Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to sit down with a number of architecture firms and development companies in Chicago and introduce them to our readers. For some, it’s become an annual affair. For others, this is their first time at this rodeo.
Today we welcome Legat Architects to the table for the first time. Chief Design Officer Ted Haug, Principal Jeff Sronkoski, and President/CEO Patrick Brosnan took some time to talk to us about their firm and its history. This month marks 20 years since Legat opened its Chicago office in the West Loop. But its history goes back much farther than that.
Patrick Brosnan: The firm started out focusing on the K-12/education market in Waukegan in 1964. Joe Legat founded the company, and realized that to do work in that marketplace you really have to build on professional and personal relationships and the work is always going to be ebb and flow with the school districts. They’re looking for responsive client service.
The real design opportunities are going to be intermittent, so he realized that to get more design opportunities you have to grow the firm, or expand in other ways. But he liked the fact that most of his clients were down the block from him. He also saw opportunities for growth in the community college market.
So he took a unique approach to growing the firm, which was — if we’re going to be involved in community-based design and grow connections through personal contacts he felt that having one location was going to be difficult. So he began to look at county-based studios. So we opened an office in Crystal Lake to serve McHenry County. An office in Oak Brook to serve DuPage County and counties further south. An office in Chicago to serve Cook County, and we’ve since opened an office in the Quad Cities to serve the western half of Illinois and allow us to work with institutions that are in Iowa. And it’s been almost 15 years now since we opened an office in Columbus, Ohio.
So each of those studios operate through that vision that Joe had where architects and clients get to know you in your own community, and you get to support the growth and development of the community in each of our practice areas.
Editor: Looking through your portfolio, it’s pretty clear that institutional is your core business.
Jeff Sronkoski: It really is. Although it has grown. We’ve gone into some of the private markets, too. Healthcare is largely private, though still institutional. And our government work is a lot of private work. But for the large part, the educational work is more so in the public arena. We have some private educational clients both in the K-12 practice as well as the higher ed practice. Largely, we’re institutional. We’re not a single family house architect. We stay within five major practice areas: K-12, higher education, government, corporate commercial, and healthcare.
Editor: Is the work a little more stable in that arena, because we’re always going to need schools and hospitals an such?
Sronkoski: Not just that, but the funding is more stable as well. For instance, during the recession our private work really was at a standstill, and it was the publicly-funded clientele that saw us through the recession. It helped, too, that we have a diverse practice.
Brosnan: “Stable” is a difficult word, especially for institutions. [The key] is to have a combination of diverse practice areas with different institutions. A good example is that when the recession hit in ’08, ’09, ’10 there were a lot of firms impacted at that point. And we did see some of the private work, and even the institutional work, stopped or slowed down significantly.
At that time we were working with a lot of clients in the school market and higher ed showing them how not to spend money. Showing them how to apply small facility fixes to try to buy time on the dollars they did have available. But we also saw — because a lot of adults were returning to school to fine tune their resumes — we saw a significant increase in community college work. Those institutions were able to pick up where the others had left off.
If we look back at 2010, we call it our “not for profit year.” But since then we’ve been growing steadily and consistently. And not necessarily all in one marketplace. We’ll see some segments dip down a little bit, but the others are there to pick it up. One of the places we’re seeing growth now is Ohio. We’re supporting our sister company there called Legat Kingscott, and we’re able to do more work there because of the expertise we developed here.
Editor: Are you affected by all the downgrades in municipal bond ratings?
Brosnan: It filters down to us. You’re seeing a lot of institutions delay work or hold off on a referendum to ask for dollars for facility expansions they need today. We have to be more creative with how we plan facilities. Instead of doing phase one, two and three all at one time, we have to figure out how to cost-effectively do phase one, knowing that they have other needs that are going to come up in the future. There’s just not the big bond sales that we’ve seen out there in the past.
Editor: A lot of your work is very low-rise and horizontal. Is that a company style, or just the nature of doing institutional work?
Ted Haug: It’s the nature of the beast. The program dictates how the building is going to be designed. We pride ourselves on not having any “style.” We’re not like a Richard Meier or Frank Gehry, where you know what you get when you hire them.
Our designs are driven by two things which are very important to us: Sustainability… That’s one thing that we — I don’t want to say “got on the bandwagon” — we were into sustainability long before it was something that was recognized. And the other thing is collaboration. Everybody uses that word, “collaboration,” but we really take it to heart, both internally and externally. We really get our clients involved in the design process. Each of our projects has a unique aesthetic and a unique approach to its design, and that’s a reflection of the owner’s goals and needs. I think most of our designers in-house are modernists at heart, but we have no objection to doing traditional style buildings.
Sronkoski: [Regarding low-rise buildings], I think that’s a function of a lot of work. We grew up in the suburbs. Our office in Chicago is our newest in Chicagoland. And there’s just a lot more land in the suburbs, so we haven’t had to do a lot of tall buildings. However, I will say we are designing a six-story building in Waukegan for one of our college clients, and that’s taller than most of our buildings.
Editor: What is the tallest building you’ve designed?
Sronkoski: We just finished the Hyatt Place hotel near the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, and that’s seven…?
Brosnan: It’s seven plus parking, so it’s a ten story building.
Haug: We just finished the renovation of a warehouse building on Carroll Avenue for a charter school. That was a real interesting project. It was basically a reinforced concrete building from the early 1900’s. We completely renovated it into a vertical school.
They didn’t want to have a single school in there since it was such a big building, so they basically put three schools in there – Two elementary schools, and a junior high. Each school has its own administration and everything. They renovated all six floors and then they needed an athletic component so they put a gymnasium on the top of the building. That was a very interesting project, and I guess that’s one of our tallest buildings we’ve done.
Thanks to Mr. Haug, Mr. Sronkoski, and Mr. Brosnan for taking the time to talk with us. Keep reading Chicago Architecture for more on Legat Architects. We’ll bring you more installments from our interview over the next few weeks.