mining for information or data? The answer is yes.

“The difference is that data is measurable,” said Ms. Wellwood. “When we are talking about humans responding to a space, their performance and similar things, this can be anecdotal, and hard to prove or measure.”

As information, it is pertinent to the dialog. There’s also a role for data. It brings objectivity into the frame.

“Where data points exist, there’s proof,” said Ms. Wellwood. “It’s another way we can truly understand emerging influences and be able to prove how people are responding.”

She cites an example of people who prefer to stand during the workday. “If we say, ‘40% want to stand,’ in reply, most companies will ask for the data, saying ‘Prove it to us.’”

Even in a world rich with data, there’s no devaluation of information in SOM’s design process. “Both are important,” said Ms. Wellwood. “But they shouldn’t be confused.”

Nor, she added, should the provable data take preference over the anecdotal inputs.

“Often, we are talking with our clients about unmeasurable things such as vision, values and ideas that represent their culture,” said Stephen Apking. “If someone says integrity is important, or transparency, or other values, we work through that and translate it to the project.” Doing so can include meeting with the client’s in-house experts or their consultants.

He says it’s here that the SOM team gets the first inklings of a clear understanding of vision, values and data coming together in the project. “Our job is to develop multiple models which we believe support our client’s needs. Then, we lead the review and analysis process with our client to select the solutions which are preferred.”

Within SOM, there has evolved an investigative process based in scientific reasoning that accounts for both information and data. What emerges is a grander vision. Clients see their project with a newfound clarity.

Getting to this intricate project definition is fundamental. It undergirds what the client’s project, building, or space will ultimately become and the requisite fresh approaches for meeting the challenges along the way.

Individual workspaces feature natural hues, abundant daylight, and personal climate controls. With sustainable interior finishes and narrow floorplates that maximize daylight penetration, the facility meets LEED ® Silver standards. Credit: Photo courtesy SOM © Eduard Hueber | archphoto

“I would say this is the epitome of the firm,” said Ms. Wellwood. “It’s taking on a challenge and thinking it out in a new way.” She said they’re looking to surpass the client’s expectations as well as continually move forward the “industries of architecture and design.”

When discussing the SOM legacy, there’s no doubt about its importance to the firm. “In a world where things are constantly changing and what’s new becomes the focus, there’s value in seeing SOM’s legacy of innovation and quality as an asset,” said Mr. Apking. How does that affect the workday at SOM?

“When it’s your time here, you have a lot to live up to,” said Mr. Apking continued. He finds every day encouraging and every day demanding of the “same level of excellence” that built the firm. Demanding, certainly, but never static.

At key points in the year, SOM’s senior leadership participates in meetings that focus on emergent topics in the industry. “These topics are extensively researched with participation from outside experts,” said Mr. Apking. “We also host design critiques with teams in each office, where we discuss and assess our knowledge and treatment of these topics in our current work.” These ongoing reflections empower ownership of the firm’s legacy by those currently in practice with a silent imperative to carry it forward.

A distinguishing characteristic of SOM’s work for decades is sustainability. It is, Mr. Apking says, “deeply woven into our cities, buildings and interiors.” The evolution of sustainable thinking has led to a firm-wide emphasis on wellness.

The core of the Headquarters’ interior is marked by a bright color spectrum, which enlivens the space and assists with wayfinding. Credit: Photo courtesy SOM © Eduard Hueber | archphoto

“Not only are we looking for the health of the planet, but also the health and wellness of the people inhabiting our environments,” he said. “I believe that those working in the interiors discipline are best situated to be outspoken advocates for wellness in our buildings.”

Ms. Wellwood translates this into a designers’ call to action.

“Wellness is compelling for us right now because it really focuses on people,” she said. “Integral to being in the design world is helping to propel design forward, to constantly be better and do better.”

How gratifying and special is the instance when those for whom a design was created return the love. Mr. Apking tells the story.

“One of my proudest moments came after SOM finished the building and interior design for the Census Building outside Washington, D.C.,” said Mr. Apking. It was near the conclusion of formal ceremonies opening the building, with members of Congress receiving their thanks for raising the project’s funds. Then, out marches the ‘Census Bureau Chorus.’

Clothed in garments echoing the colors of the building’s interiors, they offered a cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein hit show tune from 1949, “Some Enchanted Evening” with special lyrics inspired by the occasion.

“To tell of their love for their new building, they sang ‘Some Enchanted Building,’” said Mr. Apking. “I have to say that there’s no better moment of success in designing to support people than when your client emphatically tells you ‘we’ve been understood; that the creative solution in the building, the interiors, is benefitting them.”

One might accuse this of being an incomplete case without explaining how SOM became SOM. Aside from being told elsewhere by others, that story often lacks an important explanation. That is, how SOM remains the respected firm it has become.

Inevitably, it falls to answering basic questions of design. What is important to the client? What is authentic to the client? How can we move the needle for them?

By arriving at those answers as only they do, SOM stays in the business of making dreams come true.

As a researcher, writer and commentator, Stephen Witte reports on what’s shaping the future for the A&D community. He’s an advocate for education in design and creative disciplines. His community activities include partnerships with museums for studies of local history, digital exhibits and public programs. Contact him at