Blue Sky Thinking

Though it may serve as a blueprint for the future, SOM’s visionary master plan for greening the Inland Steel Building ran into two insurmountable obstacles: a tough economy and strict historic-preservation restrictions.

What makes a landmark? Is it the stuff it’s made of? Or the goals of the architects who made it? In the case of the Inland Steel Building—a stainless-steel Chicago land-mark from 1958, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—these questions have become both practical and philosophical. In the lead-up to the building’s current renovation, architects, preservationists, and city and state officials all debated the future of the icon and whether continuity with the past meant keeping its material structure or innovating anew. The owner hired architects at SOM to create a master plan for retrofitting the building. They matched its original innovations in today’s terms—sustainability, flexibility, ease of use—and demonstrated the outer limits for LEED in a 52-year-old shell. Inland Steel has become a case study in what you can do to green a midcentury building, as well as what you can’t, economically and legally. As retrofits become more appealing—cheaper, greener—we may need to revisit the rules for bringing old buildings back to life.

“A serious approach to sustainability is unquestionably going be an inherent part of every building in the future,” says Stephen Apking, the SOM Interiors partner who led the team working on the Inland Steel master plan. “We’re going to see many more retrofits of existing buildings, landmarked and not, and the plan we created will be a benchmark.” What they learned was that you can create a LEED-certified landmark with all the contemporary amenities and mid-century style—but to make it happen you need new agreements on sustainability from landmarks commissions, as well as clients with the will and means to create a boutique property. “Landmark office buildings—you can’t say that they simply aren’t going to work,” he says. “You have to find a way to insert new technology that makes them viable.”

The real estate investment company Capital Properties purchased Inland Steel in 2007 for $57.25 million. Richard Cohen, Capital’s principal, was encouraged to buy it by his friend Frank Gehry, who had already invested in the building in 2005 and was frustrated with the lack of progress on renovation. “We wanted to set the goal high for innovation,” Apking says. “We had an encouraging client in Richard Cohen—anything we brought to him, he wanted more.” After deciding to go for LEED Platinum certification, Apking and SOM associate Claes Appelquist researched the building’s original design and found themselves updating many of the features that made Inland Steel so innovative in 1958.

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Walter Netsch—the legendary SOM Chicago partner who designed an early version of Inland Steel, before being pulled off the project to work on the U.S. Air Force Academy—intended for Inland Steel to have a double-glass skin, and to use the space between as ducting for the HVAC system—an advanced idea even now. (It is being used in such sustainable skyscrapers as Cook + Fox’s One Bryant Park.) When Bruce Graham took over the project, the double-layer curtain wall was eliminated, replaced by distinctive green-tinted glass. The SOM master plan returned to Netsch’s original double-glass idea, suggesting the insertion of a second glass wall behind the outer window wall. Between the two panes would be programmable mechanical blinds, set to react automatically to changing light levels, but with tenant overrides.

Other features of the original building sound like they could have been specified yesterday. Graham moved the support piers to the perimeter—where they form striking stainless-steel ribs on the exterior of the building along South Dearborn Street—to create 58-by-178-foot open floors. He integrated electricity and telephone lines into the floor as part of a modular system called “Inland Cellufloor,” which shares much in common with today’s energy-efficient floor delivery systems. This system saved a foot of headroom per floor, allowing the building to fit 19 floors into what would otherwise have been an 18-story envelope.

“To us,” Apking says, “it was essential that all of the systems be integrated,” as they had been in the 1958 design. That meant keeping the streamlined profile and minimal section of the original ceiling and floor. One of the strengths of the new master plan is the slimness of the insertions, which suggests that any 1960s tower can be reworked from the inside out. The plan includes chilled beams—a series of refrigerated boxes installed at intervals in the ceiling—that can be integrated with the lighting system. Chilled beams allow for localized temperature control, since they are spaced throughout the floor, and also obviate the need for a large HVAC plant. They have been used in a number of European projects but rarely in the United States.

“We decided we had to protect our clients from tenants who might not be environmentally friendly,” Appelquist says. SOM designed a new movable wall and cubicle system, with veneer, fabric, or glass panels less than two inches thick, along with modular furniture in FSC-certified woods and three color palettes. “This is a designed product, and as a tenant you will buy into that product,” Apking says. “The ceiling is designed as a kit of parts. You can reuse the walls and the furniture systems. It is a test in terms of the marketplace: Will tenants be willing to set their egos aside?” SOM has been discussing manufacturing the system with Unifor, and it might go ahead with the product line without Inland Steel, marking a renewed engagement for the company in the world of manufacturing.

