"Because it involved stormwater, wastewater, transportation and aquatic life, Great Lakes was an ideal project to showcase our water and environmental group's full array of services," says Paul Dierking, water resources engineer with HDR Engineering. To execute the commission, the firm tapped the expertise of other offices in the region. "Fish hatcheries is a specialty of ours in downstate Springfield," says Dierking. "One of our engineers there, Matt Cochran, wrote his master's thesis on Asian carp."

"HDR assembled a very talented and diverse team," recalls Tim Eder, executive director with the Great Lakes Commission (GLC), which commissioned the $2-million study in association with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSCI). "But what I remember being struck by was their commitment to the issue. They did a great job, though it was more than just a business proposition to them."

The report identifies three separation alternatives for restoring the natural divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins, the least expensive of which would reverse the flow of the Chicago River and locate four barriers on branches of the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) at an estimated cost of $140 million.

The reality is more complex—and costly—says Dierking, who explains that solutions necessarily include $3.2 billion to $9.5 billion in upgrades to transportation, flood control and wastewater treatment systems on the CAWS.

Much of HDR's work was guided by criteria the firm developed in tandem with GLC and GLSCI, an approach that allowed the designer to "whittle down our options pretty quickly on the basis of discussions about the location and nature of the barriers, and resulting benefits to flood control, transportation and wastewater systems," says Dierking.

"At the end of the day, HDR proved the problem could be solved with barriers," says Eder.

Meantime, the office continues to rely heavily on the types of projects that first brought it to Chicago, including a multibillion-dollar initiative by the Illinois State Tollway Authority to upgrade state roadways now that federal work in the region has begun to wane.

"We're patient. We're careful about how we grow our business," says Pat Pechnick, Chicago department manager with HDR Engineering.

HDR Architecture has forged a similar trajectory since opening a Chicago office in 1996.

"Health care was the driver," recalls Miller. "From the client's perspective, we needed a local presence." Government work soon followed, with the Chicago office winning commissions for correctional facilities in Indiana and Illinois.

Like HDR Engineering, the firm successfully negotiated the ebb and flow of key markets after recession struck. In 2008, after several health care-related commissions were put on hold, "We realized we were uniquely positioned to pursue correctional health care as a result of our expertise in both health care and correctional facilities," says Miller. Combining the two disciplines led to a commission for a centralized medical facility for the Illinois Dept. of Corrections, a project that is awaiting funding.