New life for an old building

May 1, 2011

In October of 2010 the Young Memorial Building—home to the University of Chicago’s Facilities Services, the Smart Museum Offices of the Director and Development and External Relations, and the University of Chicago Police Department Community Services Bureau—was reopened after undergoing an extensive renovation project. The seven-month long project breathed new life into an old building, making it a happier, healthier, and more sustainable place to work.

Sustainable planning and design was a keystone of the building’s renovation and is immediately apparent during a quick walk through its halls. The expanded foyer boasts vibrant colors and custom, sustainable flooring; a giant campus map etched into an environmentally friendly wheat board panel greets visitors in the lobby; the primary conference room doubles as a yoga studio and is surfaced with a sustainably-harvested cork flooring; and office spaces designed to promote inter-office collaboration also work to reduce energy costs associated with air flow and lighting.

According to Alicia Murasaki, Executive Director of Planning and Design in Facilities Services at the University “Everyone decided that this project needed to be sustainable from the outset, there was no debate around this.” Sustainable renovation projects require planning that must consider the environmental impact of materials and the processes employed, a significant but passive aspect of sustainable design. To spur active involvement in reducing the footprint of the building, the Young Building project designed the space to facilitate sustainable action among building occupants.

There was lively discussion around which sustainable features would be the best investments within a limited budget. According to Andy Tinucci of David Woodhouse Architects (the architect for the project), “We knew it wasn’t going to be a picture-perfect sustainable project; money and the projected life span dictated many of our design decisions.” Despite these constraints, the team ensured that the renovation incorporated environmental design wherever possible and for maximum impact.

Planning for Sustainability

Including stakeholders who are passionate about, and have experience in, sustainability can contribute significantly to the success of a project. As Murasaki noted, “We wanted to get past ‘green washing’ in this project and find out which materials truly made a difference. We made sure we understood what the impact of our decisions would be.” In the case of the Young project, this required significant pre-construction preparation. David Woodhouse Architects was awarded the design contract—their design aesthetic, experience in sustainable building design, and enthusiasm about what they could do within a constrained budget were key selling points with the selection committee. The architects proved to be a valuable resource in helping Facilities Services think critically about which design features would be the most economically feasible and environmentally responsible.

While very few sustainable suggestions or ideas were left out of the final project proposal, one major initiative—renovating the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) system in the building—proved to be too costly to incorporate into the final plan. While all parties interviewed for this study wished that there was funding to replace the old HVAC system, such a project is incredibly capital-intensive and would not have accrued a return on investment within the time frame the building is projected to last. As Murasaki noted, “We did an analysis of several HVAC systems. Some we couldn’t afford, others weren’t worth the tradeoff for the amount of money we would lose to incorporate other sustainable attributes in the renovation.” This is the complexity of sustainable building planning —calculating and balancing economic resources and environmental impact.

Environmental products and services are often, though not always, more expensive than their unsustainable counterparts. Some of these investments have a quick payback, such as more efficient lighting (e.g. compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs, have a payback period of around 3-4 months). Yet, in other instances, the payback time may be much longer (e.g. a HVAC system which can be a 10 – 15 year payback) or, in some cases, the costs are never recovered. Some sustainability building attributes are made solely for their environmental impact; though there may not be a true payback, certainly the preservation of natural resources is reason enough. To avoid some of the more prohibitive costs, the Young project reused much of the current building’s infrastructure and fixtures.

Reusing Materials

Alicia Murasaki and Andy Tinucci both emphasized that, in many cases, reusing rather than replacing the building and its fixtures was not only more cost efficient, but was also the more environmentally sustainable option. This required project planners to think creatively about how to best use the existing building or materials found elsewhere on campus. For example, the original marble floors remain, as do many of the original doors and fixtures. Lights and furniture were reclaimed from other buildings on campus, including sixty two-by-four fluorescent light fixtures from a renovation project in another building on campus. Moreover, much of the new furniture was donated or sold at a discount by vendors who were eager to showcase their commitment to sustainability. An office furniture dealer who participated in the project had like-new demonstration furniture sets that were headed to landfill but instead sold to Facilities Services at a very reduced price. The reuse of various building materials and fixtures does result in an array of colors and styles. While there was concern that this could create a mishmash of design and décor, Murasaki noted, “Our first premise was that if it works, we will reuse it. We did make some choices that compromised aesthetics but were more environmentally friendly. Regardless, people still rave about the new building.”

