This year, the AIA Committee on the Environment’s (COTE’s) Top Ten award winners spans geography, building type, and scale. Honorees range from an exquisite, vernacular-inspired pavilion standing in long-grass prairie to a 300,000-square-foot science museum on San Francisco’s historic waterfront. The contrast suggests just how much Top Ten has evolved since its launch 20 years ago, when small rural projects, mostly with programs focused on environmental learning, dominated the submission pool.

The Top Ten, announced today, also stands out for energy performance. “The average energy reduction for the new crop of winners is 76 percent below baseline,” observes Lance Hosey, chief sustainability officer of Perkins Eastman. He also points out that this year’s figure beats the average energy reduction of all Top Ten projects by 20 percentage points.

As author of Lessons From the Leading Edge, a survey of all Top Ten winners sponsored by the COTE Advisory Group and released earlier this month, Hosey is well positioned to put the class of 2016 in context. The architect says he conceived the report as a counterpoint to the Top Ten’s individual case studies: “If 10 buildings represent the leading edge of sustainable design in a year, then there’s certainly a lot to learn from almost 200 buildings about how the movement has evolved.

Lessons demonstrates that Top Ten projects are exemplary performers on a number of fronts. It reveals continual improvement as a class, too, with growing selection of urban multimodal sites, greater reductions in potable water use, and increasing construction waste diversion. This year’s Top Ten appears to extend these and other incremental trends, such as diversification of project types, while showing a step change in others, especially in energy performance.

Another significant jump in the 2016 Top Ten is repeat wins. While Lessons confirms the phenomenon, this is the first year that two architects each placed twice in the Top Ten. Lake|Flato won for the Texas-based projects H-E-B at Mueller and the Dixon Water Foundation Josey Pavilion, while Leddy Maytum Stacy (LMS) earned accolades for the UC Berkeley Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation and the Rene Cazenave Apartments in San Francisco. The two firms together are now responsible for 18 Top Ten winners over two decades. Meanwhile, the San Francisco science museum, the Exploratorium, by EHDD, is that firm’s sixth win in total.

LMS principal William Leddy believes “repeat winners share a top-down commitment to [sustainable] ideals,” adding, “These firms were probably never interested in formal expression alone, but in engaging architecture at its fullest dimension.” Hosey, however, suggests that firm data could be a referendum on the profession. Explaining that a Top Ten building is supposed to wed performance to design excellence, he says, “relatively few firms have figured out how to do that. How do we move beyond that, so that these lessons spill across the entire industry?”

Lessons includes tools for disseminating knowledge, as it documents common bioclimatic design strategies regularly used by winners. Hoseys says this summer’s AIA/COTE Research Fellowship, a program, will contribute to this dialogue further, by focusing on repeat winners’ working principles and methodologies.