Tom Kikta’s three decades at Legat Architects leave trail of skilled architects, satisfied building owners, and reliable facilities.
Right now, there are accomplished architects throughout the world who earned their stripes under the wing of Tom Kikta, a principal and project manager at Legat Architects. And there are more than 200 buildings that are dry, dependable, and user-friendly because of Kikta’s efforts.
One June 2, the always available mentor, die-hard Chicago Bears fan, water sports enthusiast, and storyteller extraordinaire celebrated 30 years of setting a standard for excellence at Legat.
Any employee, from the intern to the veteran leader, will find in Kikta a willing listener, a patient advisor, a determined leader, and maybe even a tale about snorkeling in shark-infested waters.
After earning his master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kikta joined Legat’s now-consolidated Schaumburg, Illinois studio on June 2, 1990. Two years later, he became one of the original members of the firm’s Oak Brook location. A decade later, he joined Legat’s Chicago studio, where he remains today.
Kikta’s first major project was a large addition at Hunting Ridge Elementary School in Palatine, Illinois. Legat President and CEO Patrick Brosnan said, “When Tom joined the Hunting Ridge project, it doubled the number of Legat people on my project team. He jumped right in to help and followed my instructions while constantly asking ‘why?’”
Over the years, Kikta led larger teams and took on increasingly demanding challenges. According to Brosnan, Kikta’s determination to learn and understand continued. “It wasn’t enough for Tom to understand only what needed to be done; he needed to know why it was important.” That philosophy drove Kikta’s projects and his interactions, and eventually influenced those around him and the firm’s culture.
One of Kikta’s favorite quotes comes from George S. Patton: “If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking.”
This statement relates to Kikta’s career path at Legat: while other individuals were building a reputation for design, he developed a specialty in detailing. He expanded Legat’s reputation for roofing projects and eventually, the full building envelope. Today, building envelopes at more than 200 facilities are stronger because of Kikta’s involvement.
One Thing Leads to Another
When Kikta first started working with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Public Building Commission of Chicago (PBC), it was for minor projects, while more established firms took on the higher profile work. But Kikta stuck with the client and built a relationship by consistently producing solid work. Window replacements and pool liners became temporary classroom installations. HVAC summer upgrades led to major additions. And then, in 2008, confident in Kikta’s leadership, PBC for the first time selected Legat to design a new building: Mariano Azuela Elementary School.
Kikta’s CPS/PBC portfolio now exceeds 30 schools. Legat is the architect of record (with Kikta as project manager) for the 175,000-square-foot Hancock Replacement School, one of the highest profile new schools under construction in Chicago. Moreover, for several CPS/PBC projects now under construction, Legat has moved into the design architect/mentor firm position, which tasks Kikta with training less experienced firms, many of them Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) or Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs). The goal is not simply to hand off the design, but rather to coach these other firms to make sure that they are successful. Kikta’s leadership, perseverance, and support from others created these new opportunities.
After observing Kikta’s leadership of the Mariano Azuela Elementary School project, the PBC’s director of quality assurance labeled it as the “gold standard” for other teams to aspire to for responsiveness, meeting deadlines, field report quality, collaboration with contractors, and much more.
Additionally, Kikta’s 10-year stretch as leader of the Azeula Architecture Club exemplifies his commitment to the client and to teaching others. When he doesn’t have time to run the club, Tom makes sure that others at Legat get involved.
“With Tom, you see a real passion for learning and teaching that’s fueled by the enthusiasm of the students,” said Brosnan. “I suspect that because of Tom’s efforts, many of these students will investigate careers in architecture or engineering.”
Looking Out for the Next Generation
One of the first times Loren Johnson was working on a roof design for a project, Kikta asked him where the roof access ladders were. Johnson showed him the vertical steel rung ladder he had placed in the model. Kikta sat down and walked Johnson through the things people would need to carry up that ladder: filters, tool bags, five-gallon buckets of repair material.
Johnson changed that ladder to an angled step ladder and from then on, he took a closer look at maintenance-critical areas and reviewed them from the perspective of the person needing to service the equipment.
“Tom takes a similar approach to any aspect of design being considered,” said Johnson. “He immediately thinks about the people needing to use a space and what kinds of things are going to get in their way.”
Kikta’s gift for mentorship is one of the key reasons he was appointed a firm principal in 2018 and a few months after that, director of Legat’s Chicago studio. During principals’ meetings, Kikta considers how a discussion item will impact the people in his studio and he speaks up for them. Since Kikta became its leader, Legat’s Chicago studio has not only moved into a new location, but camaraderie within that studio has grown considerably.
Instead of pigeonholing novice architects by forcing them to focus on just one part of a building or one facet of architecture, Kikta encourages team members to test out the full scope of services and to explore all aspects of architecture.
Brosnan said, “I’ve run into several former employees who said they haven’t found a mentor as strong as Tom. That goes a long way to build the reputation of our firm.”
One such former employee is Jeremy Cordell, who worked closely with Kikta after graduating from Kansas State University. Today, Cordell is a senior design architect at a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based firm.
Cordell, who worked closely with Tom on the Mariano Azuela school and club, said, “Tom shaped many of my own convictions about career, performance, and mentorship. With him, all conversations, instructions, and lessons orbit around doing things right. Why else would someone pay you to do it?”
He remembers going to the Azuela site in Kikta’s beloved Audi TT (with the top down, of course). Kikta said, “If man can land a person on the moon, then I’m pretty sure we can complete this task.” It’s a saying that Cordell continues to use today.
The first time Kikta used a variation of that quote was while working on a new public works facility for the Village of Cary. He wanted to use a metal roof panel on the walls. The roofing manufacturers told him it was impossible. Kikta said, “So you’re telling me we’ve designed a vehicle to withstand the heat of reentering the atmosphere, and we can’t use a metal roof panel on the walls? Instead of telling me it’s impossible, tell me why you think it can’t be done.” The manufacturer expressed his concern that the panels would slide off. Kikta suggested anchoring the panels so they could be hung. It worked!
Up to the Challenge
Something many people might not know about Kikta: he loves to drive “any car with a stick shift and no top” . . . so much so, in fact, that he’s been known to drive top-down in the rain, the snow, and even in subzero temperatures.
Kikta embraces project challenges with the same unstoppable attitude, whether it’s a project type that Legat has never done or an ultra-tight schedule.
And if you happen to be in the car with Kikta and you pass a Chicago landmark, don’t be surprised if he launches into a story about it.
“Tom has a great sense of fairness, lots of common sense, and a very low tolerance for bs,” said Johnson. “It is a really great quality to have in a leader. If something is going on that is legitimately unfair or doesn’t make sense, he is the first one to stand up and say so.”
Brosnan added, “We talk all the time about the ideal employee trio of motivated, humble, and smart. Tom helps model those traits for all of us.”
Contact us or comment below to share your experiences with Tom.