Purchasing for Sustainability

When sourcing new materials, project planners always looked to purchase the most environmentally sustainable and economically viable option. Erin Wieand, Facilities Services Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director, stated, “Some of these products did have marginal markups; however, when considered in context of their environmental benefits, we found them to be a wise investment.” Many of these new, sustainable features are found throughout the building:

  • Low flush toilets and urinals and low flow faucets for water conservation
  • Low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint to improve indoor air quality
  • Recycled rubber tiles for the foyer
  • Carpet with 36 percent pre-consumer recycled content
  • Reclaimed ceiling tiles containing about 15 percent post-consumer and 22 percent pre-consumer materials
  • Energy Star rated products, including refrigerators and air conditioning units
  • Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs and lighting motion sensors to improve energy efficiency

Inspiring Action Through Sustainable Design

Many of the sustainable aspects of the Young building renovation not only reduce its environmental footprint, but also promote complementary individual action. For example, the water fountains have a water bottle-filling feature to inspire the use of reusable containers instead of plastic water bottles. The enthusiasm for this particular feature led Facilities Services to implement a ban on the purchase of plastic water bottles for any department-related activity or event. Similarly, the kitchen on the 3rd floor is stocked with dishes, glasses, water pitchers, and flatware to decrease the amount of paper and plastic disposables used in the building. To support and encourage bike commuters, wall-mounted bike racks and a shower room were installed in the basement, where Facilities Services is reusing lockers left behind by the University of Chicago Police Department (who occupied the building until they moved across the Midway). Additionally, some walls were removed to allow for more natural light, while also creating open spaces that inspire a greater sense of community and a collaborative work environment. The Facilities Services department has also formed a “Green Committee” to organize further green activities and engagement.

To LEED or not to LEED?

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most commonly used standard for sustainable building projects. The University’s Sustainable Building Policy requires that all new campus and medical center buildings over $5 million be LEED certified by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). In addition to building performance requirements in the areas of water efficiency, waste reduction, and indoor environmental quality, LEED also requires that buildings meet certain energy efficiency prerequisites. However, because of the decision not to renovate the entire HVAC system, the Young project was not a candidate for LEED certification. Regardless, the project team used a LEED checklist to track and record sustainable features. As Tinucci noted, “While LEED is a worthy goal, the absence of certification doesn’t mean the building isn’t sustainably designed and constructed.”

Sustainability, Unique to Young

Sustainability is often an amorphous concept, understood best in context of the local culture and community. Tinucci agreed, “We had to keep asking ourselves not only what it means to be sustainable, but what it means to be sustainable here in this building.”

Two of the most prominent sustainability features—and favorites of many occupants—are the giant campus map made out of wheat board and the cork floor in the conference room/yoga studio. Both features represent innovative resource use that is directly tied to the context of the building’s occupants: the map reflecting the work of the Facilities Services department throughout the entire campus and the cork floor providing a pleasing surface for the many employees who practice yoga every Friday.

The importance of reusing or reclaiming existing materials was a common theme among those interviewed for this study. Indeed, new features and fixtures are a relatively small percentage of the overall renovation. But that may be exactly the point of sustainability at Young – the most sustainable way to renovate the old building was to reuse as much as possible and invest in environmentally friendly upgrades only where needed. Tinucci summarized the entire Young Memorial renovation project best, “We gave this building a new life. One tenet of sustainable design is to try to creatively adapt and reuse an existing building before building a new one. And I think we just gave a building expected to last ten years a twenty-year lifespan. And that is truly sustainable.”

Check out our blog Dirt for more photos of the project, courtesy of David Woodhouse Architects.