March 1, 2005
Robert Nieminen

With an exclusive focus on workplace design and an unwavering commitment to client service, The Environments Group is out to change the world through design service to business. What remains constant is the group dynamic that binds this team together and

With an exclusive focus on workplace design and an unwavering commitment to client service, The Environments Group is out to change the world through design service to business. What remains constant is the group dynamic that binds this
team together and enables them to "check their capes at the door."
Setting out to change the world by the work you do is not a goal for the faint of heart.In the design profession, those committed to improving the lives of the clients they serve know that their goal is lofty, but one that is attainable. More importantly, perhaps, they also realize that they aren't superheroes who can do it all by themselves.FIRM Values

The culture of The Environments Group is based on a strong client service focus and an internal emphasis on core values. These simple yet powerful statements guide the daily behavior of the firm's leadership and staff:

  • Be fair
  • Contribute
  • Make it fun
  • Tell the truth
  • Be passionate
  • Don't be afraid
  • Do whatever it takes
  • Keep your end of the bargain
  • Teach what you know to others
  • Be positive in attitude and action
  • Take your responsibilities
  • Respect yourself, your colleagues and your clients

Though any of the four principals at The Environments Group (TEG) could arguably stand alone as examples of great designers or architects, they choose not to. In fact, the last thing you will find at this Chicago-based firm is a problem with egos, and perhaps surprisingly, not even the typical rivalry among the architects and designers who happen to work side by side at the same pay scale, the same size work stations and who are given the same leadership opportunities. In short, they've adopted the attitude summed up in an expression that Managing Principal Fred Schmidt had years ago: "Check your cape at the door."

While some firms, or individuals, might have jumped at the opportunity to be featured on the cover of a prominent trade magazine, Schmidt admits the team did quite a bit of debating whether or not to be featured on the cover of this issue of Interiors & Sources because of a shared sense of modesty and, he added, "I really do feel that we represent all the people who have been principals or members of the firm in the past and in the future. We're just sort of the current principals of TEG." If this attitude sounds refreshing or unusual for a design firm, it's probably because it stands in stark contrast to a problem Schmidt sees as a focus on the individual that seems to permeate the industry, within both firms and the press. "Part of what I think is wrong with our profession is this 'cult of the individual' thing we have going," he says.

It is precisely a lack of self-centeredness, if you will, that draws talent to the firm—a fact that Principal Cary Johnson credits to the open and friendly "we play nice here" culture Schmidt helped to create. "If you interviewed our youngest employees (who came from) other firms, they sought us out because of that." He says that while TEG is well known for being a good design firm, "There are other firms that are doing more cutting-edge design than we are, but they're not as enjoyable places to work."

If you consider the firm's design philosophy, however, it would be difficult to argue that the team does not produce innovative work given their measures for success. "Our philosophy is born out of the need. There are no stylistic, preconceived notions,"explains Joe Connell, principal. "If ever someone opened our portfolio and said, 'Now that looks like an Environments Group job,' then we've probably failed. There should be an Environments Group quality, or maybe an approach, but stylistically, it should look like, feel like, smell like the client's brand image and identity."

Frederick J. Schmidt, IIDAMANAGING PRINCPALAs managing principal, Schmidt serves as chair of the Management Committee, which guides the operational, marketing, financial and administrative functions of the firm. Prior to assuming his general management role, he founded the firm's facility consulting practice, providing a wide range of workplace and strategic facility planning services.Schmidt holds both Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees from Kansas State University, where his graduate degree was earned in the Environment-Behavior Research program. He is a member of the International Interior Design Association, the International Facility Management Association, the Environmental Design Research Association, and the Strategic Management Association.Schmidt has been with the firm since 1987. A frequent speaker to industry and academic groups, he has long focused on the role of the designer and the designed environment within a business context.This client-centered focus is one that has been with the firm since its inception. Formerly PHH, Inc., and later PHH Environments, when the firm went up for sale in 1990, Schmidt and Principal Gina Berndt along with a former partner, Peter Shull, tried to pull together a team of people to buy the practice. They saw a clear need for design services that were responsive to clients' challenges and the problems they were trying to solve or objectives they were trying to reach in the design of their space, Berndt explains."When we initially founded the firm in the early '90s, there was a lot of activity in the market, and I felt like there was a whole design business to be had," Berndt recalls. Being careful not to come across as overly critical, she says it was almost as if they had to clean up after other firms because of an abundance of opulent projects with too many dissatisfied clients as a result of them. "Every time we'd meet with a new client, there were always a lot of stories about how the process was really very painful," Berndt says. "They might have a beautiful space, but it didn't meet certain functional objectives, or it was a bumpy ride, or it was way over budget. And we just thought, 'If we could tap into this market, I know we really could do better.'"Since those days, the firm has obviously done well, with an impressive list of clients from Accenture to Allsteel, Citibank to Chubb Insurance, Goble & Associates to Grainger, Inc., and UBS to PricewaterhouseCoopers, to name a few. As a 60-person-plus firm with an exclusive focus on workplace design, TEG is dedicated to harnessing the creative problem-solving abilities of designers in pursuit of their client's business objectives."Around here," Schmidt says, "design means creative problem solving; it's not just a stylistic exercise. The big overlay that underscores everything here is to focus on client service," he adds, "because what we learned is, if you can do all that, in terms of great problem solving and great design, but don't present your customer with a positive service experience, it won't accrue to the benefit of the firm."Gina A. Berndt, ASIDPRINCIPALAs a founding principal and vice president, Berndt is a senior client contact and maintains overall administrative responsibility for guiding projects within established qualitative and quantitative parameters and expectations. Berndt has a Bachelor's of Fine Arts in Interior Design from Northern Illinois University and has studied architecture and urban planning at the University of Copenhagen. She is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and has received certification by The National Council on Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). She is a past president of the Chicago chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women and former board member of the Girl Scouts of Chicago. Berndt has been with the firm since 1987. Prior to joining The Environments Group she worked in the real estate departments of two large financial institutions. Her years spent on the client side of the project process led to her deep understanding and commitment to exemplary client service. Her ability to view problems from the client's point of view has helped her build a great reputation and long roster of repeat clients.

Presenting the positive experience begins with matching up the right team members with a new client, first at the principal level, then with the remainder of the staff. "When we get involved with a client, the first thing we do is figure out who's best suited to handle the assignment," Schmidt explains. In some cases, it's very clear-cut; in others, it's either not so clear or the team might make a switch later. More typically, he says, one principal will augment the services and the delivery of another.

For example, he says that Connell is very knowledgeable about issues of brand and is also the resident expert in sustainable design, while Schmidt's personal skills set is in the arena of programming and master planning—the pre-design services. Often, principals will join each other's team as a specialist on a project. Case in point: Connell says he's had brokers come to him and ask, "Will you work on this law firm?" to which he
responds, "Sure, but I'm going to bring Cary in because he's done a lot more work on law firms than I'll ever do." He notes that with egos in check, they are able to come up with good ideas without the threat of a turf war, and since it's a top-down mentality, this attitude is seen across the studio.

"We don't have a lot of privacy here," Connell says. "Things are done out in the open. It is a place where teams get together frequently and everyone is on multiple teams. We do not have lines of practice, so we have a lot of crossover," a strategy that differentiates TEG from many traditional design firms. "Our accounts that correlate to directors and principals are really based on good chemistry and the interest in relevant experience for the nature of that business."

Another distinction that sets TEG apart is the level of involvement by the principals. Johnson says that this often surprises clients. "They've been down this road before where they met the principals at the interview and never saw them again. And when the experience (with TEG) is over, they're always surprised that they saw the principals and senior people through the whole process." He admits that the balancing act can be tricky, because being involved without squelching or being overbearing on the design team's creativity and entrepreneurship is a delicate balance. But as Berndt points out, bringing in senior level expertise that is often unique and different can help bring about the right solutions.


As a principal and senior director, Johnson is a senior client contact and maintains overall administrative responsibility for guiding projects within
established qualitative and quantitative parameters and expectations.

Johnson is a leader in the design community. He is a past president of the International Interior Design Association and also served as the vice president for Government and Regulatory Affairs. He also guides the Illinois Interior Design Coalition as a member of the steering
committee. For over seven years Cary served as a member on the Illinois Department of Regulation Board of Directors for Interior Design. In 2003, Johnson was the honoree at the Illinois IIDA Chapter's annual leadership breakfast recognizing his lifetime achievement as a practitioner
and supporter of the design community. He is also on the FIDER Board of Directors as the liaison to NCIDQ.

