Chewing-gum giant opens innovation center

August 11, 2010

In 1920, William Wrigley, Jr., founder of his eponymous chewing-gum company, took a chance when he commissioned the construction of the first office building north of the Chicago River—then an undesirable, run-down manufacturing district. The landmark Wrigley Building would serve as a catalyst for the transformation of the bleak Pine Street area into what would come to be known as the Magnificent Mile.

Nearly 85 years later, Wrigley's great-grandson, William Wrigley Jr. (sans the comma), is taking a risky step of his own, rolling the dice on a $45 million, 193,000-sf R&D facility located in an industrial district on the city's Near North Side that is eerily reminiscent of the Wrigley Building's famous waterfront perch on Michigan Avenue.

Flanked by the Chicago River to the west and a man-made canal to the east, the new facility is tucked in the northern tip of Goose Island—Chicago's only natural island and home to major industrial businesses since the mid-1800s. Once dubbed "Little Hell" and "Smokey Hollow" from years of industrial pollution, Goose Island is experiencing a slow but steady rebirth from heavy industrial to R&D and new industry. Wrigley's Global Innovation Center is the latest addition.

While the GIC may not possess the old-world charm of the French Renaissance-style Wrigley Building, the facility—with its Mankato limestone façade, twin pseudo-lighthouses, and lush greenery (including a 30,000-sf vegetated roof)—introduces a sense of warmth among the island's ragtag collection of brick and metal warehouse and factory buildings.

Designed by St Louis-based Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum, the three-story facility houses more than 250 researchers, scientists, engineers, and marketers responsible for developing all types of the new gum and candy concoctions—from gum that whitens teeth to mints powerful enough to mask even Godzilla's breath.

The entire facility is geared toward accelerating the development of new products, which represent about 20% of Wrigley's total revenue. A sensory lab will enable the company to test potential products on up to 20 consumers simultaneously, and will allow staff to make adjustments to test formulas on the fly. Products that hit a sweet spot with the taste-testers can be quickly reproduced in large quantities for further market testing in the facility's 40,000-sf pilot plant—a process that, in the past, necessitated shutting down a production line.

The facility also encourages impromptu meetings and interaction among R&D staff. Labs and offices are situated in an open floor plan environment, with an abundance of conference and "huddle" rooms sprinkled throughout each floor. Staff can reserve meeting rooms and even download meeting agenda and notes via interactive display panels outside each conference room. A wireless network permits staff to work from any point in the building.

The labs and offices were designed as a "kit of parts," allowing for fast reconfiguration of spaces to accommodate the fluctuating size of R&D teams. The typical office module, for instance, is identical in size to many of the conference rooms, so employees can set up shop there temporarily in a space crunch.

Ironically, the building's footprint resembles that of a ballpark (Wrigley's grandfather, Philip K. Wrigley, owned Wrigley Field and a significant share of the Chicago Cubs until 1981), with offices and labs situated around a triangular-shaped, 11,000-sf courtyard, called the Winter Garden. (The footprint is primarily the product of the V-shaped site, according to HOK.)

Topped with a soaring glass canopy that provides dramatic views of the city skyline from the upper floors, the Winter Garden houses 25 species of plants from Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America—representing the company's major foreign markets. A fountain at the center of the courtyard adds to natural ambiance of the space.

"We wanted to create a space that people could enjoy year-round and that related to this natural site, with water, sky, and earth," said Gyo Obata, HOK founding partner and lead designer on the GIC.

         
 

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