Filling in the Gaps at 515 North State

 By Matt Baker

You may be forgiven for thinking that there is something missing from the building at the corner of State and Grand. After all, its most distinctive feature is the four-story section omitted from the northwest corner. But behind its sharp angles and glass façade, 515 North State Street has a story to tell.

Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kenzo Tange, the 29 story commercial tower has been the headquarters of the American Medical Association (AMA) since the building was completed in 1990. After several years of retrofits, tenant education and other efforts, the building achieved LEED-EBOM Gold last year as well as the Earth Award at BOMA/Chicago‘s Outstanding Building of the Year awards.

Owned by UBS and managed by U.S. Equities Realty, 515 North State is one of the original participants in the Retrofit Challenge and the Green Office Challenge. “U.S. Equities is very aggressive in pushing the owners of all the buildings,” said Dana Bates, General Manager with U.S. Equities.

The management company implements those green measures that fit within their realm of service or have no added cost. But they also have a sustainability group, which drives the organization’s management philosophy. “Yes, the larger real estate firms are going to have a sustainability department somewhere in their nationwide portfolio,” said Bates. “But I think for U.S. Equities to be focusing on this as a boutique real estate company kind of sets [us] apart.”

Inside the lobby of the Kenzo Tange-designed 515 N. State Street.

Inside the lobby of the Kenzo Tange-designed 515 N. State Street.

In 2009, U.S. Equities subjected their portfolio to Energy Star modeling to set a baseline for each building’s energy consumption. 515 North State scored an average rating in the mid-50’s. The management team first went after the no- and low-cost changes and by 2010, they and UBS had agreed on a plan and a budget to make the building greener. Three years later, and despite a restructured, stricter Energy Star rating system, the building had a much-improved score of 75.

After 515 North State’s energy use was improved, the focus switched to LEED. “At first, the owners thought, ‘Let’s just get LEED certified,'” said U.S. Equities Property Manager Nancy Crockatt. “Then they started getting excited and raising the bar; they wanted silver and then gold.”

Where possible, light fixtures in the base building were converted to CFL; elsewhere, fluorescent ballasts were upgraded from T12 to T8 and even T5 in some cases. Exit signs are now lit with LEDs. For occupied spaces, however, U.S. Equities had to convince some of the tenants to upgrade their lighting all at once rather than piecemeal. “We did approach the tenants and showed them some payback,” said Crockatt. Once the tenants saw the potential cost of waiting to make those changes themselves, many opted to improve their lighting as well.

The building’s HVAC system also benefitted from a hefty upgrade. Two of the three chillers were replaced with high-efficiency units. Variable frequency drives on the new chillers and the condenser and chilled water pumps also increased efficiency. Retro-commissioning shed some light on low-cost system upgrades that could be implemented, such as damper controls and automated scheduling. The purchase of renewable energy credits help offset the building’s carbon footprint. Since 2009, energy conservation measures have reduced building energy intensity by 18% and greenhouse gas emissions by 16%.

 “Green is all about tracking, benchmarking and measuring results,” said Crockatt. To that end, the building automation system (BAS) was upgraded from pneumatic to digital control. However, the various tracking and monitoring software packages that the management firm evaluated seldom displayed all the information that they would like. Different pieces of software had assorted capabilities and deficiencies. For example, some weren’t able to track degree days, making annual energy reports less useful. Others documented the consumption of energy but not water. “What would be helpful is one piece of software that tracks everything,” said Crockatt. “We really need this broken down by meter.”

Completed just a few years before the federal legislation prescribing higher standards on water use in commercial buildings, 515 North State had some ground to make up on that front. Dual flush toilets and low-flow urinals reduced water use in those fixtures from 3.5 gallons per minute to 1.5 while sink aerators reduced water use to 0.5 gpm. Water use building-wide was reduced by 35%.

Condensation from building equipment typically goes right down drain. “I suggested to the engineers that we capture it,” said Bates. At her prompting, the building engineers designed and built the “Bates Environmental System,” as they have dubbed it, to recirculate the water it captures. “Overall, it doesn’t have a big impact, but it’s consistent with the idea of sustainability,” said Bates.

But that’s okay, according to Hannah Sokol, Senior Associate in the U.S. Equities Sustainability Group. “When everybody’s involved, ideas come from all of these different disciplines,” she said. “It generates ideas and disseminates through building staff.”

Getting everybody involved means more than just management, of course. Tenant engagement was and continues to be one of the most effective tools in making 515 North State operate more efficiently.

Newsletters discuss actions that tenants can take to work more efficiently, while Earth Day events and a LEED launch party in the building’s lobby introduced many who were perhaps unfamiliar with sustainability to the virtues of implementing green practices. Materials placed in public areas provide instruction on topics from recycling to recognizing greenwashing.

During Earth Week, management held a contest among the tenants to see how much container waste they could reduce from the cafeteria, resulting in a 25% decrease. They measured the amount of waste before, during and after the contest, with interesting results. “In the weeks after, we also saw savings,” said Sokol. “People were mindful.”

An old recycling program focused only on paper, but this was updated to include glass, plastic and aluminum. A particular focus on electronic waste is also very popular. Battery and toner recycling stations are placed around the building and there are e-waste drives several times a year where tenants can drop off outdated electronics. “Everything electronic coming out of building is responsibly recycled,” said Crockatt. Sometimes, electronics come into the building to be recycled. “People call me and say, ‘When’s the next drive? Because I have this thing at my house…'”

U.S. Equities worked out a deal with office supply retailer Staples so that their tenants can receive a discount on green supplies. All cleaning products used in the building are Green Seal certified and pest control products are low-toxicity. They also convinced the AMA to switch to corn-based utensils in the cafeteria.

There once was a verdant plaza to the building’s south, filled with shade trees and a rolling lawn. Being virtually the only open space in the neighborhood, the small park was a fixture among employees and residents in River North. That land was developed in 2010 and is now home to the Hotel Palomar.

When a new development is trying to obtain LEED certification, there is a requirement for some sort of open space or, in lieu of that, an open space impact fee. For existing buildings, one of the few options is to support a land trust. So, 515 North State Street partnered with the Chicago Parks District and NeighborSpace to adopt land at Northerly Island.

Proceeds from the one-year contract go toward maintaining the native plants there. Recognizing not only that their tenants missed the park but an opportunity to educate them on ecology, U.S. Equities rented a trolley and shuttled tenants to “their” parcel of Northerly Island. Employees enjoyed a picnic lunch and could tour the restored areas of the park.

The building may have a hole carved out and it no longer has its small park. But due to the measures on sustainability and comfort taken at 515 North State, tenants find themselves in want of very little.

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