Environmental Law & Policy Center Sets the Standard for Downtown Offices

By Matt Baker

Operating under the premise that ecological progress and economic development are not mutually exclusive, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) advocates for sustainability policies across the Midwest. Founded in 1993, the non-profit, public interest organization has notched a number of victories, especially lately. Illinois utilities, for example, must increase solar energy purchasing starting next year, legislation due largely to the efforts of the ELPC. They also helped broker the nation’s largest urban solar plant, which was installed in 2010 on the city’s Pullman neighborhood. The multidisciplinary staff is now focused on cleaning the Chicago River, installing controls at coal plants and bringing high speed rail to the Midwest.

ELPC moved into their first “eco-office” in the late nineties. Combined with their policy work, the office helped to advance green practices in Chicago and the surrounding region. But as the organization grew over the years, the space could no longer accommodate their needs. After looking at many options throughout the city, ELPC ended up right where they started, moving last November from the thirteenth floor of the historic Jewelers’ Building to the sixteenth floor.

Farr Associates designed the space with an eye towards advancing the edge of smart innovation, just as ELPC did in their previous space. Attached to this goal was a caveat: make the advancements replicable by any downtown business rehabbing its space. “What we did back then looks pretty ordinary today, because the market’s changed so much” said Kevin Brubaker, Deputy Director of ELPC.

ELPC’s new LEED-CI Platinum office is best thought of as two spaces. Conference rooms and offices line the perimeter, with cubicles, common areas and a production space pushed to the interior. This isn’t a matter of hierarchy, however; the perimeter and interior were constructed quite differently, to maximize energy efficiency.

Lineal diffusers, for example, branch off the trunk line of the heating and air system to serve the perimeter spaces. The main HVAC system is hidden by a drop ceiling in the interior of the space, but on the perimeter, the acoustical tiles slope up until they disappear altogether. By bumping the ceiling up as high as possible at the perimeter, the center of the floor can borrow more daylight.

Each office is also fitted with a carbon dioxide monitor that cuts airflow to vacated rooms. Since lighting accounts for the largest profile in any commercial space’s energy usage, the designers spent much effort reducing that need. Glass partitions, some transparent and some etched, separate the inner and outer workspaces. “This does two things,” said Jonathan Boyer, Principal with Farr Associates. “It spills the light, but it also sends a message of more transparency and more openness. Even in a law firm, this is a very positive thing.”

All illumination—a combination of LED and highly efficient fluorescent—is controlled by photosensors that dim the ballasts based on available daylight. Motion sensors direct the fixtures to turn off five minutes after a room becomes unoccupied. After twenty minutes, the electrical outlets also shut down. These controls have resulted in a 30% overall light power reduction and a near zero overnight load. An internal smart grid allows ELPC staff to keep tabs on their energy usage, which hovers around .8 watts per square foot.

Coincidental to the move was a need to upgrade their computer equipment. By investing in new technology, the dozens of employee computers are now supported by just one server, which contrasts from the four they had previously. Less waste heat means less need for air conditioning, and a smaller energy bill.

As the office is in a transit-oriented development—and that alternative transportation is a key component to the organization’s mission—ELPC persuaded the building’s management to expand the bike storage area. Bike ridership is further encouraged in the office with a shower room.

All carpet and ceiling tiles are made from recycled materials. Paints, adhesives and finishes are low- and no-VOC. All the cabinetry, and more than 80% of the wood used in the project overall, is made from FSC-certified materials. The cabinets in high-profile areas have a birch veneer, but in the more utilitarian production area where staff members produce mailers and flyers, the chipboard cabinets were simply given a natural varnish. This move saved time and materials while still producing a handsome effect.

During construction, a phenomenal 94% of waste was diverted from landfills. A major contribution to this was the reuse of furniture from the firm’s previous space. The office was designed in a Midwest prairie motif, to reflect the natural landscape of the organization’s core constituency. The cubicle walls, for example, are topped by recycled acrylic partitions embedded with natural reeds. The carpet tiles were chosen for their resemblance to fallen leaves. The walls are adorned with the work of regional artists and photographers, focusing on the natural Midwest landscape.

Vinyl tiles made from biodegradable materials line the breakroom floor. Manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Armstrong, Boyer sees the tiles as an indication of the changing American manufacturing landscape. “We’re beginning to see the private industry responding, … saying if we can do it in Europe, why can’t we do it in the United States? That’s the great thing that ELPC and other organizations are helping to make happen.”

The kitchen features a recycled glass tile backsplash. The countertops are quartz composite, set in recycled plastic resin. All appliances are Energy Star certified. The energy required to heat water was cut in half and overall water savings of up to 40% were achieved in the kitchen and lavatories with the use of low flow fixtures.

Every effort was made to make the space as flexible as possible. The design team chose an airwall with a high sound coefficient to separate the two conference rooms. The acoustical wall can be deployed for privacy or folded away to create a greater space for large gatherings.

The conference rooms are separated from the interior space by full length, glass doors which serve several functions. Similar to the airwall, the wing-like glass panels can open the conference rooms up to the rest of the office for events. When closed, the translucent doors seal off the room while allowing the rest of the office to benefit from the daylight spilling in.

The sandblasted glass is textured on one side, but the smooth obverse can function as a writing board. The surface is easier to clean and manage than typical whiteboards and one virtue Boyer finds in them is that they don’t sequester the conference rooms; a sense of action and activity is transmitted to the rest of the office. “You might have to read backwards like The Da Vinci Code, but you can see things going on.” One of the conference rooms is equipped with videoconferencing equipment to reduce the staff’s air travel—technology ELPC has made available to other local non-profits.

The Jewelers’ Building management has embraced green technology and was instrumental in some of the changes ELPC wanted to make, such as variable speed motors for more efficient heating and cooling. “That’s what we want to have, old buildings, historic buildings with beautiful amenities which don’t take away from the time they were built, but at the same time have truly modern interiors,” said Boyer. “That’s the best of both worlds.”

Building management also gave its blessing to the addition of solar panels on the southern façade, which ELPC is in the process of designing. The panels have been approved by the Chicago Landmarks Commission and would set quite a precedent for landmark properties in the city.

Façade-mounted solar panels are quite unorthodox on a structure of the Jewelers’ Building’s pedigree. While it may seem like a bold move now, Brubaker hopes that won’t always be so. “We will have succeeded if three, four, five years from now, people come through here and are deeply unimpressed. That’s what we were able to do downstairs; that’s what we hope to do up here.”

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