A building by designers, for designers—evident when you walk into Sterling Bay’s newest project 345 North Morgan, a 200,000-square-foot boutique office building in the heart of Chicago’s Fulton Market.
Sterling Bay worked in partnership with Skender (GC) and Chicago-based design firm Eckenhoff Saunders Architects, Inc., or ESA.
It was supposed to start in 2019. Developer Sterling Bay had just released a bunch of long lead equipment like HVAC and already-procured brick, but as was the case for many, the project went on pause with the onset of the pandemic.
Project Manager for Sterling Bay Matt Piekarz said that the team had two months’ worth of tricky repricing to account for current market rates once the project made it back out of the pipeline in Summer 2021 before finally breaking ground in late August. Making the financial model work given updated market conditions was, for him, the most challenging part of the project.
“Construction pricing was extremely volatile at the time and rising,” Piekarz said.
Once construction started, no time was wasted. In August, Skender started their first caissons, and by September the following year, the project received substantial completion and sign off for occupancy, marking a 13-month completion for all 200,000 square feet.
The structure was poured in January 2022 just five months after breaking ground, followed by precast erection and glass and glazing, which was completed in Spring 2022. Once the windows started going in, Skender worked from the bottom up to finish interior walls, ending with the amenity floors’ bulk of finishes and amenities.
The quick completion wouldn’t have been possible if they didn’t already have the long lead equipment from when they first tried to get the project up and running a few years before. Additionally, Piekarz and Skender Senior Project Manager Marty Barrett agreed that they couldn’t have done it without the collaboration and quick thinking of everyone involved, and many people worked extended hours to see it through.
“It was aggressive, but we assembled a solid team,” Barrett said. “Sterling Bay and Eckenhoff Saunders were quick to answer changes as needed which kept us moving. The fact that we were able to complete the building so quickly is a testament to our team, and I’m thrilled to have been able to work with them to produce this building.”
Clearly everyone involved shared the same appreciation and enthusiasm for the project, and it’s a perfect example of something worth the wait. The building was leased 85–90% prior to completion for a move-in date of March 2023.
First and foremost, ESA Principals Matt Wylie and Jake Wahler said design was made more pleasurable working with an experienced owner.
“Sterling Bay is a fine-turned machine regarding how they approach new projects,” Wylie said, “something we learned while working with them previously. We came into 345 North Morgan with an understanding of the things most important to them and this was a great project to continue our work with them. Everyone knew what they were looking for from the beginning.”
Since Sterling Bay has an in-house design team, Wahler said ESA’s biggest role included responding to their design goals and bringing the vision to life. For this building, Sterling Bay’s main concept was an elevated warehouse, or a more high-end version of the typical facility you’d find in Fulton Market, captured by the arch motif carried throughout the building.
It’s all about the arches, starting with the hand laid, precast archway at the entrance. In collaboration with Illinois Masonry, Skender was able to model each brick and identify what the build would look like from the foundation up, a process that made the project different from any project Barrett has worked on. The arch is about 28 feet deep with a structurally concealed system that holds the arch in place and allows it to be set brick by brick.
“It’s a unique feature, but we nailed it with minimal hiccups due to the front-end effort by the team and everyone who touched it,” Barrett said. “We had to hit the nail on the head with the location, size and details, and the team going the extra mile made the difference in making that feature a success.”
Arches aren’t built often anymore and though it leveraged modern construction methods, ESA said the threshold of entry is just as powerful, setting the tone for what’s to come. The theme is consistent everywhere you look. The pathways on Floors 1 and 11 were arched in a similar manor to the entrance, carrying it from the exterior in.
“It’s fun to work on a project that has a design that entices people from the outside, while bringing those same elements inside, as well,” Barret said. All of Skender’s form work up the main core of the building was architecture grade, giving it a smooth concrete finish.
Intimate is how many would describe the experience. The sleek, modern lobby takes inspiration from industrial materials and urban décor. It’s personal and not overly scaled, with sumptuous, railroad-esque details and lots of greenery to welcome people back to the office, yet another reason for the building’s success. Some of the base finishes were even sourced from the building’s future users to give their product a voice in their own space.
But perhaps the most unique feature, and a huge focal point, is the “double-sided” fireplace on the top floor. It isn’t truly double-sided in that it doesn’t share a common firebox, but rather it’s two fireplaces back-to-back, and was designed to center the space and encourage conversation among users both inside the building and out, while also carrying out the arch theme on a smaller scale.
ESA originally specified the piece to be granite, but it wasn’t available in the correct size. Skender worked with them to identify other in-budget options to consider before they landed on the current custom nine-foot slabs of hardened limestone after weeks of bath and forth. Together the seven unique layers within the two slabs are 14 inches thick—a first for the quarry and the first time Barrett worked with slabs of that size for a fireplace.
“We had to plan around that, using two systems to install it,” Barrett said. “A gantry system was used to lift it onto the deck, and after it was set on the deck by a crane, another hoisting mechanism was used to set it in place. It’s not often you see limestone this hard or cut this thick, and it won’t flake apart.”
Not to mention the building is just the right size and achieves the critical mass of lease up. Wahler said the 20,000-square-foot plates are appropriately sized for the new world of smaller offices and manageable for businesses that are downsizing or looking for something other than a subdivided floor of 100,000 square feet, sparking more and more to sign leases.
