Thirty years ago, when 2009 Top Firm Leadership Award winners David Miller, FAIA, and Robert Hull, FAIA, founded The Miller|Hull Partnership, it wasn't terribly unusual for architects to concern themselves with the principles of what would come to be called sustainability. Passive solar design and, to a lesser extent, earth-sheltered construction were current at the time. Miller and Hull are unusual in that they not only caught the first wave of green building, but also that they have ridden it successfully ever since. From the beginning, their work has reflected a keen aesthetic sense, as well as an environmental conscience. The combination has yielded a body of work unsurpassed in the field, and it drew a large audience to the partners' September 15 afternoon breakout session.

At the time of the firm's founding, Hull explained, the energy crisis had changed the game for architects. "People weren't interested in style. They were interested in performance. So there was a lot of freedom." The two landed on an approach that included passive solar, thermal mass, and varying degrees of earth shelter. Modernists by training and inclination, they incorporated those elements into buildings with bones that were meant to show.

During a slide show tour of their firm's portfolio, Miller described how his long friendship with Hull has influenced their process. "We decided early that we wouldn't specialize," he explained—each partner would lead any type of project on the firm's docket—and each would critique the other's work. "The projects are heavily scrutinized," Miller said. "We don't give up. We're always asking, 'Where's the breakthrough?'" Even now, after adding five partners, "We still work closely, even though we're not often sitting side by side. We're still each other's best critic."

Like the partners' process, the firm's work reflects an impressive continuity. Residential and public buildings alike work with the sun, respect existing site contours, and express their structure in refreshing and practical ways. Yet each manages to say something new.

And as the architecture profession revives its interest in sustainability, Miller and Hull are looking not to alter their approach, but to deepen and refine it. In regard to energy performance, Hull noted, "You're talking about the old basics. They still work." The firm has embraced new technological tools, such as parametric modeling software to size photovoltaic arrays, and a new concern for water as a non-renewable resource. But Miller and Hull's approach to their work reflects its original interest in simplicity, and in connecting people with the world outside rather than insulating them from it. Accordingly, Hull pointed out, Miller|Hull houses incorporate "some automation, but not a high degree of automation. There's something about being able to manipulate your own environment that's really important. We think people should sail their ships."