Lessons in Building Out Modern Offices in Historic Buildings

Skender’s Brian Bukowski explores the nuances of building out and managing a project in a historic building like The Merchandise Mart & Chicago’s Old Post Office.

Vital Proteins Offices

While many office professionals will remain remote into 2021, eventually companies will bring employees back to their workplaces for collaboration, to boost company culture, and to regain a separation between work and home. In the meantime, work continues in many office build-outs, including those in historic buildings that present the unique opportunity to blend history and modernity.

Inside Chicago’s historic buildings like the Merchandise Mart, the redeveloped Old Post Office, and other iconic spaces that have survived decades, tenant representatives, architects, interior designers and general contractors have the unique opportunity to create the next era of office space. These new office spaces honor the buildings’ historic integrity while delivering design, technology and amenities that will propel work into the future. But doing so is not without its challenges, even pre-pandemic.

As one of the early contractors to work inside the Old Post Office with two completed projects and three in progress, as well as a track record of additional projects in the Merchandise Mart and historic Fulton Market buildings, the Skender interior construction team has learned the unique nuances of building out offices in historic buildings.

Mondelez International Offices – Chicago

Lesson 1: Merging old with new begins with care and planning.

The Old Post Office, one of Chicago’s most talked-about redevelopments of the past few years, actually comprises three buildings and 2.5 million square feet: the original six-story building and two nine-story buildings from the 1930s. The north and south additions have floor-to-floor heights as high as 19 feet, and they are connected to the original east building with corridors that have 16-foot ceilings. In addition to the varying ceiling heights, each of the buildings has unique requirements to maintain the historic designation. Some tenants are only in one of the structures, while others span all three.

All of these factors add up to challenges that are critical to understand and plan for from the outset, ideally using building information modeling (BIM). Once the client and project team are in alignment, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and National Park Service (NPS) review all drawings for tenants building in the space, as well as all the finishes selected, to ensure they comply with restoration guidelines.

Beam Suntory Offices Lobby

In the last few months due to COVID-induced supply chain challenges, we worked with our design team early to get a list of finishes to check on availability before they’re submitted to the SHPO and NPS for approval, eliminating the need for multiple revisions.

In addition to the historic preservation requirements for the Old Post Office, many of the buildings in the Fulton Market neighborhood have requirements to preserve the exterior elevation and façade, dictated by various jurisdictions, which impacts the interior build-out. Particularly, it can limit flexibility in changing window locations in older buildings in the district, since the exterior can’t be altered due to permitting requirements.

And in the Merchandise Mart, which was the largest building in the world when it was completed in 1930, older structures made of concrete, brick and other materials can actually become interesting design features. There’s a fine line to walk between fixing these storied structures for functionality and not disrupting the original integrity of the space – all while maintaining the blended design aesthetics too.

Braintree Offices Hallway

Lesson 2: Understand the constraints of historic preservation – and the impact on your timeline.

The art deco elements that proffer the Old Post Office’s historic status can be difficult and expensive to source. Before beginning work, the team needs to observe the structure’s marble base, wood and wire molding, and wainscoting to see what needs to be repaired, and then source it to match. For example, there’s only one vendor in the U.S. that is able to replicate the mosaic tile that runs through the corridor and is required to be included in the design by the SHPO and NPS. To avoid costly delays and reorders, conducting a floor survey early is helpful to ensure the right quantity of tile is ordered and plan for its production in the project timeline.

In the Merchandise Mart, the original terrazzo floors around the perimeters of the elevator core require careful preservation, which takes extra consideration and preparation before and during a build-out.

Placing updated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems in a historic building can present issues as well. For example, the north building of the Old Post Office has a polished, non-industrial design, which means exposed data cabling for tech systems must either run in conduit or cable tray that is painted and finished to blend with the building’s elegant, pristine look.

At the Merchandise Mart, there is old metal form decking that was used to pour in place the original concrete structure, and much of it remains intact despite not serving a structural purpose. Some tenants have opted to preserve the look of the metal deck, and others chose to remove the formwork to expose the concrete. Either is a plausible design choice, but the intent must be known and discussed ahead of time so it’s not a surprise cost – and timeline disruptor – down the line.

AbelsonTaylor Offices Lobby

Lesson 3: Responsiveness may be our greatest design tool.

The pandemic has taught us that the ability to be responsive to challenges is necessary. What works for your company in this moment may need to be changed. When it does, being able to turn to a firm that understands not only the unusual requirements and needs of the space, but also your company culture and the demands of your work is essential.

While office spaces that are currently under construction may be more focused on separating coworkers and decreasing density, once a widespread treatment or vaccine is available for COVID-19, companies may want to reorganize to encourage collaboration or allow colleagues to gather again.

Pandemics are not the only event that require a company’s space needs to evolve: resizing the workforce, undergoing a major rebrand, merging with or acquiring another firm, adding new technology, or simply realizing that the realities of workflow mean different departments or colleagues need to be closer together can all require reconfiguring an office.

For example, when Beam Suntory, a leader in premium spirits, took over the space we originally built out for Motorola Mobility via sublease, we worked with Beam Suntory to evolve the space and adapt and respond to their needs. That included a full-service bar area to demo their products with vendors. Our knowledge of the existing space, as well as the plumbing constraints of the Merchandise Mart, allowed us to efficiently build out the new bar in a location that made sense for the atypically large floorplate of the Merchandise Mart.

AbelsonTaylor Offices Hallway

Lesson 4: Experience counts.

Most project leads choose to work with general contractors that have an established reputation and plenty of successful projects in their portfolio. For historic redevelopments with as many specific considerations as the Old Post Office or the Merchandise Mart, or conversions of historic buildings in distinctive neighborhoods like Fulton Market, it can be beneficial to work with a contractor that has experience in the space or neighborhood and can carry information about maintaining preservation and addressing design challenges from one job to the next.

Our work on a current Old Post Office project is informed by issues we worked through in a past projects. We know that the clay tile that is part of the deck construction requires special anchoring. We understand how to work with the high ceilings to maximize natural light by building walls that don’t reach all the way to the deck. We’ve sourced the correct metal caps for the exposed columns in two of the buildings. These examples are just some pieces of the knowledge we bring to each project.

Beam Suntory Offices Cafe/Bar

Working with a tenant as they expand their office also provides the opportunity to continue building on our knowledge of the space. Throughout our partnership with Braintree, another tenant in the Merchandise Mart, the firm has grown and expanded twice. We carried over our experience with the space from the original build-out to the second and third phases, incorporating all the lessons we learned the first time to save time and money during expansion construction.

Being part of large-scale redevelopments in landmark buildings and the revival of a historic neighborhood offers unique opportunities to learn on the job. The project team can honor the surviving historical features, while ensuring that what’s built around them is high-quality and balances longevity and flexibility. Building today may be uniquely complicated because of the pandemic, but adaptive reuse presents added complexity that can be lessened through experience.

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