Who doesn’t love a story where the underdog wins?
I thought about that when I spoke with the three principals of Landon Bone Baker Architects. LBBA will be presented with the AIA Chicago architecture firm of the year honor on December 8 and it couldn’t happen to a nicer group of people.
My first experience with Peter Landon was when I heard him speak at “Public Interest Architecture In Practice” last February. “LBBA isn’t mission-driven but we’re a firm with a mission,” he told the audience.
Landon described the recently-completed Harvest Commons Apartments, an 89-unit Near West Side affordable residence. I could sense his pride in the project so I went to check it out. It’s a very cool-looking, historic building. LBBA helped transform the former Viceroy Hotel through an ugly duckling-to-beautiful swan rehab.
The firm’s work on Harvest Commons was good enough to win the Richard H. Driehaus Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design, 2014 and the AIA Chicago Distinguished Building Award, 2013.
Beyond the physical improvements to the 1929 structure, there’s the intangible—what the rehab brings the community.
“To get people off the streets and to a place where they can feel proud of their home is good work to do,” Landon said. “There’s positive, good vibes in these projects.”
LBBA regularly works on projects that benefit the community, often in underserved areas. It’s a noble undertaking, but as a business, how do you balance good works with making rent payments and compensating staff fairly?
Pro bono is great in concept but you can’t really ask Com Ed to give you free electricity.
This is where LBBA has a brilliant, common sense strategy.
“We don’t really do pro bono work per se,” Landon said when I spoke with him recently. “We do our work as a business and we take it seriously. We don’t do it without fee because we want to fully commit.”
That philosophy has served LBBA well because the business is most certainly viable. The firm will soon be entering its 28th year in business. The LBBA team has also incorporated community-focused innovations—like the labs—into their practice.
“In 2010, the firm founded LBBA Community Workshop to add another dimension to the design process and promote new forms of community engagement,” said Maggie Jarr, Community Outreach Coordinator. “The annual summer program employs five high school students and three college mentors to study urban design and respond to specific community and project needs. In the pilot program ShadeLab, students mapped and measured trees in Humboldt Park, and our client used their work to ask the city to install trees in front of one of their residential projects. Each subsequent lab has worked the same way: as vital information gathering. At the end of six weeks, the interns make recommendations to the architects about how to better the design based on their data collection and interviews with residents.”
The lab program revolves around current project needs. “The next year, the program was airLab, which studied air quality in and around the Rosa Parks Apartments in West Humboldt Park. We know how to build green, but how do you maintain a green building properly? airLab studied how the units at Rosa Parks perform under typical residential use. Over the past two years with cityLab, we’ve looked more generally at the site conditions and social equity issues at Parkside of Old Town and Villages of Westhaven.”
LBBA also benefited by attracting new staffers via the program. One of the original interns now works full-time for the firm and two of them have returned as mentors during the labs (while studying architecture at IIT and UIC)—could they end up working there as well? I wouldn’t bet against it.
What convinced the AIA jurors that LBBA was worthy of being named firm of the year? Their spartan staff of 18 would probably lose a game of dodgeball to the SOM mailroom, maybe, though it’s not the number of employees that counts, but their impact on the community.
Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of AIA Chicago, told me the jury likely was impressed by the collection of important neighborhood organizations for which Landon Bone Baker has worked, including Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation and Heartland Housing.
“The resulting work has the ability to impact a lot of people, often in profound but, at the same time, subtle ways,” Esposito said. “That meant a lot to the jury. This is not a firm that simply has affluent clients that enable good design to happen. This is a firm that seems to have a mission of social responsibility. Solving big problems and addressing social challenges through architecture and design is a very laudable pursuit. This firm embodies that.”
For Landon and the LBBA team, the firm award honor is an acknowledgement of a quarter century of doing solid work and making a difference in the Chicago community. I sat down with the firm’s three principals to discuss the process of crafting their submission.
“As a medium-size firm in Chicago that does community-based work, we felt we had something worth noting,” Landon said. “We submitted for this award before but this time we finally got it right.”
The 71-page entry is indeed impressive. I assume it took months to prepare.
“You have to really think about who you are,” Landon said. “It takes time to put the project pages and narrative together, but it’s a good process which gave us an opportunity to reflect on our work.”
Jeff Bone agreed. “We tried to treat it as more than a portfolio review that just shows a bunch of buildings.”
Catherine Baker summed it up: “Each project is special in its own way and each project has a story to tell beyond the architecture. We tried to show how the projects impact the community far beyond just being nice buildings.”
Landon expanded on the subject of the type of work LBBA specializes in.
“The basis of the work we do is community-based housing, where we bring our technical and design skills to the table,” he said. “We consider even smaller community rehab projects to be significant in their own way and that’s why it’s always hard to compare them to other things.”
“For example, you can’t really compare a rehab project in Englewood to a high-end residence. They’re not in the same place. We feel good about our work because even on a regular rehab project, we try really hard to make it as good as we can.”
Jeff Bone offered another example of a subtle change: the Dorchester Art+Housing Collaborative, with only 32 housing units.
“To measure [Dorchester] by the number of units, it’s not big,” Bone said. “But it does impact lives in a meaningful way. People come home to a special place. A lot of what we do might seem small in size, but it can have a much bigger impact socially. Really, it’s a testament to our amazing clients. They’re strong, and that feeds into our work.”
Catherine Baker offered this final thought: “It’s not about us. A big part of our job as architects is to fight for the things that help tie the project into the neighborhood as a whole. Design is all encompassing and you learn to push for the small things, like zoning exceptions, that allow you to position a building appropriately on the lot. The same goes for determining the materials on a building. For instance, something as seemingly minor as the size of brick; large brick is cheaper, but if you use smaller brick to make it work contextually, that’s the good fight.”