Meeting client goals is how Legat Architects measures success, one project at a time.
By Cory Sekine-Pettite
In a highly competitive industry – and at the center of the architectural universe, no less – it can be quite difficult for an upstart firm to create a brand. Like so many before and since, Joseph J. Legat set out to do just that in the Chicago area in 1964. The then-28-year-old established his firm under the conviction that “great architecture hinges on great relationships.” Though many who followed the same path have failed, Legat Architects has grown and thrived into a 60-person, international operation known widely for its innovative designs, particularly masonry structures.
The firm developed a solid reputation for facilities that are “on time, on budget, and the roof doesn’t leak.” Legat’s first million-dollar project was a local elementary school (designed and constructed with brick), which became the impetus for an educational project portfolio that would grow to encompass more than 400 K-12 schools and 40 percent of the state of Illinois’ community colleges. Other areas of practice for the firm include commercial/industrial, healthcare, higher education and municipal projects.
According to Design Principal Ted Haug, masonry has been a major part of the firm’s work since its inception because of the material’s aesthetic potential and durability. As a load-bearing material, he said, it has allowed Legat Architects to create inviting, cost-effective facilities for its clients. “Also, unlike glass and steel, masonry – especially face brick and stone – offers a strong connection with nature; it comes from the earth,” said Haug. “It is an indigenous material that has a warm, tactile quality, unlike metal panels.”
Some of the firm’s earlier masonry projects include several Chicago Metra train stations and an addition to the Highland Park High School (Illinois). Haug said, “The rich tradition and history of masonry has played into several of our Metra train stations in the Chicago area. For instance, a stone clock tower, limestone details and slate roofs evoke the timelessness of the Arts & Crafts era at the new Tinley Park [Ill.] station.”
Further, the Glenview, Ill., station adopts the Richardsonian Romanesque style, Haug said. “Red masonry energizes the facility, while stone strengthens the building’s base and forms an arch that defines the main entry. The arches and curved wall forms in both examples illustrate the strength and fluidity of masonry.”
According to Haug, the high school project demonstrates how masonry can create a sense of warmth in a modernist addition. “The material of three sets of twin science lab volumes alternates between red brick and precast concrete to reflect the modern curriculum and lifestyle, but complement traditional campus structures and neighbors,” he said. These volumes lead to a curved brick volume that features limestone accents. The red brick selected for the project was not an identical match to the original structure, but it blends well with the differing types of face brick on the existing building, Haug said.
Once it had a stable base of loyal clients, Legat Architects expanded, opening three additional Chicago area studios to ensure clients had a local partner. “The practice-focused approach has provided a broad range of expertise to remain competitive during economic swings,” says Patrick Brosnan, president/CEO, who took office in January 2007. “It also motivates employees by allowing them to develop specializations and work on projects that they enjoy.” Most recently, the firm extended its Midwestern reach by establishing a Columbus, Ohio-based partnership called Legat & Kingscott.
Today, the firm reports that about 75 percent of its building projects feature a masonry-dominated exterior. And, while clients aren’t pushed into constructing masonry-clad facilities, Haug said Legat Architects does often “guide” clients toward masonry when the material is a good fit for the needs of the project.
For example, Haug said when the city of Waukegan, Ill., wanted a new city hall that would be a catalyst for community revitalization, the firm guided officials toward using masonry in a more non-traditional way: a limestone envelope enclosing a glass and brick volume. “The brick reflects the material of surrounding buildings, while the triangular shape of the limestone distinguishes the City Hall,” he said.
When asked what makes the firm unique, Vuk Vujovic, director of sustainable design, elaborated on several different, key factors, including Legat Architects’ “sustainable culture,” and its community-outreach programs. The firm says of its sustainable culture that it is committed to sustainable, high-performance design implementation on all of its projects. To that effect, Legat Architects established an internal Sustainable Design Task Force, which serves as a clearinghouse to streamline best sustainable design practices on every project. Further, 70 percent of the company’s architectural staff is composed of LEED-accredited professionals.
“Facilities that maximize energy efficiency, occupant wellbeing and resource conservation are an integral part of the firm’s design philosophy,” Vujovic said.
Brosnan added: “In terms of trends, the demand for sustainable structures, which is particularly strong here in the Chicago area, has given us the opportunity to design facilities that take advantage of the sustainable qualities inherent in masonry: durability, low-embodied energy, recyclability, minimal VOCs and off-gassing.”
Extending its sustainable culture beyond building design and construction, and into the public sphere, Legat Architects participated in the city of Chicago’s “Cool Globes” outdoor art exhibition in 2007. The public art project inspired individuals and companies to “take action against global warming” with globe sculptures designed to create awareness and provoke discussion about potential solutions to global warming. The firm’s entry, titled “Solar Earth,” now is part of a traveling exhibit focusing on eco-friendly design practices.
Legat Architects reaches even further into the community by providing planning and design services for more than 450 schools, ranging from early learning centers to 300,000-square-foot higher education facilities. The firm is adamant about involving students of all ages in the architectural process. During design and construction camps, younger students learn about their buildings, as well as the career choices available to them in the design, engineering and construction fields. And, stretching this program internationally, some of the firm’s higher education planners and designers recently presented to students in Kuwait University’s architectural program.
In the end, these outreach programs and the firm’s internal and external, sustainable culture come down to a focus on relationships – the same conviction set forth by Joseph J. Legat 34 years ago. So in implementing these principles, what does Legat Architects term a successful project? A traditional facility that celebrates a community’s rich history? In some cases, yes, the firm would say. What about a facility that twists and slopes on the glossy pages of a design magazine? That can be successful, too, the company would reply. It all depends on the client. Long-term client relationships drive Legat Architects’ practice.
“What makes a project successful to us is its ability to meet the client’s goals,” said Brosnan. “We believe that a facility praised by the architectural community for its dramatic design is a failure if it does not meet the client’s goals.”
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