Planning and architecture are based on the human experience and the ability to bring people together. Ayers Saint Gross is one of the few firms that has built their office around these ideas. The firm was founded in 1912 and has more than a century of experience. They have a lot of work to support colleges, universities, cultural institutions, and other educational institutions. The firm employs 185 people and has offices in several cities across the country, including Tempe, AZ, Washington, D.C., Tempe, AZ, and Baltimore, D.C.

Grinnell Landscape Transformation. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Ayers Saint Gross’ annual “Comparing Campuses”, which compiles important data about medical and higher education campuses across the country, has been published annually since 1998. The following interview, which builds on the feature and highlights the firm’s shared ownership approach, brings together Luanne Greene (principal Amelle Schultz) and Allison Wilson (Sustainability Director). They share their perspectives on the practice and discuss what it means for design to be inclusive and collaborative.

Luanne Greene, president of Ayers St Gross since 2016, has been involved in planning and design projects with universities and colleges across the country. She believes design can make a difference in the lives of people and communities. She has a collaborative vision for the firm that focuses on elevating design, reducing emissions, integrating data to support decisions making and advancing equity in every form.

Douthit Hills Development. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Amelle Schultz, a principal at Ayers Saint Gross, has a wealth of experience in campus planning, landscape architecture, and landscape planning. Her work covers all aspects of design. She takes the macro-scale of planning, and seamlessly translates it to the details in landscape architecture. Her goal is to create cities, campuses, and cultural landscapes that can be sustained and equitable, which will connect people with nature and foster a sense of belonging.

Allison Wilson believes that the built environment must address the economic, social, and environmental realities of our world. Ayers Saint Gross’ Sustainability director and architect, she supports high performance building and planning goals across the firm. She leads a team that conducts daylight and energy analysis to support metric-driven design principles.

Patricia R. Guerrieri Academic Learning Commons. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Why are you interested in studying design?

Allison: My grandfather made model boats for me as a child. He also started making miniature cities and birdhouses from scrap wood. I was greatly influenced and influenced by my grandfather and this passion for making things has never faded. When I was in high school, I began taking drafting classes. I realized that I was leaving my friends earlier each day to draw. This made me realize that I wanted to study drafting in college and I would be willing to spend less time with my friends exploring it. I attended the University of Maryland and was hooked.

Amelle: Art and design were always my passions, but I also love nature, so I chose to pursue a career where both of these interests intersected. Landscape architecture was something I found through research. It combines my interests well. It is important to mention that my high school art teacher was a great supporter of mine. My high school art teacher said to me, “You can make a career in the arts.” Do not give up on your dream because you feel the need to go down a traditional route.

Luanne Greene. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Luanne: My story is similar to Allison’s. I gravitated towards three-dimensional problem solving, the classic Legos or Lincoln Logs. But also spending time with my dad at his shop and tinkering. I can also recall going to my first geometry class and thinking, “Oh, wow! These are my people!” I loved the exploration of three-dimensional space. Although I didn’t know that landscape architecture existed, I am certain I would have pursued it if I did. Even before I became an architect, I was always interested in the bigger picture, such as how decisions are made and the economics and politics involved. It makes sense that I have worked with both large-scale planning and detailed design.

How can local context influence your work?

Amelle: The context is essential. Landscape architects have a responsibility to consider the context of the area, including the climate, the flora, fauna, and the natural systems. A campus brand often includes the context in which they are located. Many people choose one college because they are interested in the environment. It is important to remember these local environments and celebrate them in all that we do.

Luanne: We add to the Amelle statement, but also consider the context of higher education. We need to consider how the context of our students relates to their peers institutions. This could be where they went to graduate school or where they started teaching as professors. It is a highly specialized reference encyclopedia.

Hayden Library. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Allison: While these are very technical responses to how context influences our work we also consider the people aspect of things. We design for people. Although there are many things that unite people, they can be divided by the culture and people of each place. We are curious about people and their needs. We spend our time and energy understanding our clients, their goals, and designing accordingly.

Where did Comparing Campuses come from and what makes it so valuable?

Luanne: When we first started it, Google Maps and Google Earth were not available. We needed a way to see the context and key metrics for these organizations that we were working with. This included data about how they used their built spaces and campuses. It was difficult to obtain the data in the early 90s. We were able to share the lessons learned at one institution and solve problems at another. This information was collected year after year.

Ringling Bridge Hall. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Allison: This is important and valuable for clients as it gives insight across the whole swathe of higher education that many people don’t have the chance to see due to their institutional isolation. It was initially about the figures and scale of spaces and built footprints. But over time, it has become more involved in comparing current topics of interest, such as changes in enrollment, carbon or the character of outdoor open land. Its value today is very different from what it was at the beginning.

