The kind of project that doesn’t come along very often. That’s how Peter Schmidt, senior vice president with Rosemont, Illinois-based Meridian Design Build, described the Lion Electric project in Joliet, Illinois.
Meridian Design Build served as the general contractor on Clarius Park Joliet’s Building 2, a 906,517-square-foot industrial facility developed by Clarius Partners in partnership with Walton Street Capital in the Chicago suburb of Joliet. The facility will serve as a manufacturing base for Quebec-based Lion Electric, a maker of zero-emission electric vehicles.
Lion Electric will build up to 20,000 electric vehicles here each year, mostly electric school buses. The facility at 3835 Youngs Road will have a positive impact on its home of Joliet, too, employing as many as 1,400 workers.
“This has been a unique project, and one that really doesn’t happen very often to this magnitude,” Schmidt said. “You have a large team that put this together, Lion Electric, the design team, the architects, the developer and our subcontractors. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the enhanced cooperation and teamwork that this group showed on a daily and weekly basis. It’s been a fantastic process.”
And an interesting quirk? The Clarius Park building wasn’t initially planned to house assembly lines dedicated to building electric vehicles. Lion Electric selected the building after construction started on what was originally designed as a high-end spec industrial facility.
This change halfway into the construction process required everyone involved in the project — from the architecture team of Heitman Architects Incorporated to Meridian Design Build to Clarius Partners — to pivot quickly.
The steps these key players took to do that? Those are what made the Lion Electric project such a success.
No small undertaking
Lion Electric’s new manufacturing facility is no small project. There are 195-foot truck courts, 50-foot-by-54-foot bays with 75-foot speed aisles, over 200 trailer stalls and a massive parking lot with more than 1,200 car stalls.
And in addition to the manufacturing floor of assembly lines, the building includes nine offices. Eight of these are located in the warehouse space itself, each one watching over one of Lion Electric’s production lines.
There’s also a large corporate office space, a portion of the plant expected to come online in early 2023.
Then there is the land surrounding the facility. Lion Electric was committed to creating a lushly landscaped green area for their employees to enjoy. This includes plans for a large patio area and gathering space for workers, an outdoor space large enough for Lion Electric officials to hold company events and team-building exercises.
Eric Johnson, vice president with the project’s developer, Chicago’s Clarius Partners, said that construction crews first broke ground on the building in September of 2020. During those earlier days of construction, crews focused on pouring the foundations and tackling the infrastructure and site-grading work.
Then in February of 2021, Clarius Partners received a confidential RFP asking for information about the site. The proposal indicated that a single user – which would turn out to be Lion Electric – was interested in occupying the entire building. That was big news. Even bigger? This this user had very specific needs for the site and needed plenty of power.
The confidential user wanted a parking lot big enough for at least 1,000 cars. The company had an aggressive timeline for the building’s construction schedule, needing the majority of the facility up and running before the end of 2022. And it needed 10 megawatts of power to fuel its assembly lines.
“We looked at each other when we saw this and said, ‘This is a pretty crazy deal,’” Johnson said. “We didn’t even know if we could get that much power to the site. At first, we thought this would never happen. Then as construction kept progressing, we kept hearing ‘No. It’s a real deal.’ It came down to us and a site in Texas.”
And in the winter of 2021? Texas suffered a major ice storm that resulted in widespread, and well-publicized, power outages. The disaster captured national headlines and threw doubt on the capabilities of the state’s power system. This might have played a role in Lion Electric choosing the Joliet site over one in Texas, Johnson said.
“I really do believe that was one of the things that was a tipping point in our direction,” Johnson said. “Lion Electric needed reliable power. They also needed speed to market. Lion didn’t have time to find a site and build something from scratch. Because we were still early in the construction process, this space fit the bill for them, hand-in-glove.”
Officials from Lion did look at existing manufacturing facilities that the company could have retrofitted to meet its deadlines. But, as Johnson says, Lion Electric had such specific needs for its site that retrofitting an existing space would have been more expensive and time-consuming than building a facility from scratch.
Construction crews had already built the walls and roof of Building 2 in Clarius Park. But the site still offered Lion Electric the potential for customization, Johnson said. The company could get everything it wanted in this facility.
