Thinking Post-Bust, Chicago’s SCB Is Planting Flags In Cities Across America

Solomon Cordwell Buenz C.E.O. John Lahey

Solomon Cordwell Buenz C.E.O. John Lahey

It’s been a year since we last took a peek inside prolific Chicago architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz. Since then, a lot has changed so we thought it would be a good time to catch up with C.E.O. John Lahey and what’s going on in his office.

Lahey: When we talked last, SCB was going OK, but we’d all taken a hit.

Editor: Do you feel the market is coming back?

Solomon Cordwell Buenz logoLahey: We’re doing more than we did at the peak of the last boom. We’ve got more capabilities, we’re doing more fine work. We’re bigger. We have the office here in Chicago, and we’re still doing a lot of work for institutions — Loyola, and other schools like Drexel in Philadelphia, and Oberlin, Illinois State, and the Roosevelt athletic building. We’re doing stuff at the airport, and suburban office buildings.

We have different groups of people who specialize in different things. We found that the days of the architect generalist who can do anything are long gone. There is so much knowledge and refinement in each building type.

We have research groups that look at our buildings and analyze them, and look at other people’s buildings and analyze them. We may look at different floor plans and different units, different amenity spaces, and technically what’s happening. We meet every couple of weeks, me and about 20 people and we present things and have discussions and compile the information.

So what has happened with SCB, we had the office here, and we have the office in San Francisco. The San Francisco office — if we took a hit here [during the economic collapse], we really took a hit there. It was a new office, and the recession came along. But we planted a lot of seeds, and right now the San Francisco office is about 40 people. It’s booming. And we’re doing a lot of work in California, both for universities and for developers. We’ve got a lot of towers going up, but also a lot of buildings on campuses: Riverside, Berkeley, Meced. We’re working on Arizona and some new stuff. And Hawaii. Hawaii is a real boom.

Editor: Is Hawaii new for you?

Lahey: It is. We started a couple of years ago, and now we have one under construction, one soon to be starting construction, and we’re working on three more. And they’re all on Oahu, all in the Honolulu area.

Editor: Hotels?

Lahey: No, they’re mostly residential. One of them is a hotel-type thing. But there’s a residential boom. There’s an emerging area called Ward that we’re working in. And then there’s an area on Waikiki that we’re working in.

Editor: It’s got to be a whole different market for you to work in, with different seismic problems to solve, and logistics.

Lahey: And Hawaii is just so different to work in. Hawaii is so international. It’s the Pacific Rim melting pot. There’s Hawaiians, there’s people from the U.S. that go there, there’s people from Japan and China that go there. There’s Australians, and South Americans.

All of the work in Hawaii is pretty much done by the San Francisco office. I go back-and-forth. I spend time in both offices.

You go to Hawaii, though, and you don’t get inspired much. There’s not much good architecture out there. The best architecture in Hawaii is probably about 70 years old.

I was there and where we were meeting was in some guy’s colonial house, and it was just stunning. It was so beautiful, and different. Different to me, because I didn’t grow up in Hawaii.

Editor: Can you take something from a colonial house in the Pacific Rim and translate it into the skyscraper vernacular the way you would do with a Mies house, or a Wright house?

Lahey: When we did do that, we were working on the base of a building and we went to this home, and it really did have an influence on the way we created this amenity package with gardens. It’s not so much in the vertical architecture.

Sometimes people try to mimic too literally the historical or traditional motifs, and most of the time it’s pretty weak.

I think the use of materials can affect you. There might be a local stone or wood. There might be some material that just seems right for that area. But it would be more in the materials than the composition that the older architecture would affect you.

1 and 2 Rincon Hill - 001a

Models of One Rincon Hill and Two Rincon Hill

Editor: How are things in San Francisco? After the controversy with Rincon 1, how is Rincon 2 doing?

Lahey: Rincon 2 is about half-way up. The structure’s about half way to completed. Then we’re working on another tower next to that, and another tower. And then two over by City Hall. In California, San Francisco is the one that’s really booming.

Editor: Do you think people in San Francisco got used to Rincon and now people are a little more accepting of residential skyscrapers?

Lahey: I thought it was fine all the way along. But with its brother there, and other buildings around it, then that becomes an area [of density] where there’s not just one building. And it was always supposed to be that way. It’s just that the other sites, and the other people didn’t get it together to get their buildings built. There were something like five proposed buildings there, but Rincon was the only one that got built.

But now, even with the second tower up halfway, you can start to see more architectural diversity there. And I think it’s just going to get better. It’s going to be a really nice neighborhood.

And, you know, Transbay is filling in, and that’s where our other one is. It’s called Block 6. And it’s very nice.


So, things have changed with the economy. We’re working in Texas, too. We have three projects in Texas. Two in Houston, one in Austin. In Houston, we’re doing one on Post Oak.

We’re doing another building over in the Montrose area and that’s in more of an urban area.

Editor: Houston is a whole different market.

Drawing of the Hanover Post Oak in Houston, as displayed in the SCB studios.

Drawing of the Hanover Post Oak in Houston, as displayed in the SCB studios.

Lahey: For an urban person, it’s not as accommodating. But there is a sprit of Texas that you can’t help but like. Even if, politically or whatever, you’re not in sync with it, their do-it-yourself identity is really kind of neat.

