Written by Brian Libby and originally posted in Portland Architecture March 29, 2016

Waterleaf becomes first local architecture firm to earn B Corp status

Over the past few years a new movement has been sweeping the business world: the emergence of B Corps, or benefit corporations, which occupy a role between that of for-profit and non-profit organizations. B Corps are still for-profit companies, but become certified they must meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. According to the parent organization of B Corp status, 68 percent are more likely to donate at least 10 percent of profits to charity. 47 percent are more likely to use on-site renewable energy. 55 percent are more likely to cover at least some of health insurance costs for employees. And 28 percent are more likely to have women & minorities in management.

Today, there is a growing community of more than 1,600 Certified B Corps from 42 countries and over 120 industries. When Oregon first began allowing them in 2014, the state's 29 first-day enrollees made the state a leader among the 20 that had enacted B Corp status.

Here in Portland, there are numerous building-industry companies or related professionals that have achieved B Corp status, including Brightworks Sustainability, Green Building Services, The Joinery, Living Room Realty, Gerding Edlen Development, and Neil Kelly Company. But Waterleaf Architecture is the first architecture firm in Portland, or Oregon, to earn B Corp status.

Recently I talked with Waterleaf partner Jon Styner and associate Karen Lange about the firm's decision to B.

Lange began the conversation by putting into context how uncommon B Corp design firms are, despite the natural fit given how the design industry directly benefits the public realm. "There are nationally only about 17 architecture or engineering firms, which I was surprised by," she said. "It’s kind of a low number. And only about seven or eight were architecture firms." On the entire west coast, for example, other than Waterleaf there are only two in San Francisco and one in Oakland. "But I think it will pick up," she added. "The B Corp movement is expanding very rapidly. I think we’re on the leading edge of figuring it out."

Styner added that the process is rigorous, which may explain the initially slow uptick. "We’ve worked on it for a year and a half," he said. "The assessment is quite involved and quite detailed in the info they request and the assessments they make. We’ve had meetings and meetings back and forth."

At the same time, Lange believes the process was enlightening. "It gives you this deeper insight into your business," she explained. "We did the initial assessment just for ourselves internally. We’d been hearing about B Corps and wanted to see how we measured up. We discovered we were doing a lot of good things already. But it also pointed out areas we could improve on. And it provides a framework to do so moving forward."

Waterleaf's journey to B Corp status began with a visioning process in 2012. "We identified a lot of goals as far as what we do to contribute to and be a benefit to the community. We were trying to align our vision and our mission, and for me at least, as a result, the B-corp certification really kind of helps define that even more clearly than what we’d identified a few years ago," Styner said. "It will help us going forward as a measurement tool. You’re required to be re-certified every two years. We didn’t know this when we started the process, but for design firms they have a portion of the assessment specifically related to our type of work."

"A lot of the assessment is geared toward companies that sell a product," Lange added. "We sell services and ideas, even if you get a product at the end. It was interesting to look at how we sell as service rather than shoes or shampoo. At my desk I have a quote from one of my university professors, at Notre Dame: 'Architects bear an enormous responsibility as stewards of creation.’ You’re actually literally shaping your community. You’re trained to look at problems in a unique way and solve those problems for generations to come. A building or plan you create is around for a long time and affects a lot of people. You have a responsibility to serve the community and future community as well. How do we engage our employees and our staff and our clients and consultants—everyone you work with-in that same message?"

I asked Lange and Styner how much going for B Corp status was a marketing move, given the attention that it brings and how it expresses the company's commitment to progressive values. Lange described it as a secondary goal. "It’s clearly going to be a benefit in terms of opening doors and networking," she said. "There’s sort of this built-in marketing. But for me that was secondary to just using it as a framework and a tool."

More than marketing, the firm saw B Corp status as recruitment tool, especially in expressing Waterleaf's desire to hire more women and minorities than the small percentages working in the architecture profession overall. "That was really important: this idea of attracting and retaining talent, especially the younger generation. Millennials are much more aligned with values and social responsibility," Lange explained. We’re finding that with our younger staff it’s really resonating with them. I’ve got nothing but excited comments talking about it internally. And I think it will benefit with recruiting. With women, it’s personal for me, but diversity is a big part of the B Corp assessment. There’s a lot of question about diversity in staff. And it’s very timely for the architecture profession."

Styner likened becoming a B Corp to the rise over the past decade of certification systems for green building like LEED. "The basic vision of the B Corp is using business as a force for good. In my mind it’s focused on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit," he said. "That was certainly very attractive to us. It’s kind of like LEED for businesses."

I also wondered that given how B Corp status is portrayed as being between for-profit and non-profit status whether certified firms were required to donate a portion of their profits to charity. "You get more points [on the application scorecard] if your percentage is higher," Lange said, "but the B Corp movement is not shy about maximizing profit." As much or more than donating profits, the public good can come from pro bono work.  And that's the case for Waterleaf, which does pro bono work on behalf of organizations like Friends of Trees, Sand In the City, and Habitat For Humanity. "In our 2012 visioning process we identified as a goal not a monetary amount but that we would organize in and participate as a firm in at least two pro bono projects or a major community service project. What we’ve found is we’ve exceeded that," Styner said. "We don’t just go out and find a pro bono project. They usually come in, I guess. But we’re becoming more aware of monitoring what we’re doing."

Brian Libby
Posted April 29, 2016