Sculpting a Green Office

By Matt Baker

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action.” So begins a quote often attributed to Michelangelo. “I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it.”

The eight-story building at 20 North Michigan Avenue was such a sculpture—a green, innovative office building trapped in an aging warehouse. It just took a little foresight and years of carving to release it.

20NMich_5The structure is one of the oldest in the Michigan Avenue streetwall, a twelve-block historic district that overlooks Grant and Millennium Parks. It was built in 1882 as a warehouse, taking advantage of the nearby railroad tracks. Aaron Montgomery Ward subsequently purchased it and ran his mail order company from there. When Ward outgrew the location, he sold the property to another big name in Chicago industry, John M. Smythe, who turned the building into a furniture showroom, a purpose it fulfilled for decades.

A private partnership lead by Robert Wislow, co-founder of U.S. Equities, purchased the building from John M. Smythe III in 1983. “At the time, nobody could really figure out what to do with the building,” Wislow said. Party walls with taller structures on both sides, large floorplates and the building’s age and prior uses created a unique set of challenges for redeveloping the property.

To make the building viable for office use, a little sculpting was necessary. U.S. Equities worked with Nagle Hartray Architects to carve out the core of 20 North Michigan, breaking up the large floorplates and bringing natural light into the middle of the building. The new lightwell was topped by a skylight and skinned with glass on each floor to control temperatures while giving office workers views of the trees growing from the interior lobby.

That was the most dramatic change to the building, but not the last. “We began from that point on to modernize the building, with the goal to make it a really sustainable building in the end,” said Wislow, who is now Chairman of CBRE after a merger with U.S. Equities last July. The firm is headquartered in 20 North Michigan and they wanted their space to be as green as possible.

That commitment is evident by a LEED Gold certification in 2009, and a recertification last November at Platinum. That makes 20 North Michigan the oldest building in the Midwest to hit Platinum and one of the oldest in the country. “It’s stunning that a building built in 1882 was able to achieve Platinum status,” said Jennifer Siragusa, General Manager at CBRE. “That says a lot to the integrity of the building, the owners and to the tenants as well.”

20NMich_3The carpet in Wislow’s office is a deep hunter green. It’s lush, in great condition and, according to him, over 36 years old. He had it installed in U.S. Equities first office at Michigan and Chestnut. When the company moved to 20 North Michigan, the carpet and custom-built cabinetry came with. According to Wislow, the high-end wool carpet was worth the added cost, as it has outlived their previous space.

This approach, using what they already had, continued once the restoration of the new space began. Bathroom tile was aged, but otherwise in good shape. So they sandblasted it clean and rolled on an epoxy over the tile and grout. “We went for the low hanging fruit at the beginning,” said Siragusa.

An early light fixture retrofit was funded in part by ComEd incentives. Management was able to get all but one tenant to replace the ballasts in their spaces as well. “The big thing in an office building is that the tenant owns that space,” Wislow said. “How do you get a building to do this if the tenant doesn’t want to spend the capital money?” The promise of paybacks within two and a half years was incentive for most; the management also extended some leases as further encouragement.

“The nice thing from the owner’s standpoint is, if a tenant does leave, now their space is all retrofitted and it’s got the right fixtures and it’s got the right bulbs in place,” Wislow said. “It’s just added to the value of building.”

Siragusa agrees, adding that such improvements are a great marketing tool. “New tenants coming in today want that, they want to have environmentally sound amenities,” she said.

20NMich_2Early improvements also included washroom renovations. During a pilot program with Sloan, the manufacturer installed new low-flow, high-efficiency urinals on one floor at no cost. As they were a success with both tenants and management, the fixtures were rolled out building-wide, along with water-efficient sinks and dual-flush toilets.

After an energy audit, a number of opportunities came to light to better improve operations at 20 North Michigan. Existing mechanical equipment was adjusted and commissioned and the management created more sustainable service agreements. By 2013, it was time to start replacing the HVAC equipment with higher-efficiency options.

Two new chillers with a combined capacity of 550 tons were the first major replacement to the mechanical system. The chillers employ a levitating magnetic shaft to reduce friction and make the equipment run more efficiently. The system is oil-free and bearingless; this is important because oil will always find a way to cover heat transfer surfaces in the equipment, reducing effectiveness by up to 20%.

Evaporative condensers, like the ones atop 20 North Michigan, spritz the refrigerant coils with water; a fan blowing through this mist aids evaporation and thus, cooling. These devices are more energy efficient than typical cooling towers, but there is a downside. The direct contact between the water and equipment leads to higher mineral deposits in the water, which can reduce efficiency.

Enter the green machine. Manufactured by H-O-H Water Technology, this filtration system operates between the rooftop condensers and the chillers. The system treats the water through electrolysis, stripping minerals and solids from the water, which are flushed out periodically. As a result, the closed system uses less water and no chemicals.

Two new boilers operate at 96% efficiency and have a 5:1 turndown ratio, giving the facilities team better control over the building’s temperature. “We can go 20% of the full Btu input without turning them on and off,” said Jim Ruzich, Chief Engineer with CBRE. “They can just cruise at a real low rate.”

20NMich_6The high condensing boilers have the same thermal capacity as the atmospheric fired ones they replaced, but at a quarter the size. “It gets to a point where you can’t get any more efficient,” Ruzich said. “It’s like a lit match in there.”

Since the new systems have been installed, the building has enjoyed energy savings of 40%. Aiding those savings are demand control ventilation, variable frequency drives, occupancy sensors and a switch to direct digital control, including in tenant spaces.

It’s difficult to conceive of now, but the Michigan Avenue streetwall wasn’t the picturesque eastern face of downtown that it is now. Not only did 20 North Michigan need repairs, but so did the surrounding area. “When we first moved into this building, Grant Park was a barren, dusty, horrible place,” Wislow said.

Not content to let the park’s dilapidation bring down the rest of the neighborhood, Wislow put pressure on the alderman to help repair it. He eventually organized a crew of U.S. Equities employees and landscape firms that the company used on its properties to pitch in, planting flowers and pulling weeds in Chicago’s lakeside gem. There were no water hook-ups available, so they stretched hoses across Michigan Avenue to water the plantings. “When the city saw what we were doing, they got excited. The neighbors got excited,” Wislow said.

And it worked. The building’s first tenants were, according to Wislow, “sketchy.” Now the first floor retail is occupied by high-end restaurants and cafes. It’s a completely changed environment. “That all adds to sustainability,” Wislow said. “if you combine these things together to get rents higher and reduce tenant turnover, if you can get long term tenants and make people happy, you have more cash-flow to invest back in the building.”

Images: Wayne Cable

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