Bankruptcy is not a cheerful jumping off point for any design project, but in the new offices for a law firm specializing in the subject in Chicago’s West Loop, local architecture firm 4240 has created an uplifting and open environment. “There’s a lot going on in this little building,” said Robert Benson, design director at 4240. “It was important to strike a great work-life, public-private balance.”
Taking its lead from the site’s former occupant, an automotive repair shop, the design of the 10,000-square-foot office combines industrial materials with luxurious, refined finishes. From the outside, an aluminum split-roof lifts skywards and folds down over the south-facing glass wall as a perforated screen. Supported with steel beams, the permeable veil is part of the interplay between shared and private space. From the entry, the only fully transparent area to the outside, clients are led west along the glass-walled, screened corridor into one of four doorways to the conference rooms. Here Benson used bamboo flooring and different shades of yellow in the rooms to create a warm environment, while the perforated aluminum screen allows light to flood in while keeping public scrutiny out.
From here the firm’s clients move through a second door into the central space to the four rows of white-top desks with custom-built fixed leather bench seats. The rows are divided with boxy glass-fronted shelving units. The ceiling’s exposed ducts and pipes, and the bands of polished concrete floor, reflect the overarching industrial aesthetic. Indeed, the law firm’s owner initially wanted to convert the existing repair shop and retain its rooftop car park. When 4240 found it to be structurally unsound, Benson designed the new offices from the ground-up on the site, incorporating the car culture throughout the design, including a private three-car garage at the north corner.
The programming itself falls into this concept. “We realized there were parallels between the repair shop and the way the law firm works to solve problems,” said Benson. Even in the surrounding grounds, landscaping divides lanes of planting in red and yellow blooms, while internally the desks align with the conference rooms. Angled steel square tube supports—painted with metallic car finish—catch the lower roof and the taller split section roof along the south of the work area, connecting to steel roof beams and setting the spatial tone for the “lanes.” “While the material defines the spaces, the columns set a rhythm,” said Benson.
From the central work area the two raised private offices and the internal courtyard are visible to the north through glass walls. Though accessible to all staff, the courtyard acts as a transition space between the more public work area and the individual offices. The owner enters his office suite, which has a gym and bathroom, through the garage.
To the east, the Ernestomeda kitchen offers an oasis with a stone surface island and huge cooking area, which also allows for informal meetings. Though originally designed to have a scrim fabric over the glass walls, the client wanted to keep the view to the Willis Tower and downtown open. The kitchen is screened from the work area, however, and set beyond the white glass private office wall.
“Light has been one of the main principles of the design,” said Benson. Though the work area is located to maximize privacy and incubate the firm’s hard-working ethos, it is flooded with light from the split-roof’s south-facing strip skylight and glazed roof section over the courtyard. The architects also put a circular pattern in the glass to mimic the perforated screen and draw in a softer light. “It is tight and cool and reserved during the day,” said Benson, “and at night it’s warm, and from the street, it’s lantern-like.”