Solomon Cordwell Buenz has long embraced a forward-looking approach to design. From its inception in the 1930s to today, SCB’s focus on innovation has helped the Chicago-based architecture firm stay relevant, even as styles change.
“We want to keep in mind the client’s objectives, both programmatically and aesthetically, but then also meld that to a greater good,” said John Lahey, principal at SCB. “What’s going to be good for the city? Or even the nation? We as architects can see it in a broader context.”
In Lahey’s mind, that’s one of his jobs, to present to the client ideas they may not have thought of. But form, of course, follows function, so the needs and desires of the client remain paramount. That’s why every project starts to take shape from the initial client meeting.
“Right out of the gate, it’s critical that we understand the clients’ objectives and vision,” said Sheyla Conforte, principal, executive director of interior design at SCB. “The initial conversations allow us to understand what the vision is and what the problems are, so that we can offer solutions. It’s a very personal interaction that we have between designer and client. Ultimately, what we deliver is more so their vision than it is ours.”
One recent client, trading firm IMC, turned to the firm for the renovation and expansion of their offices inside Willis Tower. As IMC wanted a space that emphasized collaboration and innovation, SCB created informal meeting spaces with write-on surfaces and other features that facilitate the sharing of ideas.
“There’s so much transformation happening at Willis Tower that it’s exciting to work in that building,” said Conforte. “It’s a challenging building to work in, but a fun project nonetheless.”
SCB integrated those structural challenges into the design, with exposed ceilings, columns and large trusses making their way into the palette—patterning the interior after the expressed engineering that the iconic building is known for on the exterior.
A number of design trends have persisted over the last few years, including community stairs. There is a reason for this, as users like the sense of connection that they can provide. When designing a new office interior for Vital Proteins, a health and wellness company, this feature was a must.
“They are very big proponents of creating a community. They’re a lifestyle brand, so they want the centerpiece of their space to be a place to invite outsiders in and to really be a platform for communication,” Conforte said.
Other trends that Lahey and Conforte have identified surround amenities. But more than just the number of offerings, the quality. Today’s users, in a variety of asset classes from multifamily to office, expect a level of comfort that even Class A, trophy spaces might not have had 10 or 20 years ago.
“The level of sophistication of fitness offerings has really been elevated,” said Conforte. “Before, it was check the box: build out a room, put a couple cardio machines in it and we can say we have a fitness center. That really doesn’t cut it anymore.”
At 111 S. Wacker Drive, SCB pushed those boundaries in the 40,000 square feet of interior amenity spaces they designed for the 10th, 11th and 29th floors. Aesthetically, the space is defined by expansive views, abundant natural light and a mix of industrial and warm materials to create a sophisticated atmosphere. But the fitness center, with a steam room, yoga studio, golf simulator and shuffleboard was specifically crafted with tenant expectations in mind.
The live/work/play environment that people have come to expect of their communities applies to individual properties as well. Buildings are “mixed use” in multiple ways of late, as one use can merge with and be shared by another.
“In the not-too-distant past, high-rise lobbies were walled off, more concerned about security,” Lahey said. “Now, there’s a lot of movement with retail spilling over into the lobby.”
The blurred lines between uses forces designers and users alike to conceive of buildings differently. This can manifest itself in another way, such as on ground-up office and residential towers. According to Lahey, community spaces can be focal points in the very façade, even when viewed from the ground.
SCB designed the new office tower in the West Loop, 625 W. Adams, for White Oak Realty Partners. The building’s defining feature is the collection of outdoor terraces, including one halfway up on 11th floor and another at the penthouse level.
“There’s a dialogue in these buildings,” said Lahey. “They are neighborhoods in themselves and this community space—a fun space halfway up—becomes the park in the neighborhood.”
Client needs and aesthetic vision determine the finished product, but so does location. Consider 210 N. Carpenter, a new construction building that SCB designed for Sterling Bay and that is now under construction in Chicago’s trendy Fulton Market district.
“This is one building that really tips its hat to the context completely,” said Lahey.
Fulton Market is filled with loft-style converted warehouses, and a modern-looking building would be out of place to even the most casual of observers. When complete at the end of this year, the 12-story property will feel like it was erected in the same decade as its neighbors. The building, which is a target for Google’s expansion in the hip, tech-focused neighborhood, is bristling with amenities, including outdoor terraces, gaming area and a rooftop lap pool.
For the architects and designers at SCB, the reward comes from the early challenges, the introduction to client needs and the process of delivering solutions.
“We spend a lot of time with our clients talking about change management in the workplace and that starts with early discussions and really understanding what it is we are trying to tackle,” Conforte said. “Getting people excited about whatever that change is that’s about to happen, I really love that aspect of what we do.”
Lahey agrees, saying that the best part of the design process comes at the beginning because there are still so many possibilities.
“By the time the thing is done, I’m usually long gone,” Lahey said. “I do like to go back into the buildings, but a lot of time I look at the detail and think about what I’ve learned since then.”