The Natural Resources Defense Council’s new Midwest office greets visitors with a wall of garbage, but the design is really about what materials Studio Gang Architects (SGA) left out. It is the first office build out to pass the rigorous Living Building Challenge, which requires deep cuts in energy use and forbids the use of certain materials that negatively impact the environment.
The garbage wall, previously seen on the floor of the SGA-designed 2012 EXPO Chicago, is composed of garbage scooped right out of the Chicago, Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers. Gallerist Rhona Hoffman reprised the installation, which was originally composed by late artist Gordon Matta-Clark, in order to call attention to pollution in the post-industrial Midwest.
Located in the historic Civic Opera Building, 20 North Wacker Drive, the new office takes advantage of the building’s solar orientation, bringing natural light into the north/south space. Originally designed by Chicago firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, which is best known for the Wrigley Building, the 45-story tower is flanked by two 22-story wings. NRDC is in the north wing.
“It was exciting to figure out how to make it into a light-filled, very clean and contemporary space,” said SGA interiors director Margaret Cavenagh. East-facing windows collect daylight, while automated shades and LED lighting temper and supplement natural light.
SGA doesn’t take up many office build outs. This project—the world’s first Living Building Challenge “Petal Certification” in this type of space (the project team focused on the Site, Materials, and Beauty Petals)—is a statement of the environmental nonprofit’s values. The group bills itself as “Earth’s Best Defense.” The general contractor diverted 96 percent of the project construction waste from landfills. Materials were locally sourced when possible, including a reception desk made of reclaimed Douglas fir lumber salvaged from nearby construction projects. The main office area features ceiling made from wood fibers spun from Forest Stewardship Council certified Midwest-sourced wood.
The designers worked directly with manufacturers and WMA Consulting Engineers to find materials that did not contain elements on the Living Building Challenge’s red list, such as formaldehyde, mercury, asbestos, and polyvinyl chloride.
“We kept a palette of materials moving as we tested everything,” said Cavenagh. That proved tough at times. The strict standard forbids the use of red listed items even in minute amounts, such as on the sheathing around electrical wires. Laminates were by and large permitted, but the glues that hold laminate backing together were often forbidden. Everything from drywall to MDF had to be inspected and verified by the manufacturers to make sure it met the standards of the Living Future Institute.
Non-permanent fixtures are exempt from the challenge’s criteria. In NRDC’s offices that included a bevy of cubicles—the organizing structure in an office specifically bereft of private corner offices.
“Even [Midwest Program Director Henry Henderson] has a corner cubicle,” said NRDC’s Josh Mogerman. That lets in more light, he said, and encourages collaboration. For work that requires privacy—NRDC employees make a lot of conference calls—there is a suite of quiet spaces between the cubicle area and the office’s louder areas, like its lunch and copy rooms. An isolated quiet study room is reserved for truly silent work, like reviewing and drafting legal briefs.
In a nod to the regional office’s Midwest purview, those conference rooms make a rough outline of the state of Illinois when viewed in plan. Artists also provided regionally appropriate fare. Lina Bertucci’s photos of ice on Lake Michigan complement SGA’s own installation of hanging plants, which will grow around a lattice of white ropes criss-crossing a wall in the office’s entryway and a column amid the cubicle workspace area. The greenery adds a splash of color to what is predominately a clean, white space with occasional pops of red, turquoise, and purple.
As the first tenant retrofit project to meet the Living Building Challenge, the project team’s work may have cleared the way for other designers looking to do the same. “It’s not just specific to our project,” said Cavenagh. “It has the potential to impact others in the future.”