After the economy soured in 2008, Capital began to scale back its goals for Inland Steel. “You can call it a master plan or call it a menu of things that were possible in the building,” Cohen says. “It was not only for us to determine what was feasible or not feasible economically. One of the big issues in landmarks is combining technology with the desire to preserve the uniqueness and originality of the building.”

The idea of replacing the historic curtain wall with a new, double-glass, energy-efficient one had already been rejected by the Chicago landmarks commission, which was insistent that the outward look of the building not be altered. “We came up with a double-wall system that would in every way keep the appearance the same from the outside”—including five different samples of low-emissivity (or low-e) glass—“but they were not convinced,” Apking says. In addition, because Cohen submitted Inland Steel to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and then applied for a federal historic-preservation tax credit, all renovations had to pass the Register’s strict code. “They require that you maintain as much of the character-defining features as possible,” says Allen Johnson, a consultant on Inland Steel and the director of the Chicago office of MacRostie Historic Advisors.

The owner was also reluctant to embark on the kind of full-scale interior renovation that would have emptied the building, preferring instead to improve its efficiency and amenities while getting new tenants into the vacant floors. (The building is currently only 50 percent leased.) New bathrooms and elevator cabs were necessary to make the building handicapped-accessible, and energy-efficient HVAC systems were needed for the empty floors. In April, the City Council approved a $5 million Class L tax incentive for Inland Steel, a property-tax break that can be applied after a building is rehabilitated. Capital has decided to go ahead with two exterior green features, a green roof on the annex (a two-story building that originally housed the loading dock and mechanical plant) and a pocket park tucked between the annex and the office tower. The Richard Lippold sculpture in the lobby, Radiant I, will be refurbished, and the ceiling’s acrylic panels cleaned and realigned.

The ceiling on the mezzanine, one level above the lobby, will also be restored. “When originally designed, the mezzanine lighting was a continuous pattern of square light fixtures, with an exterior overhang on the north and south ends of the building,” says Emily Ramsey, an associate at MacRostie. “The effect was supposed to be of the office portion of the building floating above that recessed space.” At some point, the interior mezzanine lighting was removed and replaced with an acoustic dropped ceiling. The plan is now to replace that ceiling with reproductions of the original lights, based on those still extant on the overhang.

On the upper floors, some of the original white, perforated-steel ceil-ing panels still exist, and since the pattern of lights is visible from the street, they also count as character-defining features. Whether or not Capital can replace some or all of these ceilings, and in what manner, is currently under discussion. A number of original E.F. Hauserman panels, from an early demountable system, are also still in the building, and Capital may refurbish them and put them back in use. The Park Service, which administers National Register properties, “is interested in maintaining as much of the original interior as possible,” Johnson says. “One floor has the original furniture—a real Mad Men set design—along with the frosted-glass Hauserman panels.”

A combination of relatively small moves—better indoor-outdoor seals, energy-efficient lighting, and variable-air-volume systems (which allow for localized temperature control)—should increase the building’s efficiency, but it remains to be seen whether Capital will even get LEED certification for the existing building, let alone Platinum. Apking is understandably disappointed that more of the plan is not being implemented, but he believes that the master plan can serve as a blueprint in its particulars and as a topic for debate. He thinks Inland has fallen victim to a gap in the education of building owners and preservationists. “The focus on sustainability has fallen mostly to new construction,” he says. “But there is nothing more sustainable than using existing buildings.” Given the current economy, we will only be seeing more owners with 1960s and ’70s structures too expensive to tear down but unappealing in their current state. “It’s akin to the discussion over the last twenty-five years on accessibility,” Apking adds. “There was an emerging common understanding that landmark and historic buildings must be accessible, and everyone came together and developed a series of methods.”

That hasn’t happened yet around sustainability. This master plan suggests a method for making an old building as efficient as any new one, without altering its appearance. Inland’s new double-layer facade would have fit within the window frame of the old one, fulfilling Netsch’s original idea. The new ceiling would have replicated the striped light-ing pattern on the office floors, but it trumped the old SOM at integrating systems into a single sandwiched surface. “There has to be new technology that allows us to do that, or at least an understanding that there are technologies that can be layered into historic buildings later,” Apking insists.

SOM wanted to create new potential for Inland Steel (and new value for its owner) by making a landmark as innovative now as when it was new. The preservationists feel they must keep all the material that, incredibly, still remains, 52 years after its construction. So Inland Steel remains an icon of the past, when we have the ability, technology, and design skills to make it Platinum in the present. “Working through this process, we learned you can create a holistic approach for retrofits that is accessible and tangible,” Apking says. “It should be possible to create that product.”

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