Building codes, beepers, and brick-size cell phones: Oak Brook studio and Berry DeSimone achieve three decades of client service and employee support at Legat Architects
Illinois’ DuPage County, embraced by Chicago’s Cook County to the east, quickly expanded in the 1980s and 90s. Legat Architects recognized this growth and opened its DuPage studio in Oak Brook’s Commerce Plaza on December 7, 1992.
To get a jump-start, Legat purchased Northbrook-based Iacopi & Associates, a smaller firm with a strong client base in the county. Berardo “Berry” DeSimone, who had been at Iacopi for many years, joined Legat’s Oak Brook studio the same day it opened.
Three decades later, that studio has designed hundreds of building projects in DuPage and beyond. And DeSimone, now president and CEO of the firm, has not only paved the way for many of the firm’s larger commissions but also played a key role in building the firm’s culture and structure.
Legat Board Chairperson Jeffrey Sronkoski led the Oak Brook studio when DeSimone started.
“I met Berry at the front door the day we opened the office,” said Sronkoski. “During his 30 years with Legat, Berry has demonstrated stability, sincerity, and financial savviness within a variety of leadership positions. He has also helped create a strong chemistry among our teams.”
A Reputation Built on Code
Legat’s leadership quickly discovered DeSimone’s expertise with building codes. They dispatched him to schools throughout Chicagoland and beyond to conduct 10-year life safety assessments. The surveys and resulting documentation, based on Illinois school codes, helped districts identify and address building deficiencies.
DeSimone’s reputation grew. More districts called. He would survey two or three local schools a day. For farther districts, he would go out on a Monday and stay through Friday, walking several facilities each day. To date, DeSimone has completed surveys at more than 400 schools.
The trust that DeSimone built with district facilities personnel and administrators often ushered in larger commissions for new construction or renovations. At New Lenox School District 122, for instance, DeSimone’s early life safety work helped secure the design of six new school facilities and several major renovations. Similarly, his assessment work for Moline-Coal Valley School District not only led to many projects including the new Hamilton Elementary School and Bartlett Performing Arts Center at Moline High School, but it also built the foundation for Legat’s Moline studio, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this April.
DeSimone expanded his code compliance expertise by doing Fire Safety Evaluation System (FSES) surveys for nursing homes. In 1998, he did his first survey for Ambassador Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Chicago. Again, word spread. In the ensuing years, more than 300 nursing homes throughout the Midwest called on DeSimone to identify and respond to deficiencies within their facilities. This work also led to larger projects, such as recently completed additions at Generations at Applewood and Generations at Neighbors. Today, DeSimone still serves around 50 nursing homes.
Though Legat was known for service, the firm’s leadership had also recognized the long-term importance of stepping up its design efforts. With 75% of its workload dedicated to educational facilities, the Oak Brook studio was determined to make its mark with groundbreaking schools.
The commission for the studio’s (and the firm’s) first standalone school signaled an opportunity to take Illinois school design in a new direction. Minooka Junior High School, opened in 1997, curved away from the typical school. The 101,000-square-foot building showed other districts that an attractive, yet affordable school was entirely possible — it was constructed at $86 per square foot. In 1999, the school won an Award of Merit from the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, and Illinois Association of School Business Officials.
Next came Coal City Middle School, with its references to the community’s coal mining roots. These included a mining elevator-like entry tower, split-face and ground-face block, and the notes of an old mining song embedded in the music room floor.
Robin Randall, principal and leader of Legat’s preK-12 segment, was at another Chicago-area firm in the early 2000s.
“We would take potential clients through Legat schools as an example of the most cutting-edge architecture in Chicagoland,” she said.
Beyond PreK-12 Education
The Oak Brook studio’s design output soon extended beyond primary and secondary education facilities. Its projects ranged from hotels and healthcare buildings to municipal facilities and international manufacturing complexes.
One example is Prairie State College’s Community Instructional Center. To do a check set for that project in the early nineties, architect Paul Pessetti and his team would wait until everyone left the office, then load a floppy disk onto every computer in the office.
“The technology was slow at that time — you’d click on something and have to wait five minutes before you could make a change,” said Pessetti. “We would click on one computer, run to the next, click on it, and so on.”
Today, Pessetti remains a member of the Oak Brook studio, and the Community Instructional Center, with its spiraling auditorium, stands as a cherished building on the Prairie State campus.
It wasn’t long after Legat’s Oak Brook studio opened that DuPage County municipalities started calling on the firm. Commissions for new public works facilities for Addison and Elmhurst came within days of each other. The 55,000-square-foot Addison facility and the Elmhurst facility at twice that size consolidated all public works functions under one roof. Designers used this as an opportunity to create structures that outshone the typical municipal garage.
The Oak Brook studio’s project portfolio goes far beyond the DuPage County region — its designers teamed with employees in Legat’s other Chicago-area studios for Baxter International projects all over the world. One design innovation was a processing plant in shipping containers that could be assembled in the field to create sterilization plants in third-world countries. Over the course of a decade, the firm designed over 40 projects in 30 countries.
The Path to Presidency
During his early days with Legat, DeSimone spent much of his time out of the office. He would walk through schools accompanied only by his clipboard and connected to his coworkers by his brick-size cell phone or his beeper.
When he was in the studio, however, DeSimone proved he was equally adept at firm operations as he was with building codes. He also showed that his respect for coworkers matched that for his clients.
“Berry is a compassionate, down-to-earth leader,” said Legat Director of Marketing and Business Development Jody Boyce. “If he’s in a cabinet meeting or if he’s doing one of his quarterly studio visits, he wants to hear what everyone at the table has to say.”
After Sronkoski left the Oak Brook office to open Legat’s Chicago studio in 1996, DeSimone served as the DuPage studio director for three years.
In 2010, the firm appointed DeSimone its chief operating officer. DeSimone’s contributions to that role led to the appointment of him as president and CEO earlier this year as part of a leadership transition.
Zach Wiese, who took over the role of director of operations during the transition, worked closely with DeSimone for more than 10 years.
“Berry gave me the independence to figure out solutions to building code challenges on my own, but he was always there as a resource,” said Wiese. “He treats everyone with the same level of respect, whether it’s a brand-new employee or a veteran.”
Temporary Expectations, Enduring Results
When DeSimone walked through the door of Legat’s new Oak Brook studio in 1992, he did not expect to stay long.
“I was coming from a tight-knit firm of a dozen people and Legat was four times that size,” he said. “I thought it might be too corporate and stuffy.”
The experience defied his expectations.
DeSimone and Sronkoski, only in their forties at the time, were the studio’s oldest members. Most of their coworkers were in their twenties. Their energy and dedication rubbed off on DeSimone … and the entire firm.
“What kept me here was the people,” said DeSimone. “They struck me as genuine, and their commitment to each other and to good work was something I needed to be part of.”
Since becoming president and CEO in January of this year, DeSimone has steered a strategic plan aimed at reenergizing the firm and reinforcing its reputation for strong design and employee support.
“For me,” he said, “this is about getting everything aligned to run as smoothly as possible so I can pass the baton to the next generation of leadership on solid ground. I’m sitting here today because this is my way of giving back for all the opportunities Legat gave me.”
Contact us or comment below to share your experiences with our Oak Brook studio or Berry DeSimone.