George Pappageorge, FAIA, and David Haymes, AIA, have lunch together every weekday they can. Perhaps they spend these lunches reminiscing about their undergraduate days at the University of Illinois at Chicago's architecture school. Maybe they discuss the doings of their Chicago firm, Pappageorge/Haymes. Or, just maybe, they pass the hour or so marveling at the imprint that the 20-year-old firm has left on this development-happy city.

For when it's all added up, Pappageorge and Haymes have designed more than 6,000 dwelling units in Chicago. That number includes town homes, loft condominiums, mid- and high-rise apartments, and single-family houses. Chicago's ongoing urban living boom notwithstanding, that's an incredible amount of housing to have created within a city. But sheer quantity isn't the 37-person firm's main claim to fame. Pappageorge/Haymes has earned a national reputation for contextual, site-appropriate architecture, and for its ability to design in a wide variety of styles. The firm's projects include stately town homes with brick and limestone facades in the Chicago tradition, old industrial buildings converted into lofts, and sleek, Modernist high rises.

Humble beginnings

The two architects met in college, when they both lived in the then-rough Lincoln Park neighborhood. Pappageorge took the unusual step of developing and building his senior thesis, an infill two-flat, and Haymes helped with the construction. The pair then worked for Chicago architect Kenneth Schroeder, FAIA, for a few years. By 1981, when both were in their late 20s, they decided to start their own firm. "We went out to breakfast with one of our old professors and told him we were going out on our own," says Pappageorge. "It was in the middle of a recession. He thought we were crazy."

But Pappageorge and Haymes had identified a market gap they thought they could fill. They'd noticed that the city's many well-known firms tended to specialize in corporate and institutional work. Those that did design housing concentrated on single-family houses in the suburbs. No one seemed to be focusing on urban infill housing--the type of work these men, both longtime Chicago dwellers and confirmed urbanites, happened to find the most fulfilling. Despite their professor's misgivings, they opened their firm, converting Lincoln Park's decrepit factory buildings into residential and office lofts for developer clients. They acted as both architects and construction managers on these early projects, helping to spur the rejuvenation of Lincoln Park, now a highly desirable neighborhood. Meanwhile, they spent their spare time developing their own, smaller-scale residential projects.

In 1984 Pappageorge and Haymes got their big break, in the form of a 62-unit Lincoln Park town-home project called City Commons. Its innovative site plan and rapid sales pace put them on the map for good. "City Commons established us as designers and planners of large-scale proportions," Pappageorge says. Its success also alerted local developers to the fact that there was money to be made in urban infill housing.

Hot properties

Suddenly, Pappageorge/Haymes was one of the hottest firms in town. "When I was hired, I was about the fourth person there," remembers Chris Hill, who worked at the company during the 1980s and recently stepped down as the city of Chicago's planning commissioner. "By the time I left, there were 27 people." Pappageorge and Haymes had shown they could design a profitable, aesthetically appealing city community--and that they could manage it through the construction process, if need be. Having developed properties themselves, they knew how to speak the language of real estate in addition to the language of design. Developers felt comfortable with them, and the in-town multifamily jobs came pouring in. "They were leading the pack," says David Brininstool, AIA, the project architect for City Commons, who is now principal of the Chicago firm Brininstool + Lynch. "The old-school, mainline firms at the time seemed to be kind of out of it in terms of residential development in the city. And here was this relatively inexperienced firm getting a lot of work and a lot of attention."

The overload of jobs set the tone for the way Pappageorge/Haymes employees were--and still are--treated. Because the principals had more work than they could possibly handle, they delegated large amounts of responsibility to staff members. And because the firm provided construction management for many of its clients, project architects had the chance to get hands-on construction experience, as well as design skills, under their belts.

While Pappageorge/Haymes doesn't have the same lopsided jobs-to-staff ratio now that it had then, its emphasis on independence remains. As part of an annual review, employees write a list of the jobs they've worked on in the past year and the skills they've learned or improved upon. Then they list the things they'd like to accomplish in the upcoming year, and the partners try to place them on jobs that will help them achieve those goals. The high level of responsibility that Pappageorge and Haymes are willing to give young, motivated architects helps attract local and national talent to the firm.

