Until recently, HDR inc. was perhaps the best-known design firm no one knew was operating in Chicago.

Both of the Omaha, Neb.-based firm's operating units, HDR Architecture and HDR Engineering, had been active in Chicago for years, but the types of flagship projects that land regional offices on the map often eluded them, even as they continued to amass a portfolio of increased breadth and complexity.

That all began to change in 2008 as the Midwest region sank into recession. In the fall of that year, the U.S. Dept. of Energy named HDR Architecture designer for Argonne National Laboratory's new Energy Sciences Building in Downers Grove, Ill., a $95-million facility that broke ground last August. In July, the firm was named co-designer for a $462-million replacement facility for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), thought to be the premier facility of its kind in the U.S.

"When you win key commissions like those, people sit up and take notice, says Clark Miller, managing principal with the Chicago office of HDR Architecture.

In late 2010, HDR Engineering was selected by a consortium of state and environmental interests to develop methods for restoring the natural divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins, a move intended to control the transfer of Asian carp and other invasive species into the Great Lakes.

The resulting report, "The Great Lakes & Mississippi Basin Separation Study," released in January, was lauded by top Illinois politicians, including Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Suddenly the two Chicago offices, whose projects helped catapult regional revenue to $66 million last year, were on a roll.

HDR Architecture also is on the move. It plans to open an office in downtown Chicago by midyear, now that it no longer focuses exclusively on the "collar counties" it serves from an office in the O'Hare corridor on Chicago's far northwest side.

"To some degree, the move is client driven," says Miller. "The Rehabilitation Institute wanted us downtown for purposes of access and proximity. The other issue is that our competitors are downtown. Clients find firms with a downtown presence appealing, so opening an office there is the next step in attracting new business and talent."

HDR Engineering knows the Windy City's terrain well, having opened a downtown office in 1975 to establish close proximity to local transportation and water authorities, including the Chicago Transportation Authority and Metropolitan Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

As it leveraged its experience to secure additional work with state and federal authorities, it also branched into related endeavors, culminating in commissions for the $104-million Interstate-270 Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge, a project near Granite City, Ill., that will result in the state's largest steel-plate girder structure, and the Great Lakes Report, for which it consulted with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the entity charged with creating an action plant to address the spread of invasive species to the Great Lakes.