CRE N Illinois

How to boost economic and environmental sustainability through technology

The Burnham Lakefront. The Burnham Lakefront.
The Burnham Lakefront. The Burnham Lakefront.
The Burnham Lakefront. The Burnham Lakefront.
The Burnham Lakefront. The Burnham Lakefront.
The Burnham Lakefront. The Burnham Lakefront.

Once known for its vast stockyards and rail linkages, Chicago eventually grew more cosmopolitan and became an important corporate hub, as well as an exporter of great architecture. So how do we stay top-of-mind on the world stage in the 21st Century? One word: technology.

Last week, WiredScore, Corporate Concepts and DIRTT co-hosted an event, “Chicago—A Global Tech City.” The intimate discussion centered on the policies and practices that will not only maintain the recent trend of corporate relocations, but broaden it.

Christine Torres, head of Chicago at WiredScore, opened up the discussion. WiredScore, a rating system for technological capacity in commercial buildings that expanded to Chicago last June, now certifies over 450 million square feet around the world, 32 million square feet of which is in Chicago.

Torres spoke with Elle Ramel, director of development at Farpoint about the best strategies for planning with technology in mind. With the lead time for some developments stretching out past five years and tenancies committing to 15-year leases, it can be hard to future-proof a project, especially with how quickly technology cycles are changing.

Ramel and others at Farpoint are in the early stages of developing a rarity: a massive tract of empty land that is both close to downtown and on the lakefront. Now dubbed the Burnham Lakefront, the site includes portions of land running from the Stevenson Expressway to 31st Street, including the former Michael Reese Hospital grounds.

“We are not building infrastructure yet, so we have the lead time where can ask, ‘what can we do that’s a little more future-facing?’” Ramel said. “We are going to do this in four phases. We can do phase one thinking 20 years of now, but phase two might be 20 years ahead of five years from now.”

The plans call for a mixed-use district including new infrastructure, public spaces, office, housing, retail, cultural, educational and civic uses. Landscaped bridges would connect pedestrians to the lakefront while an improved 27th Street station and proposed 31st Street station will bolster transit access.

But unlike other megaprojects planned for different sites around Chicago, the Burnham Lakefront puts an emphasis on technology. One proposal would run the site’s fiber infrastructure through existing ComEd tunnels, which Ramel said hasn’t been done before in Chicago. This move would accommodate existing and proposed data centers.

Being forward-thinking on technology goes in tandem with a progressive sustainable approach and the Burnham Lakefront is no different. The developer’s hope to tap into the smart-grid potential of the site, using untapped renewable energy such as lake water cooling, wind, solar, geothermal, cogeneration and/or anaerobic digestion.

Before joining Farpoint, Ramel worked for then-Deputy Mayor Steve Koch in the Emanuel administration on economic development and corporate relocation strategies. In her mind, the future success of the Burnham Lakefront—and Chicago as a whole—may depend on attracting a variety of tech-focused firms to the city.

“An interesting thing about Chicago is that there’s not one industry that [accounts for] more than nine percent of our economy,” Ramel said. “That’s very nice when one industry is faltering, but tough for branding.”

While every city wants to be the next tech hub, and Chicago is no different, Farpoint is using that existing diversity in Chicago’s economy as a template. A clean slate like the Burnham Lakefront, developed with a particular intention, could become an agnostic space where biopharma, e-commerce, information and a host of other firms in wide-ranging industries can locate their digital innovation divisions. A coalesced neighborhood would be attractive to these firms as, not only could they better cooperate, but it would improve access to venture capital firms if they are all centrally located.

Also joining the conversation were Jay Longo, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, a principal with Solomon Cordwell Buenz and Katrin Klingenberg, executive director & co-founder of Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). The two collaborated on 310 N. Sangamon Street, a development by Mark Goodman & Associates, Inc. that will see a 12-story commercial tower—including 268,000 square feet of office and 7,800 square feet of retail space—constructed in the West Loop to Passive House certification

When completed, 310 N. Sangamon will be the largest office building in the U.S. to achieve Passive House certification. Rarely applied outside of residential construction, the standard makes use of fortified insulation, high-efficiency windows, airtight envelopes and other techniques to make a structure so intrinsically energy efficient that there is little to no need for mechanical heating or cooling.

As part of the Passive House standard and best‐practice ventilation design, 310 N. Sangamon will provide filtered, tempered, 100 percent outdoor air through a dedicated ventilation system. The interior spaces will also feature a sleek, modern design and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes and furniture that minimize the off‐gassing of typical finishes that can lower air quality and may lead to short- and long-term adverse health effects.

The building will use two main envelope systems as controlling the number and size of windows is paramount for controlling solar heat gain. For a portion of the building, the windows are pushed back from the façade for a natural shade, with additional exterior sun shades on the south elevation. Elsewhere, a curtain wall will be possible as there are a number of products on the market now that increase the U-value of building envelopes.

Chicago has held a number of monikers over the years, but it’s current one should probably be “City of Boosters.” Chicagoans love their city and they yearn to share it with the world. A focus on technology will make that job easier, bringing more people and more businesses to our shores.