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Modern Windy City Architecture

Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

Photo Courtesy of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

Chicago’s Searl Lamaster Howe Architects mixes modernism with clients’ needs to create unique residential and commercial projects.

If you look at the projects created by Chicago’s Searl Lamaster Howe Architects, you’ll see the connecting thread of modernism—but that’s all you’ll see—a thread. Each residential and commercial project by this architecture and interiors firm is unique due to the principals’ abilities to drill down into what a client wants and what the site demands. Their projects—custom homes, residential renovations, multi-family work, offices and retail—exude confident sophistication, but ultimately reflect the occupants.

Searl Lamaster Howe Architects home

Photo Courtesy of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

“We attract clients who really get into the projects,” explains architect Greg Howe, AIA, one of the firm’s principals. “That’s how we’ve managed to get a collection of unique projects.”

“We don’t have a rubber-stamp approach to design,” concurs architect Pam Lamaster-Millett, AIA, also a principal. “We try to reflect the client’s values.”

The firm was founded in 1990 as Searl and Associates Architects by Linda Searl, FAIA, a pioneer at a time when there were few architectural businesses run by women. Searl, who is now retired and consults with the company, is a University of Florida graduate who taught architecture at two universities before working for other firms and launching her own practice in downtown Chicago. Lamaster-Millett joined the company in 1998 after working for other firms in Indianapolis and Cleveland, and Howe came on board in 2000 after working in urban design for a large practice in Chicago.

Both found the idea of working for a smaller firm, in which design was hands-on, appealing. “I liked the idea that not every project looked the same,” recalls Lamaster-Millett, “and at the core of the work was listening to the client.” Lamaster-Millett and Howe “grew organically” to become principals, explains Howe. The ten-person firm was renamed Searl Lamaster Howe Architects (SLH) in 2007.

The firm was founded in 1990 as Searl and Associates Architects by Linda Searl, FAIA, a pioneer at a time when there were few architectural businesses run by women.

Searl Lamaster Howe Architects design

Photo by Alyssa Rosencheck

While Howe and Lamaster-Millett enjoy a variety of projects, they relish the residential work that comes their way. “A house boldly expresses who a client is,” says Howe. “It’s a big cliff to jump from, so we listen to what the client says.” Lamaster-Millett concurs. “A house is a pure reflection of the client’s values,” she says. “Designing and building a house is an emotional experience, and we try to balance what the client wants with what they need.”

Over the years, the architects have also learned to balance serving the clients with treading lightly on the site—designing, for example, modernist homes that blend in with the vernacular of established, historic neighborhoods; renovating iconic properties and updating beloved homes without losing what made the home so loved in the first place.

Searl Lamaster Howe Architects Homes

Photo Courtesy of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

For a recent residence in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, the partners took into consideration the homeowners’ desire for plenty of garden space and their limited budget, as well as the established neighborhood’s architectural scale. In response, they designed a simple, 2,100-square-foot, two-story house with stepped-back massing and a garage hidden behind a wall, leaving plenty of space in the front and back yards for gardening. With simple materials elegantly expressed and the back of the home’s window walls opening up onto the landscape, the home lives more grandly than size and cost imply.

Searl Lamaster Howe Architects Wilmette

Photo by Alyssa Rosencheck

Another residential project, the renovation of a 3,200-square-foot, three-bedroom condominium in Chicago’s luxe Water Tower Place, was a bold update. According to Howe, the building had been developed in the 1970s, and this particular condo had been decorated in a glamorous style by the noted interior designer Bruce Gregga—but it was time for a change. Working with the interior design firm Alexis Bednyak Design, the architects stripped away with old finishes, opened up the floor plan to bring light deep into the space and used materials such as white oak, black matte metal, stone and brass to create a minimalist setting that focuses on the views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding city.

Michigan Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

Photo Courtesy of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

In a Michigan beach community, the architects stabilized, updated and winterized a 1949 cottage, a beloved weekend retreat used by the same owner since 1974. The architects had the saggy, mossy roof rebuilt, insulated the walls and roof, removed interior walls and added more windows for an open look. A raised ceiling line yielded a mezzanine-like storage area. Exposed trusses, rift-sawn white oak cabinetry and a rebuilt screened-in porch kept the beach-cottage appeal—but with a contemporary twist.

Searl Lamaster Howe Architects Lamaster-Millett and Howe

Photo Courtesy of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

When it comes to commercial projects, Lamaster-Millett and Howe use a boutique approach, tackling smaller to mid-size projects in which they can add a personalized touch. For a corporate headquarters in a leafy suburb, the SLH team worked with executives to create unique offices that reflected their personalities through color, millwork and furnishings, using similar materials to serve as the unifying links. Bold colors and unexpectedly sculptural furnishings were used to jolt common areas, such as lounges.

Searl Lamaster Howe Architect meeting room

Photo Courtesy of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

For a downtown Chicago law firm, Searl Lamaster Howe shook up traditional Midwestern sensibility and eschewed mahogany paneling; instead glass walls and doors signal the firm’s commitment to transparency. Clean lines, pops of color through textiles and the use of residential-style furnishings lets clients know that the law firm takes a different approach to its services.

Searl Lamaster Howe Architects Retail

Photo Courtesy of Searl Lamaster Howe Architects

Another commercial project—a retail showroom for a company that sells designer trimmings—was a study in contrasts. While the architectural firm leans towards minimalism, the showroom sells luxe layering in the form of handmade tassels, borders, braids, gimp, fringes and more, with some 40,000 pieces in inventory. Creating locations in Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere, SLH created numerous work stations and used a restrained approach, simple backdrops and a detailed light plan to make the products shine.

“Our firm emphasizes collaboration,” says Lamaster-Millett, summarizing the SLH approach, “and we aim to create an environment that recognizes talent. That’s how we achieve our best designs.”

“Our firm emphasizes collaboration, and we aim to create an environment that recognizes talent.”

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