Luanne: The poster’s quantitative data side was in a way a precursor to our firm’s focus on data visualization, space research and research. It is easy to see the progression from the time we started collecting data and gaining a handle on it, to the moment when we created these analytical tools to support quantitative decision making. These posters reflect the shift in thinking that we had, the beginning of our interdisciplinarity and holistic approach to problem solving.

Amelle Schultz. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Amelle: The Comparing Campuses poster evolved from one that compared physical components of campuses to one that focuses on the challenges and themes that higher education campuses face. This allows us to dig into these areas to inform and help our clients and to start a bigger conversation.

How can you choose your topics for Comparing Campuses.

Allison: Based on our work and our curiosity, we look for relevant and timely topics. We try to choose topics that institutions can also benefit from thinking about. We focused on open spaces on campuses in 2021 and embodied carbon in 2020. These themes are particularly relevant.

Amelle: Outdoor gathering space was an important part of the Pandemic. It was not only for its calming effects but also because it made it safer and more inviting to meet. Many campuses recognize that outdoor spaces are an important part of their value propositions. They are actively seeking to increase the number of opportunities to allow people to enjoy these community-building spaces. We have always provided this service for our client, but the effects of the pandemic made it more apparent.

Patricia R. Guerrieri Academic Learning Commons. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Luanne: We think about the issues our clients are facing when choosing an issue. Not only is the preservation of carbon an important issue for the world but it is also something that higher education is trying to understand and solve. We’ve previously looked at issues such as sustainability, student life, innovation districts, economic development, and the unity between institutions and their respective communities. These posters reflect the industry trends and conversations that were taking place in higher education during these times.

Which projects have you been involved in recently? Are there any common themes that you find important?

Allison: Many of our projects, if not all, are based on a belief that climate change is real and that we have a responsibility for developing lower-carbon structures both operationally and embodied. We have had some success through various planning and design projects at Arizona State University and Purdue University. Ringing College of Art and Design is another remarkable success story. We were the first to complete a housing project there. It was also one of the first LEED buildings on campus. This was also our first LEED Version 4 certified project. We’ve done several other projects on campus that have been certified LEED, including a LEED Gold-certified dining hall. This shows that there is a growing investment in high-efficiency work but also beautiful, well-designed spaces.

Allison Wilson. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

What major changes do you see in education and planning?

Allison: People are increasingly interested in resilience. Resilience is both mental and physical health, as well as the ability to adapt and respond to climate change and its shifts.

Luanne: I also see more leaders trying out data-driven decision making. There is a bit of wheel slippage when it comes to determining which data points are actually helping. They want to ensure that the time and money they spend measuring is actually generating benefits.

Amelle: As the whole world has been examining inequity in our culture, so too has higher education. These issues are now the main topic of conversation. Our current focus is on working with underrepresented groups to advance these discussions and designing physical spaces that are more welcoming to a diverse community.

Purdue master plan. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Allison: I believe there is a shift in attitudes about higher education. People, regardless of their generation, are starting to think about what college is supposed to offer. They are supposed to learn something and leave with a document that shows that they have more professional value. A college that can’t deliver this because the market is more stagnant in wages will not be able to attract students. My generation will have a different view of sending their children to college due to the impact of student debt. We will also empower them to think differently.

Ayers Saint Gross, a design company owned by employees, is a success story. Could you tell us more about the model and how it works.

Allison: The firm is ours. Each year, people earn shares in the company as a part of their income. Over time, they become fully vested. This means there is both a financial incentive for people to stay long-term with the company and shared value in improving operational efficiency. All of us benefit from each other’s successes and efficiency, and share the burden of reducing costs. 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. Knowledge is a large part of our company’s value. Part of this value proposition is investing in things such as Comparing Campuses or other research efforts.

Fribley Commons Dining Facility. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Luanne: We made the decision to make our company employee-owned because we have been in business for over 100 years, and we want to continue to do so. This doesn’t happen overnight. We see a lot of consolidation in our industry. We want to be able to make decisions and serve our clients effectively. This employee ownership structure was created in order to provide the same stability and long-term thinking for ourselves as we offer to our clients.

Amelle: It is very simple for me. An ESOP is a group of people who share a common interest in Ayers Saint Gross’s success. Every person’s contribution and voice helps to build towards a common vision.

Hayden Library. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross

Looking ahead, what ideas do you see that architects and designers should consider?

Allison: Low-carbon buildings, equity, diversity and inclusion. These conversations overlap and our industry has a lot to answer for. We are charged with helping accelerate the world’s transition towards a more sustainable, equitable future.

Amelle: Being a designer means being open to change and adapting to changing times. These are the things I think are important. Over time, I believe we will have made significant progress in these areas, and will be refocusing our efforts to something else.

Ringling Bridge Hall. Image Courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross