“Designing for a better future” guides MSR Design’s work
Minneapolis architecture firm MSR Design aims to deliver on the motto “Designing a Better Future” for its clients, the planet and the company itself, according to CEO Tracy Engel Lesneski.
Sustainability, or “getting the most out of the least amount of impact,” has been part of MSR Design’s culture since architects Thomas Meier, Jeffrey Scherer and Garth Rockcastle founded the company in 1981, Lesneski said.
“We are a group of talented designers who are very engaged and very passionate about making the world better,” Lesneski said of the company. “Everyone (here), this is what they are committed to doing every day in the work we do.”
That commitment has only grown in the decades since the company’s launch, Lesnesky said. As evidence, she points to MSR Design winning two of what the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) calls “the most prestigious awards program for excellence in sustainable design” in recent years.
The company’s founders, whom Lesneski describes as “innovative, curious, and passionate individuals,” made it a self-renewing practice from the beginning.
Second generation, women-owned company
This value was advanced in 2020 when Lesneski, who joined the company in 1996, was appointed CEO. She took another step forward in July 2021 with the transition to second generation leadership of the company as a certified women-owned business. Joining Lesneski as principals at MSR Design are architects Dagmara Larsen, Matthew Kruntorad and Paul Mellblom. The company employs 35 employees.
“There aren’t a lot of architecture firms that are owned and operated by women, so it made sense,” Lesneski said. “We had strong female leaders, and in some ways, it was inevitable that we would assume majority ownership.”
“It wasn’t a revolution, it was just an evolution,” Larsen said. “We’re women-owned, and we’re in our third year, so it’s taken us almost 40 years to get here.”
To focus more sharply on sustainability, MSR Design set a strategic goal of becoming “the leading design firm that achieves inspiring and generative impacts across the board on every project,” in 2016. The company gave itself a decade to achieve this.
However, MSR Design has since “recalibrated and made it more difficult” to reach that goal, setting more challenging goals for each year through 2026, Lesneski said.
In practical terms, this means that MSR Design now strives – on every project – to meet the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. The framework, consisting of 10 principles, seeks to guide progress towards a net-zero carbon, equitable, resilient and healthy built environment.
“What we’ve done as a company is set intentionality for us around each of these 10 measures,” Lesneski said. “Each of these measures requires an extraordinary amount of focus, work, attention, talent and technical ability.”
MSR Design also verifies its performance to achieve these goals. “It’s not just putting ten measures on the wall and saying, ‘Hey, we can do better.’ It’s actually putting in the work to do better.
The results are evident in MSR Design earlier this year receiving a Top Ten Award from the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) for its work on the RIDC Mill 19 development in Pittsburgh, a project that transformed a former steel mill into a green manufacturing research center, Lesneski said. In 2019, the firm won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award for its design of the University of Minnesota Landscape Center’s Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center. In October, the RIDC Mill 19 project also received MSR Design’s Planet Positive Award for “Best Adaptive Reuse” from Metropolis Magazine.
In 2021, MSR Design’s Studio 510 Marquette, on the former site of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, became the first project in Minnesota to receive Living Building Challenge Petal certification. The certificate indicated the project’s performance in terms of three characteristics: materials, fairness and beauty.
MSR Design’s reset goals and some key projects are combining to make 2023 one of the most profitable years in the recent past, Lesneski said. Leadership has set a goal to increase revenue by 30% this year. The 35-employee company will likely add two or three people by this time next year.
National reach in design
MSR Design is a national firm, with its library design practice driving business across the country, Lesneski said. The firm is designing a combined city hall and library in Saratoga Springs, Utah, where a strategic hiring last year fueled western expansion and growth. This year the company won library building awards from the AIA/American Library Association for the new downtown main library at the Missoula Public Library and the new Northeast Regional Library at the Louisville Free Public Library.
“The DNA of MSR is different because it wasn’t started by one person in Minnesota,” Larsen said. “It was started by three people and only one of them was from Minnesota, so naturally the contracts were scattered. With leadership in the design of libraries, educational and community spaces, it takes us where the projects are, and that’s what sets us apart.”
This year, MSR Design is investing in developing the leadership skills of all its employees, “in service of designing a better future” for the company, Lesneski said. The training will include modules on emotional intelligence and human-centered leadership.
“If everyone gets a little better and feels a little better about themselves, how much better can we all be?” Larsen said.
The “fun” partner is “not ego-driven.”
Flannery Construction, a St. Paul-based general contractor, has worked on many successful projects with MSR Design over the past 15 years, said President and CEO Jimmy Flannery. Those buildings include Bloom Lake Flats, a 42-unit apartment building in Minneapolis, one of several built for the Pride in Living Project, among other affordable housing managers. Flannery Construction and MSR Design have also worked together on projects for arts organizations and social service organizations.
“They’re not ego-driven,” Flannery said. “They are very collaborative. They are principled and values-driven. However, they have a practical, budget-conscious approach to implementing their design goals.”
MSR Design has “extensive experience” regarding sustainability, materials, energy and other public financing requirements for projects. “They are keen to be very active participants and aware of all funding sources, whereas for others it may be just an afterthought,” Flannery said.
“It’s also funny and fun,” Flannery said. “There’s also a playful tone, which makes it fun too, because the design and construction process can be stressful. Having partners who also have a sense of humor, it makes a difference.”
a job: Certified women-owned architecture and interior design firm
CEO: Tracy Engel Lesneski
was established: 1981