What finally pushed Lion into selecting the Joliet site? Johnson pointed to a variety of additional factors. There was space to build a parking lot for more than 1,000 cars. The city of Joliet and state of Illinois provided important financial incentives to encourage Lion to choose the site. Clarius worked with public utility ComEd to ensure that the site could receive enough power for its manufacturing lines.
And just as importantly, Clarius committed to Lion’s construction schedule, one it has met.
“It was definitely a concerted effort by multiple parties to bring Lion here,” Johnson said. “It’s not often that a project comes along and brings your community 1,400 jobs. And these aren’t low-paying jobs. These are good jobs with good potential for growth and learning.”
Jason Rutland, in Toronto, and Luc Sicotte, in Montreal, both with Colliers International managed the site selection process and also played a key role in bringing Lion to Clarius Park.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office was also directly involved in helping to bring Lion to Illinois. The governor’s office also orchestrated the public announcement of the lease on May 7 of 2021.
The big switch
How challenging was it for Clarius and its contractors to switch gears once they discovered that Building 2 was no longer going to be a spec space but instead would serve as a manufacturing site for Lion Electric?
Johnson said that the entire development team had to make a quick pivot to meet Lion’s needs.
“If you were looking at this from 5,000 feet up, you’d see that it was still basically the same project with a big parking space on the east side,” Johnson said. “But to me, a lot of things changed.”
Part of this change? Construction crews went underground, burying $3 million to $4 million of infrastructure under the building’s slab. This included electric, water and sewer. Fortunately, construction crews had not yet poured the slab before Lion chose the site. If they had, crews would have had two choices: Cut a new slab and install this infrastructure at a great expense or install the infrastructure overhead at an even greater cost.
Clarius also had to remove several planned dock doors from the site and install glass windows. Instead of 120 dock doors, as plans originally called for, Lion only needed 55. Clarius then ordered glass to be installed in the existing openings it had already carved into the building, a way to bring more natural light into the space.
Karl Bechtoldt, project executive with Rosemont, Illinois-based Meridian Design Build, said that construction crews were scheduled to pave the site at the end of May of 2021. Before that could begin, though, Lion Electric finalized its lease of the space. That required Meridian to put construction on hold briefly.
At this time, the designers of the project were working with Lion to develop a list of changes to the building’s assembly plant area. What was once completely warehouse space would now need room for individual offices.
Meridian Design Build had to rework the installation of building infrastructure, too. Underground plumbing for new offices and corporate office space, for instance, all had to be tackled before slab work could start.
Other changes? Meridian had to change course on grading and curb layout and had to reduce the number of drive-in doors.
“Trying to get all that work done and still seal the site was a big effort,” Bechtoldt said. “We were moving from a warehouse facility to an assembly plant. Lion Electric needed space for a large number of employees. They needed new ingress and egress to the building. These were all significant changes. We had to work on the infrastructure to the building. It was all done in phases as quickly as the designers could get direction and issue orders. We all worked closely as a team to make these changes.”
Creating an employee-friendly space
Erik Heitman, project manager with Itasca, Illinois-based Heitman Architects Incorporated, said that the glass features spread throughout the building are important to the overall success of the space. As Heitman says, Lion Electric wanted to bring daylight into its building. The company wanted its employees to have the opportunity to look out onto green space throughout the day.
The many glass additions to the facility’s exterior provided this, Heitman said.
“We looked for opportunities to maximize daylight in the facility,” Heitman said. “There is an extensive number of overhead doors that allow Lion to bring vehicles into and out of the plant. Those overhead doors are large all-glass doors that bring a ton of daylight into the space.”
Clarius also modified the building to make it a more enjoyable place for workers, a trend that has been gaining momentum in industrial spaces. Construction crews converted a significant portion of the existing truck court into a large patio area for workers. The space can now serve as a home for barbecues, outdoor meetings and other employee events.
The many offices and break areas included throughout the plant are also a benefit to workers. Instead of employees having to walk 1,000 feet across the facility to a single cafeteria or locker room, several of these spaces are now spread across the building.
“Workers can now grab a cup of coffee without having to spend their entire break walking to and from one cafeteria space,” Johnson said.
Heitman, too, cites the office space as a key differentiator of this facility.
“This building has an extraordinary office component to it,” he said.
Overall, the building features about 100,000 square feet of office space, Heitman said, with about 75,000 square feet of this space devoted to the site’s main corporate office. The individual plant offices account for the remaining 25,000 square feet or so of office space.
