The initial phases of a landmark restoration and sustainability upgrade are currently underway at the Inland Steel Building, the 1958 skyscraper that was the first major project to be built in downtown Chicago after the end of the Great Depression. The structure’s column-free, modular interiors served by an adjacent tower of circulation and mechanicals is a shining example of form-follows-function modernism, and helped to usher in a new era of office culture.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the building’s original design firm, is in charge of taking this seminal work into the 21st century. In 2007, a development team that included Frank Gehry and New York real estate player Richard Cohen of Capital Properties purchased the 19-story, 232,450-square-foot property for approximately $57 million, and set out to transform the aging structure into Class A space.
“Frank has always admired this building and thought it necessary that its restoration be seen under the authorship of SOM,” said Stephen Apking, the firm’s partner-in-charge on the project. “We were all enamored with the role that Inland Steel played in its time in terms of new ideas, and felt that this spirit of innovation should be carried ahead.”
Starting in 2008, SOM drew up a masterplan for the project that included recommendations for everything from bringing the lobby back to its original character to sustainability upgrades that would earn the building a LEED Platinum rating. While it had been a Chicago Landmark since the late 1990s, the team also got Inland Steel on the National Register of Historic Places, garnering federal money for the restoration.
The plan from the start was to bank on the building’s cultural cachet and aesthetic appeal to attract tenants. In an extreme version of the Seagram Building’s enforced ceiling condition at the perimeter, SOM developed a modular office system of movable floors, ceilings, and walls that can be adjusted to fit the needs of shifting populations.
The idea, which the firm calls “office hotel,” is that companies who take up residence here will not be looking to conduct their own interior fit-out, but will be happy to adopt the branding built into the architecture. The strategy also has a sustainability component, as every time someone new moves, there will be no waste created by interior demolition. The modular systems in place will simply be reconfigured for a new set of needs.
Other sustainability upgrades in SOM’s master plan include a green roof, a chilled beam-cooling system, and a general overhaul of the mechanicals. One idea that did not make the cut, however, was a proposal to create a climate wall by installing a second layer of glass on the inside of the curtain wall, with motorized shades in the created airspace. A double layer of glass was studied in SOM’s original design for Inland Steel, but was thrown out when the design team changed. The most recent attempt did not make the grade due to preservation concerns—it threatened to alter the exterior aspect of the building too much.
“We’re all demanding more of our buildings in terms of sustainability, so we need to find more thoughtful ways of doing that in landmark buildings,” said Apking. “It’s quite a good puzzle.”