Double Down: Two Riverfront Buildings Invest in Sustainability

By Matt Baker

The two buildings at 10 and 120 South Riverside Plaza sit beside the south branch of the Chicago River, near more traditionally attractive, art deco structures like 2 North Riverside Plaza and the Civic Opera House. These two Miesian boxes aren’t necessarily homely in comparison so much as emblematic of their era. Designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill and erected in 1965 and 1967, they exhibit the steel and glass aesthetic of mid-century modernism.

Today, it would appear from the outside that little has changed, but 10 and 120 South Riverside are actually just as representative of this era as of the mid-1960’s. A series of upgrades over the last few years by Behringer Harvard, the real estate investment firm that owns and manages the 1.4 million SF building complex, have not only made the buildings more enticing to potential tenants, but much more energy efficient. “They are very utilitarian,” said Rick Needham, General Manager for Behringer Harvard. “But they are very efficient to plan and build out.”

The building complex has been certified LEED-EB Silver, takes part in the BOMA 360 program and the City of Chicago’s Green Office Challenge and has held a high Energy Star rating every year since 2008. In fact, the building’s scores are consistently in the top 10% of all commercial office buildings. Last year, the buildings were awarded the TOBY Earth Award by BOMA/Chicago, which looks at sustainable building management policies such as landfill waste diversion, energy and water conservation, hazardous material handling, purchasing, transportation and tenant education.

As an example of some of the less obvious improvements, all of the motors and chillers were replaced with energy-efficient models. For air exchange, the old, constant-volume air handling systems were swapped out for variable speed drives, both on the perimeter induction units and in the central zones. The latest variable air volume boxes regulate flow on all floors.

The “Destination Dispatch” system by ThyssenKrupp sorts passengers by destination, reducing not only ride time but energy need.

As pumps and motors have reached the end of their useful life, they’ve been replaced with energy-efficient models. Over the last two years, Behringer Harvard replaced the burners on all four boilers to ones with the highest efficiency. These particular upgrades had a promised payback time of three years, but the actual return on investment will actually be half that.

The engineering staffs of the two buildings have a friendly competition wherein they compare monthly utility usage and energy efficiency. (120 South Riverside is the reigning champ.) In fact, all of Behringer Harvard’s buildings report back to the firm’s engineering head, so everyone sees everyone else’s numbers.

Before submitting the buildings for LEED, Behringer Harvard purchased new, water-efficient toilets. “To save money, our engineers installed them and in the process they became great plumbers,” said Mike Reilly, Regional Vice President, Property Management of Behringer Harvard. Automated flush valves and hands-free faucets also reduce water consumption.

One change will go unnoticed from street level, but is quite stark when you take a bird’s eye view of the area. Last year 10 South Riverside received a white roof coating which reduces a vast amount of solar heat gain. 120 South Riverside will get its own white roof sometime next year after changes to the interior have been completed.

Lighting retrofits throughout the buildings cut down on energy usage and maintenance, due to a promised lifespan in the tens of thousands of hours. Multi-tenant corridors were upgraded to fluorescent T8 ballasts, and LED fixtures that pull a mere 4 Watts each were installed in virtually every other public area, including the lobbies, elevator cars and on the buildings’ exteriors.

Taking advantage of a ComEd rebate program that expired last year, all the exit signs in the buildings are lit by LED lights as well. Occupancy sensors installed in multi-tenant hallways and restrooms also help reduce lighting use.

The buildings and their waste management company, Allied Waste, employ a comprehensive recycling program that sorts out the usual paper, glass, plastic and aluminum but also ballasts, batteries, toner cartridges and spent electronic devices. Behringer Harvard also set up a furniture repurposing program. When tenants move or upgrade their offices, they are encouraged to contact one of a number of nonprofits to take in the old furniture in lieu of incorporating it with other building waste. “In fact,” said Needham, “we don’t let them throw it out.”

One change that should be readily apparent to a visitor of 10 and 120 South Riverside is the elevator system. In the ThyssenKrupp-designed “Destination Dispatch” elevators, a passenger doesn’t choose a direction of travel, but a final destination. “Think of it as calling a cab,” said Needham.

