Exhibiting Sustainability, Subtly and Overtly: Legat Architects’ New Gurnee Studio

By Matt Baker

Opening a new design studio requires catering to the needs of the employees while also being attractive to clientele. For Legat Architects, their new Gurnee office was also an opportunity to express the firm’s core values of design, performance and sustainability.

Joe Legat founded the eponymous architecture firm in 1964. Waukegan served as the company’s hub until the opening of a downtown Chicago office. But the Waukegan studio remained, along with others throughout the region, as Legat has employed a multi-studio strategy to better serve clients.

A decision to combine two nearby studios—Crystal Lake and Waukegan—put the firm on the search for a new space in the northern suburbs. The Waukegan studio operated in various spaces over the years, the last of which was a former church. While working within those cloistered walls had its charm, it was clear that any new space would have to be more open.

That search ended in a Gurnee business park. Though constructed in 1999, the 10,000 square feet that Legat decided to lease had never been built out. “When we took it over, there was nothing in it. Literally. Just the slab which was poured,” said Casey Frankiewicz, Principal at Legat. “The stickers were still on the windows. It had no service, no power. Not even any lighting.”

The space was built to the standards of a typical turn-of-the-millennium commercial design—very economically and without the markers of sustainability that are more common today. “Trying to turn that into a LEED-CI project on a modest budget becomes an interesting task,” said Vuk Vujovic, Director of Sustainability & Energy at Legat. “But we had so much experience doing that before that this was an easy role to perform.”

Green certification guidelines like LEED stress the importance of views, which is usually understood to mean views out. But internal views can have an impact too. The Gurnee office has an open floorplan, with all the designers in a bullpen. They have views of the elongated office space, of each other and outside.

The lighting is all LED, but they are offset all through the space by the abundant daylighting—from both the extensive windows and multiple skylights. “People in adjoining spaces within this building come in and find it hard to believe that we are in the same building,” said Frankiewicz. “We have in essence the same parameters, roof and windows, and yet our space is so different, so drastically shifted in terms of quality, lighting and the feel of the space.”

The idea is to create a more collaborative environment and one that better suits the mentoring style of architecture. “We are trained academically in a setting like this,” Frankiewicz said. “When a senior project manager is having a conversation with a consultant, client or contractor, that’s a learning opportunity.”

Despite the openness, there are proper separations. The back-of-the-house operations like accounting and human resources are sequestered in one space; nearby is a large meeting room, foyer and break room. A smaller, more open meeting space serves as a transitional area between the full open studio and the closed spaces.

At the end is the “back yard,” a nod to the studio’s suburban setting. A ping pong table currently anchors the space, but it has flexibility. Employees from other studios can come in for learning sessions and the multi-purpose space is designed to allow for growth opportunity as the firm adds employees.

The break room now has recycling zones, something the previous offices lacked, and low flow fixtures reduce water usage. All of the wood in the office in FSC-certified, including the birch workspaces, which are simply solid core doors cut to length and given legs. A lot of furniture was salvaged from the old studios as well. The filing cabinets were electrostatically painted, both to refresh their look and for homogeneity. “There was such a mish-mosh from one office to the other, but we were able to fit it in and make it seem cohesive,” said Michael Maloney, Design Director with Legat.

Completing a sustainable buildout in such an old space should have been more difficult, but fortune found Legat Architects. “We actually lucked out in terms of exterior wall construction,” Maloney said. “It is an insulated, thermally broken, ribbon window system, which is great because we could have pumped all of our budget into improving the glass efficiency.” The raw state of the untouched space was another attractive feature. Not having an outdated mechanical system to rip out made installing a state of the art, four-zone HVAC system easier.

Designing their own space allowed Legat to try out the latest edition of USGBC’s rating system, LEED v4. “Since we were both the client and the architect, we had an opportunity to learn,” said Maloney. “We can use it for lessons learned on future projects.”

Sustainability within a business park setting may seem oxymoronic. This is a building that is surrounded on four sides by surface parking lots, after all. It’s at the edge of the metro area, closer to downtown Racine than downtown Chicago. But that was intentional. Legat serves clients throughout the region, not just in the Loop. It’s extremely hard to find a location with access to public transportation and to highways. “We serve a pretty diverse group of clients and while our offices are based in different locations, we work on all projects,” Vujovic said. “You can be close to the train to allow the commute to work to be easier, but then how do you get to your clients? Which is more efficient?”

Ultimately, the new Gurnee office is also a showpiece of green building to the firm’s clientele. One orange wall runs the length of the office, a strong visual cue that performs several functions. It separates the workspace from utilitarian areas, acts as a bit of branding as it is painted in the firm’s signature color and it’s a billboard for their core principles: design, performance and sustainability.

So while sustainability is literally written on the walls for clients to see, it is subtly built into the space in a way that visitors can experience. “We [and our clients] are not always 100% on the same page and this is a good way to talk people more into subliminal kinds of sustainability application systems,” Vujovic said. “That argument has changed over time, and some things are better understood. But we need to make the case that what we are proposing in terms of sustainability is not over and beyond what logically makes sense to the client, to their budget and to the project.”

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