Practice Profile: NBBJ


One of the world’s top architectural firms, US-founded NBBJ built a global reputation among healthcare and major corporate clients, but despite its size still aims to place people at the heart of all its buildings. Laura Shadwell reports

Founded in 1943 in Seattle, NBBJ has grown over eight decades to support offices in 12 locations across the world including London, Boston, New York, and Shanghai. These offices comprise 18 studios and cover eight sectors. Sitting in the top 30 of global practices, NBBJ has a solid reputation in several sectors, as David Lewis (pictured above right), partner and lead of the firm’s UK studio explains; “Globally, we’re known as the architecture firm of choice for technology companies such as Amazon, Linkedin and Microsoft, and we’ve always had a strong presence in healthcare, science and higher education.”

The London office opened in 2001 designing the headquarters of state-owned Norwegian telecommunications firm Telenor in Oslo. It now has 50 staff and specialises in healthcare, higher education, science and corporate workplaces.

Recent projects to date include two major schemes at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, and the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital which opened last year. Says Lewis: “We’ve found in recent years the crossover between healthcare and the growth in life sciences has been the perfect sweet spot for us, and we’re relishing the opportunities.”

With a global network of 800 staff ranging from architects, researchers and strategists to planners, interior designers and even nurses, the UK office has a huge pool of resources to draw from. Lewis elaborates: “Being part of a networked firm, we’re able to bring the best thinking in design and research from a global perspective together with our local expertise.” The practice’s ethos – to ensure the best outcomes for the health of the building’s occupants and the building itself – holds true for how they nurture staff; “Our values bring our mission to life, guiding how we show up for each other and our clients; we’re guided by empathy, listening and emotional intelligence, and we lead with curiosity,” he says.

Measuring project opportunities

Darius Umrigar, principal and science and higher education director at the practice (pictured above left), explains that NBBJ measures each project against three “opportunities” when determining whether it would be a good fit for them: “We are committed to creating healthy places, strong communities and a resilient environment, all while helping our clients create lasting change.”

The practice claims a distinct design ‘signature’ that runs across their projects, as Lewis details: “The hallmarks of our designs are openness, daylight, variety, nature and connection,” he asserts. “This is underpinned by a strong knowledge of our sectors and ability to create landmark buildings.”

Examples of such features from recent healthcare and science developments include a daylit atrium filled with plants and greenery; space which can support “moments of rejuvenation and stress release through comfortable, hospitality-laden amenities;” open, daylit-lab spaces that connect ‘outwards’ to the atrium and outdoor decks (placing the emphasis on social interaction and informal collaboration); and encouraging communal areas to be open to the public, directly connecting to the community. “We believe design can enhance and uplift everyday experience,” says Lewis. “All occupiable spaces should have access to daylight and there should be restorative spaces, especially within high-stress work environments,” he adds.

The design of the new Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary was an attempt to address a holistic experience for patients, staff and visitors. That meant a “clear identity,” and “intuitive wayfinding,” plus “safe and simple access, and high quality public and private spaces that maximise natural light, access to nature, privacy and dignity.”

Methodically empathetic

NBBJ describe their design methodology as “an empathetic process that begins with listening.” Umrigar explains how this manifests in each project relying heavily on building relationships and good communication, by listening to all stakeholders – be it a commercial developer who’s seeking to attract the best tenants, or a patient group wanting to understand how their needs will be met – as well as through ‘visioning’ workshops. Umrigar elaborates: “After gathering insights, we explore possibilities by asking questions guided by empathy: Do hospitals have to feel clinical? Do we always need to build new?”

Umrigar cites a recent project that exemplifies this design methodology; The Life and Mind Building at the University of Oxford, due to open next year, will be the new home for the departments of Experimental Psychology and Biology, including Plant Sciences and Zoology, and home to 800 students and 1,200 researchers. He says: “Empathy, listening and close attention to the needs and wants of the future occupiers was so important in the early stages of briefing. The resulting design promotes engagement between the fields of research and education, taking advantage of the efficiencies and flexibility a shared building can offer.”

Designing for a post-pandemic culture

Identifying how a company can balance in-person and remote work in a way that supports employee wellbeing while continuing to move the company forward can be a challenge. Designing workplaces with an emphasis on the individuals shapes the overall environment, an example being LinkedIn’s headquarters in California, which includes spaces for focus, collaboration, learning, and socialisation, but also spaces for rest. Employees can choose to work wherever they want, whenever they want. “We learned during lockdown that productivity goes up when workers have more personal agency,” says Umrigar.

On a mission to reduce carbon

NBBJ has identified its major sustainability challenge as balancing the NetZeroCities (NZC) agenda with the technical needs of energy-hungry hospitals and research buildings. Lewis cites a net zero carbon hospital design – the Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital – which aims to “change the story of cancer” through combining cutting-edge research with treatment. Its goal is to halve the standard operational energy target through a holistic approach including passive design, a high-performance building envelope, onsite energy, and use/reuse of heat and cooling.

One of the key low carbon design drivers is enabling reuse or repurposing of the hospital for future changes in functionality. “We’ve optimised space and cut carbon by creating a highly flexible floor plate that can increase the lifespan of the new building,” says Lewis. “This protects against future space redundancy and allows for new technologies to be integrated later.”

To support its sustainability goals, the practice launched its ‘ZeroGuide’, an open-source carbon reduction tool that AEC professionals but also clients can use to design reduced and/or ‘carbon-free’ buildings.

Collaboration & JEDI ethics

Lewis explains how the London arm of the practice has led by example on collaboration, fostering knowledge-sharing within its project teams and across the firm; “We’re a tight knit community here in London. Keeping the best of the large firm mentality and resource with the small local boutique studio feel is really important to us.”

With a strong culture of peer review, the UK office hosts an annual Project of the Year awards event, inviting external architects (such as Amanda Levete and Amin Taha) and clients to evaluate their work, with a focus on projects that respond innovatively to climate change. Lewis explains the awards’ remit: “What projects ask the big questions, solve tough problems in new ways, blend beauty and performance, and reflect JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) principles?”

NBBJ demonstrates commitment to promoting diversity within its workplace and industry, which directly benefits the quality of its work. The firm’s JEDI Ambassador Program, launched in 2021, is key for addressing pressing issues and creating safe spaces for discussion. Additionally, the firm’s “Inclusive Leadership” initiative focuses on leadership, team motivation, and effective communication on JEDI-relevant areas.


Continuing to build on an eight decades-plus legacy is one of NBBJ’s clearest achievements, and reflecting on the success of the practice in London specifically, the firm’s David Lewis asserts that its reputation among specialist sector clients has been a crucial factor. “Being in the UK for 23 years and establishing ourselves firmly in the key markets of healthcare and science, we’re privileged to have some of the most forward-thinking institutions and developers as clients, working in sectors which enhance life, and research into some of the biggest global challenges.”

The practice is firmly focused on developing the next generation of leaders, as well as being part of a larger story. The future will see NBBJ continuing to grow in science and healthcare, says Lewis, and “pursuing innovation and advancement to shape a brighter future.”