The reflective roof atop 10 South Riverside Plaza is quite stark compared to its neighbors along the south branch of the Chicago River. The roof on 120 South Riverside will be painted next year.

So in the morning, when the elevator lobby fills with twenty people at a time, they don’t all get in the same car which then makes frequent stops. Instead, this system requires a passenger to choose a destination floor in the lobby as opposed to in the car; the display then indicates which elevator bay to wait at. The elevator system’s algorithm then sorts all of the passengers into similar destination points. Those going to floors 10, 12 and 14 on one car, for example, and those going to floors 18, 19 and 21 on another.

While there is a learning curve for the tenants, they should notice reduced travel times since the elevator is now making fewer stops. Case studies show the average transit time is cut by at least 25%, if not better. But the building management is happy with the system for another reason: minimizing the number of stops also reduces energy consumption. The elevator service rooms were also upgraded with new mechanical equipment that runs both quieter and cooler. The lower heat output means the system can operate much more efficiently.

But perhaps the most ambitious change is the daytime cleaning program which Behringer Harvard implemented as an experiment and that has since spread to half of the buildings’ occupied space. The tenants have the option for the janitorial crew to come in and clean their spaces starting at 2:00 in the afternoon rather than the typical 5:00. As a result, the lights are off three hours longer. “Three hours a night for five nights a week at 52 weeks a year generates a cost savings of a little more than ten cents per square foot,” said Needham. The tenants benefit from a lower utility rate and the building complex puts out 300 tons fewer carbon dioxide emissions each year.

“As far as we know, we are the only multi-tenant office complex doing this,” said Needham. The Chicago FBI headquarters, which is served by the same janitorial company, ABM, instituted an analogous program, mostly for security reasons. No one else in Chicago, however, is doing anything similar in multi-tenant buildings.

One side benefit is that the extra contact with the cleaning staff—something of a concern at the outset that has proved to be unfounded—means that the employees start taking better care of their space since they know the person cleaning up after them. “This allows the cleaners to take care of it quicker,” said Reilly. “It’s win-win all the way around.”

Over the last three years, the buildings have also transitioned from traditional to green cleaning products. Roughly 80% of their budget for towels, tissue, soap, trash bags and other items is spent on green cleaning products. ABM also uses energy efficient equipment like vacuum cleaners and floor scrubbers.

Any building erected in Chicago’s central business district will immediately qualify for LEED’s public transportation credit, but 10 and 120 South Riverside are uniquely positioned right above rail lines serving Metra and Amtrak riders using Union and Ogilvie stations. This poses a specific concern as Behringer Harvard revamps the public plazas situated between the buildings and the river.

Construction is currently underway on the plaza in front of 10 South Riverside, with plans to refurbish the 120 South Riverside plaza next year. In addition to waterproofing to protect the passengers on the platforms below, the plazas will feature larger planters with 20% more green space than before and a water-sensing irrigation system to reduce water consumption.

As a manager of real estate investment trusts, Behringer Harvard’s primary focus has to be on returning dividends to investors. But that doesn’t mean sustainability has to take a back seat to the bottom line.

“We take sustainability and being conscious about green issues very seriously,” said Behringer Harvard COO Jason Mattox. “We feel like—particularly with our Chicago portfolio—we’ve struck a very nice balance between … environmentally-conscious pursuits and the needs of our investors.”

The managers of 10 and 120 South Riverside found replacing the buildings’ original single-pane windows to be far too costly, so they installed a window film on all facades to abate solar heat gain. They considered a vegetated installation before the roof was painted white, but it was rejected for the same reason. However, those changes—the window film and white paint—both offer substantial environmental benefit at a relatively low cost.

“We as owners have approved just about everything the engineers have brought, as long as it had a payback of no more than two to three years,” said Needham. “We stretch our payback out on the sustainability issues because it’s the right thing to do,” added Reilly.

“Everything that has been done has reduced energy,” said Reilly. “To be honest, I would have heard about it if it hadn’t worked from the engineers because they will bird-dog contractors if they had promised something and it didn’t deliver.” For these two buildings, venturing on sustainability has proved to be a worthy investment.

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