It’s a ripple effect. High-end, hospitality-driven office spaces like 345 North Morgan that are smaller in floor plate size but uniquely designed with a high-end amenity package are the future. Competitors in the area offer massive floor plates and it’s a death spiral for spec buildings in that if you don’t get one lease, you won’t get any.
“No one wants to be in an empty building so buildings must reach a critical mass of interest,” Wahler said. “This project hit a sweet spot in terms of size and intimacy.”
Quality over quantity seemed to be the mindset, and Wylie was impressed with the attention to detail that went into the project over the course of construction. “We had the ability to help Sterling Bay outfit the building with the final elements like vases and books, so we were able to work on not only the structure, but the small-scale details, and I admire the thought that was put into each element.”
Sustainability-wise, while it wasn’t a main objective, the building meets city requirements and exceeds the energy code by about 25% and will reduce water use by 15%. ESA also used low VOC materials throughout the process, and the project will be LEED certified in a few months. Another, just as important aspect of certification has to do with the wellbeing of users, and the private terraces on each floor allow for them to step outside. Outdoor access and natural light are big benefits to users.
ESA’s relationship with Sterling Bay is especially unique because in addition to working together on projects like 345 North Morgan, ESA’s own office is within a building owned by the firm. Sterling Bay has recently started a portfolio-wide program to make the workplace more appealing by providing benefits to employees that make the effort.
“Work should be fun, and the building’s features entice people to go back to the office,” Wylie said. “Sterling Bay is sensitive to making sure their projects encourage people to go in and enjoy working together, and that feels present in 345 North Morgan.”
Tenants want to show off the building and its “wow factor” elements, whether to their own employees or their clients. It’s a showcase building for all involved, especially for those who have already signed to occupy, including Havi/JSI Logistics, Wellington Management and Allsteel.
Sterling Bay Director of Communication Julie Goudie said it was especially interesting that the space was designed for designers. The firm is seeing a big makeup of that kind, with many users relocating from Merchandise Mart for a bigger showroom in a trendier neighborhood, and there’s still a wave to come.
“Our [in-house] designer took a lot of pride in the details included,” she said, “and it’s a very aesthetically pleasing space, by and for those who appreciate it most.”
The building also features a top floor conservatory and lounge with conferencing, private outdoor space on every floor, a coworking library, heated parking spaces and a full-service fitness center, to name a few.
Maybe the best part of the design is that it’s customizable. ESA, together with structural engineer WSP, worked to fine-tune the structural system to minimize obstructions so users have clear floor plates to plan, according to Matt Wylie. “We try to, as a firm, make sure the designs we’re coming up with are forward thinking toward the next step in the process to make sure that we’re enabling and empowering users to have as much freedom as they can,” he said.
Skender is currently building out some of these projects independent of the base building. Barrett said one of the benefits of this is the flexibility to pivot as needed and get things started quickly. Part of Havi’s lease agreement was that the outdoor space on Floor 11 was going to be for their use only, and Skender was able to modify the landscaping design on the roof in real time to make their desired changes in one swoop, saving them money in the end. Leveraging the money properly for the base building with respect to user allowances saves them 80% of what it would cost to hire a company after the fact for TI. Users have minimal work when push comes to shove to make the space uniquely theirs.
What was it about Fulton Market that attracted Sterling Bay? The land, formerly Pittsburg Paints, wasn’t originally purchased for the current project, but instead was purchased years ago with a specific user in mind. When said user fell through, Piekarz said Sterling Bay had to come up with a new purpose for the land. It was re-concepted for a brewery, and when that fell through, a movie theatre—which also fell through.
Everything happens for a reason. After a handful of failed concepts, the right one stuck, and now it’s the focal point of one of the most dynamic blocks in Fulton Market, directly adjacent to Google’s Midwest Headquarters, 1KFulton, Emily Hotel, Swift & Sons and Roister—and that’s just the beginning.
345 North Morgan is located on the northern edge of Fulton Market, and Sterling Bay is migrating its buildings. They already have a building on the opposite side of the tracks that’s moving Fulton Market that way. As more buildings like 345 North Morgan and 333 North Green hit the edge, everything continues to move north after it, expanding the neighborhood further.
Barrett said the project sets the standard for what users can and should expect from an office building going forward. “There aren’t many high-rises in the Fulton Market/West Loop Corridor, but there’s personal touch and the buildings are high-end. 345 North Morgan sets itself apart and, we’ll hopefully have many more opportunities to build buildings of a similar caliber in the future, particularly in this neighborhood.”
The goal was to build a luxe building that encourages people to go back to work, while respecting the history of the neighborhood and not looking out of place. With its brick façade and classic, board-formed precast at the entrance, the building does just that.
No project is without obstacles, and though they were easy to smooth out, 345 North Morgan was no exception.
During construction, Skender was coordinating the precast around the window system and decided last-minute to switch to a lower-cost glazing system, which Barrett found this to be the most challenging part of the project. The company’s design documents weren’t updated for the new system but in collaboration with the other teams they were able to expedite the process and identify how it would impact other elements, as well. After that the new system went in quickly in the and was a good experience for the team, reacting as needed to ensure the base building was pivoting to meet the design needs of the window systems.
Other challenges faced during construction were more obvious, like supply chain issues, but a consistent touchpoint and constant communication with Sterling Bay allowed everyone to to stay ahead of potential risks.
ESA said the same, adding that the sense of partnership between each team was strong throughout the project.
“Construction is difficult, and there are risks involved that make navigating any project tricky,” Wylie said. “If you can emerge on the other side with those relationships strengthened, it’s a win.”