Owner/contractor entity delivers a highly marketable tower that escapes the mediocrity of most high-rise condos
August 11, 2010

In the multifamily housing business, the key to success is delivering what homebuyers want as fast and as cheaply as possible. While this simple equation can fatten the pocketbooks of owners and developers, it often leads to architecturally tiresome eyesores.

This has certainly been the case in Chicago where, over the past decade, nearly a dozen no-nonsense mid- and high-rise residential towers have been filling voids in the city's heralded skyline. These cookie-cutter giants are selling like hotcakes in the still-thriving condominium market. But as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamen has noted, these "monuments to mediocrity" are indicative of the "sorry state of condominium design in Chicago."

One notable exception to this sad state of affairs sits northwest of the Loop in the River North neighborhood, a growing residential area with light-industrial roots. The 25-story Erie on the Park, with its steel chevron braces, parallelogram shape, and remarkable transparency, is as eye-catching as the views of the city it offers.

Constructed over a 23-month period from October 2000 to August 2002, the 290,250-sq.-ft. building has been dubbed "Little John" by Kamen for its subtle resemblance to "Big John," the 100-story, X-braced John Hancock Center. The structure consists of three concrete stories topped by 22 steel-framed levels and backed by a six-story precast concrete parking garage. It is Chicago's first steel-framed high-rise residential building since Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive went up in 1952.

"I pass by many buildings on my way to work in the city each morning, and this is the one that always catches my eye," said Raj Gupta, president of Chicago-based M/E and telecom engineer Environmental Systems Design Inc., during judging for Building Design & Construction's 6th annual Building Team Project Awards, in which Erie on the Park earned a Merit Award not only for its unique design, but also for the close collaboration of the Building Team, led by a rare owner/developer/contractor entity.

50 years of dominance

The $20.3 million tower is the bold vision of W. Harris "Bill" Smith, partner of owner/developer Smithfield Properties, Chicago, who saw an opportunity to create a unique living experience in a market filled with status quo buildings. Steel turned out to be the answer.

"Our top goal was to differentiate our product from everything else in the marketplace — to build a building that was outside of the envelope of peoples' expectations," says Smith.

In 1998, Smithfield commissioned French-born architect Lucien Lagrange, based in Chicago, to design Erie on the Park and its rectangular sister building Kingsbury on the Park, which is scheduled to be completed this summer. The "park" in both names refers to an adjacent city park currently in the planning stages.

Lagrange collaborated with the Chicago office of New York-based structural engineer Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers on the design, which was initially envisioned as a concrete structure. Concrete has been the preferred choice for mid- and high-rise residential work in Chicago for five decades because it more easily meets floor-height and fire-safety requirements. Moreover, concrete is typically cheaper because the structural frame also serves as the exterior façade, says Joseph Burns, principal in charge with Thornton-Tomasetti.

But in Chicago's booming multifamily residential market, where concrete contractors are in great demand, steel became an economical option. "There are only six or seven concrete contractors ready to bid on high-rise residential work in a city as big as Chicago," says Smith. "The cost of a concrete-framed building went up what felt like 50% in one day."

Several factors tipped the scale toward steel, says Lagrange, including longer column spans, smaller columns, and more flexibility in the distribution of M/E/P systems. But none was more important than the exterior design possibilities.

"[With steel] there's a lot less structure, which gives a lighter expression to the building," says Lagrange, who worked closely with Thornton-Tomasetti to design a steel frame that could also serve as a memorable exterior expression.

The stacked chevron braces on the east and west façade, each of which is composed of nine three-story members, are integral to the building's main structural element, a megabrace framing system designed to resist lateral wind forces. Nonstructural architectural steel covers the actual structural members, which are fireproofed to meet Chicago's fire code.

"This same kind of framing goes through the building between the units, basically turning the building into a big truss," says Burns. He says the team utilized bar joints, spaced 3 ft. apart, for the structural floor system. It is topped with a 1/2-in. steel deck and 2 in. of concrete. A drywall ceiling hangs from the bar joists.

Compared with typical concrete construction, which has a 20x20-ft. grid, steel can span up to 37 ft., which allowed the design team to create 23 different unit configurations, a key selling point for Smithfield.

"Because of our spans and the geometry, our floor plans showed people a space that they could not get anywhere else," says Smith.

Steel also lent itself better to the parallelogram shape of the building, which was designed to conform within inches of the site lines. The 10,000-sq.-ft. site once served as the parking lot for an adjacent four-story building.

Compressed design schedule

To get to the building to market as quickly as possible, the design was broken into three stages — foundation, superstructure, and M/E/P systems/tenant build out — based on the permit acquisition process.

"We first issued drawings for caissons to get that permit process started," says Tim Hill, project manager with Lucien Lagrange Architects. "While that permit was in review, we worked on the superstructure, and so on."

Hill says that without close Building Team interaction, the fast-track program would have been difficult. The design team collaborated early in the design process with Smithfield's sister company, general contractor Wooton Construction, to ensure, for example, that the caissons would be installed in time for the next phase. "Downtime can be the developer's worst enemy," says Hill.

Early input from subcontractors was crucial in keeping the project moving, as well as minimizing costly change orders, says Marc Sussman, vice president with Wooton Construction. For instance, mechanical and plumbing engineer Advanced Mechanical Systems, Mount Prospect, Ill., was brought in early to design a complex distribution scheme to accommodate the varying floor layouts. It involved installing plumbing risers in thickened corridor walls near the building's core, then extending out horizontally to the individual units.

"When you build a standard high rise, with stack after stack, every fitting is within 2 or 3 ft. of the stack," says Sussman. "Here, sometimes a bathroom fitting was 2 ft. away, sometimes it was 12 ft. away."

Having an owner/developer/contractor lead the project eliminated much of the "opposition at the table," says Sussman.

To speed up the steel fabrication process, Thornton-Tomasetti and Dowco Consultants Ltd., the project's Vancouver-based steel detailer, employed a 3-D drafting program to design the frame. Zalk Josephs Fabricators, Stoughton, Wis., applied information from the 3-D model to fabricate the steel, eliminating the need for shop drawings.

So, going back to Bill Smith's goal for the high-rise — to differentiate the product from everything else in the marketplace — can it be said that Erie on the Park was a success?

If sales figures are any measure, the answer must be yes. More than 60% of the condo's 125 units were sold in the first two weeks on the market, before ground was even broken. The remainder went soon after, all at a 10% premium over similar condominium projects in the area.

"The building exceeded my wildest expectations," says Smith.

Construction Costs

Caissons $264,750
Cast-in-place concrete 1,385,410
Precast concrete 1,012,500
Masonry 37,500
Stone 93,750
Structural steel 3,600,000
Stairs 243,750
Ornamental railings 150,000
Rough carpentry 352,500
Finish carpentry 421,875
Waterproofing 52,500
Spray-on fireproofing 187,500
Roofing 112,500
Sealants 225,750
Metal doors/frames 93,750
Windows and curtain wall 2,400,000
Finish hardware 70,310
Drywall 1,875,000
Tile 250,000
Carpeting 112,500
Painting and wallcovering 250,000
Louvers 48,750
Signage 7,500
Postal specialties 7,500
Toilet/bath accessories 78,419
Trash chute 30,000
Residential appliances 225,000
Cabinets 738,750
Elevators 425,175
Fire protection 352,500
Plumbing 1,781,250
HVAC 1,875,000
Electrical 1,500,000
Communications 23,437
Fire alarm system 75,000
TOTAL $20,360,126