While Summit Design + Build has only been building, creating and renovating spaces in Chicago since 2005, historic projects are somewhat of a specialty, as project engineer Matt Spicer quickly learned in his first project with Summit, tackling the gut renovation of a pre-Chicago Fire manufacturing building in the city’s booming West Loop.  And although the challenges for this type of project may be greater or more unique, the lessons learned and end product are worth the process.

The Challenges and Rewards of Transforming a Piece of Chicago History

By Matt Spicer

The 156 N. Jefferson project is a complete gut renovation of the former Crane Company Manufacturing building, originally built in 1865, and Summit has been tasked with the challenge and opportunity to manage the renovation of the 153-year-old building. Construction in a historic building has unique challenges; however, if identified early and managed properly, the features of the building create an opportunity for irreproducible design.

A building of this age does not conform to typical, modern-day construction. Assumptions made early on of 156 N. Jefferson’s initial construction were quickly contradicted. Original design documents and site survey indicated that the building had a substrate of concrete on top of plywood flooring. During early demolition and abatement, it was discovered that, in actuality, the flooring was comprised of more than four layers of plywood and a still unknown “red clayish” material.

This discovery created adhesion and structural issues and required a redesign of the building’s proposed flooring system. Summit worked with the designers and flooring installers to determine a system that would adhere to the substrate and was within the weight capacity of the existing structure all while maintaining the design aesthetic (polished concrete).

Coordinating mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems in overhead space can also be a problem in older buildings. MEP systems as they exist today were not standard in building construction in 1865. Today, buildings are designed with larger overheads or interstitial spaces to allow for MEP routing and equipment storage. At 156 N. Jefferson, we have to work around the existing structure and open-to-view spaces to route MEP piping, ductwork and wiring.

Summit worked closely with subcontractors and the design team to identify key architectural areas where limited amounts of MEP systems could be visible. After adjusting accordingly, we identified the most problematic areas and worked through a clash analyses to determine the best way to route the systems. Although MEP coordination is always an issue in projects, 156 N. Jefferson did not have dedicated MEP space requiring significantly more creative and aesthetic considerations.

Although 156 N. Jefferson has presented these unique challenges, the reward of the design opportunity makes the process worth it. When complete, 156 N. Jefferson will have 150-year-old exposed brick on all perimeter walls and timber beams and columns that were sandblasted to restore their original appearance. We have repurposed the original timber joists to reinforce structural columns. We will modify iron annealed balustrades to create a decorative blackened guardrail that will be within code requirements while also enhancing the original feature staircase. Each one of these design features are unique to 156 N. Jefferson and highlight the history of the building. The future office tenants of 156 N. Jefferson will have an office that is a part of Chicago history, which no new construction can ever reproduce.

Read more on 156 N. Jefferson’s history in the project release here.

Photos courtesy of Eric Holubow.