Throughout the rest of the '80s and '90s, Pappageorge and Haymes kept busy designing the urban town homes and lofts that had jump-started their careers. Other project types made it into the mix, too--vacation homes, office and retail spaces, single-family infill houses, small institutional projects. But multifamily and single-family attached work continued to be the firm's mainstay. Starting in the late 1990s, land in the Windy City became prohibitively expensive, so developers there began to cast a favorable eye on high-rise housing. Pappageorge/Haymes followed suit, parlaying its previous experience designing office buildings and mid-rise apartment buildings into high-rise jobs.

In 1999 it won the commission for Museum Place, an 1,100-unit project encompassing high rises, mid-rises, and town homes on a coveted site a stone's throw from some of the city's loveliest museums. The firm is also playing a part in the remaking of Chicago's disastrous public-housing projects, going after affordable-housing commissions as ferociously as market-rate ones.

Designing men

Part of the reason that Pappageorge and Haymes have been able to stay so busy is that they have a proven ability to design in many different styles. "Our success comes from our ability to provide varied housing solutions," Pappageorge says. "We've never tried to develop a unique format that's always identifiable as ours." He thinks it's more important to be contextual than to make a bold design statement. "We try to reinforce the city as it is. We use what's already there in the neighborhood, and give it a little twist, maybe on the exterior detailing or on the floor plans. Architecture doesn't have to be Modern to be successful."

If you think that means their work is boring, think again. "Their designs show a lot of imagination," says fellow Chicago architect Larry Booth, FAIA, principal at the well-known firm Booth Hansen Associates. Two recent projects demonstrate the breadth of the firm's skills. Embassy Club, in the West DePaul section of the city, is an intricately planned, high-end town-home project full of classical arches, brick exteriors, and limestone detailing. A few minutes away in Bucktown lies Willow Court, a grouping of 56 beautifully austere condominiums with steel-clad bays and brick-paved walkways. Though the projects are vastly different, both feature Pappageorge/Haymes trademarks--elements such as inviting outdoor spaces, networks of pedestrian paths, and a meticulous attention to detail.

The firm is particularly dexterous at handling unpleasant edge conditions like rail yards or old industrial sites. At a project called Kinzie Park, for example, it designed an acoustically treated concrete-block wall to minimize noise and vibrations from an elevated commuter train line that runs right behind the community.

Due influence

Nearly everyone who followed the Chicago loft and town-house craze agrees that Pappageorge/Haymes had a great deal to do with igniting it. "They basically made the town-house boom," says Hill, who is now the senior vice president director of the Chicago office of Grubb & Ellis, the commercial real estate firm. "They added a level of sophistication to this category of housing that wasn't there before."

But the firm's impact certainly isn't limited to the past. In addition to branching out into high rises, the partners are venturing into the suburbs to work with the international, San Francisco-based firm Gensler on a new, mixed-use town center in Glenview, about 10 miles north of Chicago. While they still do some nonresidential projects--they just won a local competition to design their first museum--a good 70 percent of their work consists of housing.

Pappageorge/Haymes doesn't do as much construction management as it used to--it's working with bigger developers who tend to want to manage the projects themselves. But the two principals have their own development and construction management company, PH Properties. They established it about 10 years ago, having done a little developing on the side ever since Pappageorge's thesis project. Of course, the company uses Pappageorge/Haymes as its architect. It concentrates on small to medium-size infill projects, often high-end single-family houses built on spec.

PH Properties challenges and interests both partners, but they're architects first. They spend about 15 percent of their time on their newer company, leaving the other 85 percent for Pappageorge/Haymes. Either Pappageorge or Haymes acts as design principal on every job, filtering work down through six associates and many project managers. Pappageorge handles personnel and public relations; Haymes runs the financial end of the business. They work from the same studio in the city's River North section that the firm has occupied for 17 years, sharing a large, L-shaped space as their private office.

Are they worried about the apparent slowdown of the national economy, which, if it continues, will have major repercussions for real estate markets? Not at all. "We've been in business in this city a long time," says Pappageorge, who, like Haymes, is a few years shy of 50. "If there's a recession or a slowdown, it's the ones who have been around who'll survive."