Editor: How is working in Texas different than the other markets you’re working in?

Lahey: The people that we’re working for in Texas are from Texas, so the Texas imprint is very apparent. I would say in Texas it’s just not as dense and hard an urban environment, and it’s a little more gracious. A little more landscaping when you come into the building. It’s hot, but it’s sunny a lot. The units are a little bigger.

There’s a vitality in Texas that is different. Chicago and San Francisco have very established urban areas and you’re sort of being part of an established urban framework. Whereas in Texas, you can be more freewheeling, and people want to just celebrate it a little more. The buildings in Chicago have a lot of civility, where in Texas… it’s hard to say exactly what’s different.

In Texas the construction costs aren’t as much as they are here, and so you get more for your money.

Editor: And no zoning in Houston.

Lahey: Austin has zoning. It has a lot of zoning. But the buildings there are large, and we’re working on a few smaller ones, too.

Editor: In the last few years, people in Houston seem to be coming around to the notion that it’s OK to live in a tower instead of a rambler.

Lahey: I think there’s quite a bit of it. And then there’s more stuff starting to happen in downtown. The one that we’re doing in Montrose isn’t a super-tall tower. It’s probably half as tall as this [Rincon Two], but that’s tall for there. But what’s neat about an area like that where there’s already a density and there’s restaurants and stuff, when you bring in that many people and do it in a way that still lets the neighborhood be what it is, it’s just more people going to these things. Walking to them. And you can see how the urban experience that we all love, will morph into a Texas way of being urban.

Austin is a little more urban feeling because of all the music downtown, and it’s pretty centralized. And because of the size of Austin, they’ve probably got a denser core than Houston. But I think Houston is going to be really good. The things that are happening there are really positive.

Editor: Are there things that you have to do differently designing a building in Houston?

Lahey: It’s not so cold, so when you do your amenities, the outdoor — the pools and all that stuff — are really important because you’re going to be using that a lot.

Balconies… You know, it gets so hot that some people want them and some people don’t. Somebody told me that you just don’t sit out a lot in Houston. So when we’re doing it, there is the thought that people are going to be in their apartments and have the windows closed and have the air conditioning on a lot.

Now in Chicago, we have the same thing in the winter — people are going to be inside and have the heat on. So, they’re similar. Whereas in Chicago, you’re making sure things don’t get too dark, in Houston you’re making sure things don’t get too light. You don’t have the short days, what you have is the big hot sun. Here you’ve got the winter, when it’s dark and it’s cloudy, and you want to make sure you get enough light into each unit.

Editor: Do you need heavier HVAC units and bigger ducts for all that air conditioning in Houston?

Lahey: A lot of it is done with natural ventilation, although we do use mechanical ventilation a lot more in Texas than we would here. Here it’s mostly natural ventilation because people can just open a window. In Houston, you want fresh air, but you’re just not going to touch that window.

The old traditional building with the punched openings and small windows, we hardly [ever do that]. We like the more modern, contemporary ones with the views. When you live in a high-rise that’s the one great amenity that you have, and when you see the views being limited by the size of windows, that seems wrong.

The aesthetic of buildings, people there really do respond to more contemporary buildings today. They like having big amounts of glass in their living rooms. Bedrooms aren’t so critical. But that’s happening across the board. It’s everywhere.

That’s in Hawaii, that’s in California, that’s in Texas, that’s in Chicago, and it’s in Miami. It’s everywhere.

Editor: What else do you have going on around Chicago?

Drawings of 545 North McClurg Court

Drawings of 545 North McClurg Court

Lahey: Well, we have the Loews Hotel. We did 500 Lake Shore. 73 East Lake Street. The [Loyola-owned apartment building] at Chestnut and LaSalle that will start soon. And [545 North McClurg], the third Streeter building, but it will look very different from the other Streeter buildings.

Editor: When it came to development, the Daley administration was very hands-on. A lot of people see the Emmanuel administration as very hands-off. Do you feel that in your work?

Lahey: I can’t put my finger on a specific example, but it does seem that way. It does seem that they’re not as real estate and physical building-oriented as business and financial oriented.

On the other hand, development in Chicago seems to go on no matter what. It’s like a force of nature. They certainly haven’t been impeding any things.

A lot of what happens is on the aldermanic level — with the stuff we’re doing in Wrigleyville, in Tunney’s ward or Brendan Reilly’s ward. Those aldermen are very hands on. That hasn’t changed.

Editor: Has the redistricting been very confusing?

Lahey: Yes. Yes. I’m just going to say “yes.”

Editor: Everyone has a strong opinion, but few want to say what it is.

Lahey: It’s been difficult because the degree to which people have embraced the change and gone with it is not consistent. It’s been a difficult transition. We have had times when some alderman would not be as tuned into the areas like before. It’s more difficult to get answers because maybe they’re not as familiar with the area. But it has made it more complicated.

When you look at the new ward map, there’s very dense areas that are the same sort of constituency and neighborhood that span across ward boundaries. So you get more situations where you’ve got a big development right across the street from another alderman’s ward. And then, how do you do the meeting? They don’t really get a say on it, even though it’s across the street.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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