Heitman said that construction crews installed a significant amount of glass into these individual office areas, too, providing those inside these spaces with clear views of the facility’s assembly lines.
“That helps build a strong connection between the office areas and the manufacturing areas,” Heitman said. “That creates an environment that brings all the employees together and builds a strong sense of cooperation and collaboration between employees in the different environments.”
Each of these individual offices also feature what Lion Electric calls oases. These areas throughout the plant give employees the chance to congregate with each other on their breaks.
“We spent a lot of time working with Lion Electric to make the oasis spaces feel like comfortable working environments,” Heitman said.
The facility’s main corporate office also features architectural touches that set it apart from most industrial buildings. The corridor that leads through the office is lit by wide skylights. The lobby space stretches two stories and has enough interior area to double as a showroom for Lion’s electric vehicles.
A second phase of construction will focus on building out this outdoor space even more, which will include an area set aside for amenities such as bocci ball courts, walking paths and landscaped seating areas.
“These enhanced amenities are something we try to incorporate into all our projects,” Heitman said. “We see the value of daylight in enhancing the wellness of employees and boosting their productivity. We are always looking for opportunities to bring daylight into buildings and other opportunities to enhance the workplace.”
Meeting the challenges
The construction business isn’t an easy one today. Developers are still dealing with supply chain disruptions. It takes longer for materials to reach job sites today. At the same time, the cost of materials and labor continues to rise, a trend that is showing few signs of slowing.
Clarius and Meridian Design Build worked around this by following a meticulously planned construction schedule. The companies also had one advantage: The worst of the supply chain issues hadn’t yet hit when construction on Building 2 began. That meant that major components such as concreate, asphalt and roofing materials had already been purchased.
“When COVID hit, we were already heading down the road to building this,” Johnson said. “Our investment partners told us to continue, to press on. They saw that the market signaled that industrial vacancy rates were still tight. Because we were building so early in 2020, we didn’t experience as many significant setbacks when it came to getting materials to our site.”
On the back end of the construction process, though? Clarius has seen the impact of supply side disruptions. It’s taken longer to get HVAC systems to the site. Ordering electrical distribution systems has been, as Johnson says, “very complicated.”
Johnson pointed to the partnerships that Clarius has formed with local companies as one way that the developer overcame these hurdles. Local companies were able to get key components to the site quicker.
One such relationship? Clarius worked with Broadview, Illinois-based Nesko Electric Company. This company helped Clarius get the electrical components it needed on time.
“When talking to the standard players, the suppliers that you normally get electrical switchgear from, we’d hear that they could give us, say, an 800-amp panel in 16 weeks,” Johnson said. “That was a non-starter if you have a client that needs power on the site in the next month. We worked with local companies to get these big breakers and larger-size panels, 300 amps and up. We had to get extremely creative.”
Bechtoldt said that getting PVC pipe to the site last fall proved challenging, too. Getting enough of it to the building site required careful scheduling and working with a range of suppliers.
“We had to work through the problems associated with long lead times,” Bechtoldt said. “Some of the equipment we had to farm out to custom builders. It required us looking at every possible solution we could find.”
Schmidt said that Meridian Design Build had to juggle schedules frequently to keep the construction process moving on schedule. During one phase of construction, crews had to install all the sanitary sewer before other crews could complete a majority of the building’s slab.
This required breaking the construction schedule into phases so that all necessary components were installed in the best possible order to keep construction crews busy throughout the building process.
“It took a lot of teamwork from our subcontractors, designers, ownership and design team to keep the project moving,” Schmidt said.
Bechtoldt said that he is proud of the result and is happy to have played a part in the process of bringing Lion Electric to Chicago’s suburbs.
“It has been a pleasure to work with Clarius and the Lion team,” he said. “Everyone has been great to deal with. As you break a project up into so many pieces, you have many different deadlines. Eric (Johnson) was a great leader on this project. That can’t be overstated.”
Johnson said that the Lion Electric project marks a big milestone in another way: It’s the latest success story at Clarius Park in Joliet.
“We have been developing this park since before 2012,” Johnson said. “We started Building 1 way back then. It’s been a great road. We’ve really enjoyed working with the city of Joliet. It’s been a great partnership.”