Photo Credit: Ijaz Rafi/Unsplash

SOM, Long Known for Sustainability, Looks Toward the Future

By: LX Collection

As one of the world’s largest and most influential architecture, design, and engineering firms, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) hardly needs an introduction. With a focus on urban planning, technical agility, and sustainability, SOM has been a leader in the field since the firm was established in 1939, responsible for shaping the layout and landscape of many cities, including Chicago, New York, London, and Washington, DC. While the practice was founded by Louis Skidmore, Nathaniel Owings, and John O. Merrill in the mid-20th century, today it is led not by a small group of individuals but rather by a global network of architects, designers, and engineers at the top of their fields, well-versed in creating mixed-use facilities, cultural centers, civic and government buildings, sustainable designs, and more.

Birds eye view looking up at a glass skyscraper and clouds. Blue sky, clouds, and sun are reflecting off of the glass walls. Photo Credit: Stephen H/Unsplash

Skyscraper Pioneers

Among their many accolades and accomplishments, SOM is celebrated for leading a new era of skyscraper design and construction. Many of the world’s tallest and most recognizable buildings can be attributed to the firm, which continues to lead the field since they first introduced the John Hancock Building in Chicago in the 1970s. Since then, their super-tall designs have routinely produced the tallest buildings in the world, including One World Trade Center, the Willis Tower, and the Burj Khalifa, setting the standard for innovation and excellence again and again. 

An Early Eye for Sustainability

While topics like sustainable design and bringing nature inside are finally at the forefront of the wider architectural conversation, they’ve been core tenets of the firm’s design and building practice for over 50 years. In addition to cofounding the practice, Nathaniel Owings was also an environmental activist who spoke out about the vital responsibility architects have to protect the planet’s natural resources. The firm’s design for the Weyerhaeuser Corporate Headquarters in Washington State—a 350,000-square-foot office building with ivy-covered terraces that merges seamlessly into the natural environment and stretches across a creek like a dam—was considered ahead of its time when it was completed in 1971, with its energy-saving heating and cooling systems and expansive windows that invited the surrounding greenery inside.

Looking to the Future

Now, they’ve got their sights set on a new residential architectural frontier—the moon. Last year, SOM announced a new partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Aerospace Engineering Department to dream up “Moon Village,” a permanent settlement for humans on the moon, five decades after they first set foot upon the lunar surface. “The project presents a completely new challenge for the field of architectural design,” said SOM Design Partner Colin Koop. “The Moon Village must be able to sustain human life in an otherwise uninhabitable setting. We have to consider problems that no one would think about on Earth, like radiation protection, pressure differentials, and how to provide breathable air.” 

Coming Up

In addition to Moon Village, SOM has a wide range of works in progress around the globe. These include a mix of new builds and restoration/renovation projects like 250 Water Street in New York City; the Jiuzhou Bay residential neighborhood in Zhuhai, China; the United Nations office in Geneva; the Walt Disney headquarters in New York City; the Burj Jumeirah in Dubai; the Mile Wide in Chicago; the Taipei Twin Towers in Taiwan; and a reimagining of New York City’s iconic Waldorf Hotel.


Rendering of skyscraper with glass facade and cylindrical features climbing into the clouds. Photo Credit: Gijs Coolen/Unsplash

FIRM // Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

OFFICE LOCATIONS // New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Seattle, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, and Mumbai

CONDOMINIUM PROJECTS // The Park Loggia, NYC; 252 East 57th Street, NYC; Baccarat Residences, NYC; The Stratford, London

NOTABLE ARCHITECTURE // Burj Khalifa, Dubai; One World Trade Center, NYC; John Hancock Building, Chicago; Lever House, NYC; Willis Tower, Chicago

AWARDS // has won over 2,000 awards, more than any other architecture firm; only firm to win AIA’s Architecture Firm Award twice, in 1962 and 1996 

STYLE // Modernism, skyscrapers 

QUOTE // “Civilizations leave marks on the Earth by which they are known and judged. In large measure, the nature of their immortality is gauged by how well their builders made peace with the environment.” — Nathaniel Owings, SOM founder (1969)