Johnson holds a Bachelor of Science from Iowa State University and currently assists
the school by participating on the Dean's Council, College of Design. He has also recently presented on at the IIDA
Mexico City Design Congress, NAIOP and NeoCon. Johnson joined the firm in 1994. He has brought insight and extensive experience to many of the firm's largest and most prestigious engagements.

When it comes to providing solutions for clients' problems, Connell says good listening and open communication have to happen in a respectful context. "An important aspect of a healthy studio is that there is respect on all sides of the table, from the youngest to the most senior principal," he explains. Berndt agrees: While she says they set the bar very high, "I think young designers feel comfortable expressing their ideas, and likewise, senior people feel comfortable and confident rolling up their sleeves and working with the team." Connell asserts that the team should accept or reject ideas on their merit regardless of where they come from because, ultimately, if an idea doesn't satisfy the criteria of the problem, then it's not good enough yet and it shouldn't be presented.One way to determine an idea's merit is by administering what he calls the "Mom and Dad Test." Let's say someone is designing a work station in the middle of a sea of work stations; Connell tells employees he wants them to believe that their mom or dad could have "a lifetime dignified career sitting at that desk. If they can't, regardless of where your mom and dad came from or what they do, it's not good enough." A rule that stems from this test is that you can't present an idea that you don't love—and this gets to the heart of TEG's mission to serve clients. "We have to be able to convince ourselves of the answer first, then be able to tell the client it's the right solution and why. If we can't convince ourselves, then it's the wrong idea," Connell says.This almost begs the question: when you do have the right idea, what are the effects on clients or end-users of the space? Schmidt says his immediate answer, which may be a bit corny, but true nevertheless, is the effect of pride and joy about the workplace. Beyond that, he claims there is no effect. To clarify his point, Schmidt says, "If the workplace is designed properly and ideally, then there will be a seamless overlay of the built environment with the behaviors and patterns and uses so that you won't feel the effect of the workplace." In other words, the design of an effective workplace doesn't inhibit, and its ultimate goal is no noticeable effect other than ease of use and satisfaction.Joseph T. Connell, IIDAPRINCIPAL As a principal and director of project services, Connell is a senior client contact and maintains overall administrative responsibility for guiding projects within established qualitative and quantitative parameters and expectations. He is a member of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and he currently serves on the IIDA Large Firm Round Table. He is an active Adjunct Faculty Advisory Board Member for Southern Illinois University, Department of Interior Design. Connell is also certified by the National Council on Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). Connell holds a bachelor's of sciencein interior design from Southern Illinois University.Connell has presented for IIDA conferences and has won many awards including the Doc award for Monsanto and the AIA Chicago Citation of Merit for Transora and The Interface Americas Showroom. He has been with The Environments Group since 1983.Connell has been with the firm since 1984, starting as an entry-level designer and rising all the way to the principal level. He brings his award-winning design skills to many of the firm's most progressive clients, inspiring them to rethink the workplace in new and creative ways. His personal commitment to sustainable design has made him an industry expert on the topic and a natural leader of the company's initiatives.

While that may be a difficult pill to swallow for those who seek to quantify and measure the results of their work on, say, productivity, Connell agrees and says they've yet to find a way to effectively measure it. "It's really an under-funded question," he says. What can be measured effectively is satisfaction and dissatisfaction of the space. Connell explains: "In post-occupancy evaluations, sometimes the greatest influencer on satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the space is commute time. It has nothing to do with our work. We can't influence that."

What the four principals at The Environments Group can and do have influence over is the way they run their firm and the people they bring on board to serve their clients to the best of their collective abilities. For TEG, that means keeping a fresh perspective by nurturing diversity and creativity within their team.

"There aren't many rules here," Connell says, "but one is to maintain intense curiosity. We want people who are really curious. We're sixty-something people, and if our next hire is just like so-and-so, we haven't added anything. Every time we add somebody here, we want to bring something new to the table."

The Environments Group303 E. Wacker Dr., Ste. 800
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 644-5080

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