Warehouse Renovation: CoLaboratory Food Lab


Demolition is complete at our warehouse renovation project in the West Loop. Inside the 20,000 square foot adaptive reuse space, we poured a new foundation, constructed an elevator shaft, and erected a steel frame providing support for a new mezzanine.

The century-old bowtruss building was originally constructed in 1916 to house the H.R. Gibbons Cardboard box factory. H.R. Gibbons has long been defunct, and an auto repair shop was the last business to occupy the building. Our intervention will transform the vast open space and give the building a new life as a members-only, shared commercial kitchen laboratory and office space topped off with a glass roof atrium.

Our original concept for the space was to celebrate the former cardboard box use. To that end, we created a modular series of office enclosures to reflect the box form. The resulting flex space is adaptable for multiple uses depending on the needs of the occupants.

Clockwise from left: isometric drawing, office comparison chart, box frame concept

Warehouse Renovation: Why Adaptive Reuse

The process of adaptive reuse is inherently green. As practitioners of adaptive reuse, our objective is to preserve buildings’ character, reuse existing materials to reduce waste, and maintain and restore historic structural elements. Sometimes referred to as historic redevelopment or historic preservation, the common element is how the building adapts to new uses while conserving resources and historical features.

Advertisement for H.R. Gibbons Box Company, historical West Loop photos

Fulton Market, the former meatpacking, warehouse, and industrial district, has undergone warp speed gentrification and development over the past decade. Gone is the grit and the compact forklifts zipping along the streets carrying containers of pigs feet. The once-bustling meatpacking operators’ departure has been replaced with tech companies, restaurants, and loft residences.

Although the grit and character of the place have vanished, what remains is a stock of warehouses that reflect the history of Fulton Market – in particular, bowstring truss buildings, commonly known as bowtruss buildings. These structures offer a glimpse into the past and lend themselves to new, adaptive reuse uses because they are column-free, and their spans allow for flexible spaces.

CoLaboratory approached us to design their space that caters exclusively to food and beverage companies. The members-only collaborative space will feature a fully equipped commercial kitchen with bar and cafe spaces, shared and privates offices, and conference rooms. We were pleasantly surprised to see how well preserved the building was during our initial field measure and subsequent demolition process. The building’s bones were solid and showing no signs of visible deterioration, and we viewed the unobstructed interior as an ideal blank template to work from.

Working with the Chicago Building Code

Our life interests and curiosities are diverse and inherently informs our work. As awareness of how food impacts our lives continues to evolve with concepts like farm-to-table and the Slow Food movement, we’re witnessing the emergence of innovative food-related pursuits. The movements are evolving more than ever, and clients approach us to design their spaces and develop creative solutions to merge food-related uses with retail, offices, and communal and event spaces. These creative and unorthodox uses make for interesting projects, and we always welcome complex design challenges. One challenge, in particular, is working with the antiquated Chicago building code. The code hasn’t evolved to keep pace with innovators in the food industry and their vision of “fusion-spaces,” creating major hurdles to overcome when presenting these mash-up of uses during the permitting phase.

Warehouse Renovation: Aesthetics & Function

Due to adaptive reuse’s complex nature, transforming existing spaces presents multiple challenges when the desired use does not correspond with the building construction type. While the wooden bow trusses’ beauty adds to the overall aesthetic, the building code ultimately hindered our design desires of keeping the wood exposed. We had to treat the trusses with a white, intumescent fire-resistive coating to achieve the required fire rating to comply.

Opening up the first floor to the mezzanine level and adding an open stair also proved complicated. Staircases are typically built inside fire rated structures, and proposing an open staircase inside a wood-framed roof building raised red flags with the city. Because of this, we had to get project approval with the City’s Standards and Tests program, where we negotiated how our use could be housed in the building with the addition of increased fire protection. We persevered, and as a result, all the new elements inside the existing building envelope are steel and concrete. Also, we installed a new sprinkler and fire alarm system and applied fire coating to the wood bow truss.

The extra effort and espresso infused late nights was worthwhile! The wood bowtruss is now an integral and free (!) design element of the interior space. Proper Architecture makes for the best and most cost-effective interior design.

Glass Roof Atrium

Aside from building code constraints, the El tracks are located directly outside the building on Lake Street. The rumble of the El provides a sense of place, but it’s not always a welcoming noise during times of concentration. To help with sound attenuation and provide a buffer, we added insulation and installed new windows. The transitional space from the entrance will be a light-filled atrium that doubles as a lobby and a growing area. Fruit-bearing trees and other edible plants will connect the landscape design with the food-centric use.

The roof design includes a Velux manufactured system of operable skylights, with a special UV coating and shading system to minimize heat gain. In addition to the glass atrium roof the existing center skylight, running the length of the bowtruss, is being refurbished. This allows light to flood the interior of the space.

The lobby design feature allowed us to retain the historic masonry facade by creating a more typical glass storefront inside the building envelope. The mezzanine level office’s conference room will jut into the lobby space and create a space for interior signage and lighting.

Gender Neutral Bathrooms

We believe in social equity and have found a better way to design bathrooms. There is a better way to design the spaces that usually end up in the back of house without care. This includes bathrooms. Our solution is to provide individual, single occupancy bathrooms centered around a communal bathroom lobby instead of larger, multi-user stall-type bathrooms. Now we can dispense with any conversations or surveys about who can use which bathroom, all while creating a more functional, beautiful, and safer space.

Custom Millwork

In production at our off-site millwork shop are various office pods and desks. Once completed, the modular pods and desks will be delivered and placed according to plan. Modular furniture is flexible by nature and can be rearranged to fit changing environments. This is ideal for the CoLab space to meet their members’ evolving needs and to have the ability to rearrange communal spaces effortlessly.

All the desks and communal tables are custom designed and constructed with Midwest sourced wood and Chicago fabricated steel. The table base design is reminiscent of the bowtruss architecture, while the tabletops are made from storm-damaged oak and walnut from Wisconsin. Further customization includes power and A/V connections routered into the tabletop center, cleverly hidden and fed from the vertical base tubes.

Office pod sketches

Sustainable Design

First and foremost, our design and adaptation to the building code preserve a building that could have easily been demolished and the remaining debris trucked off to a landfill. Construction and demolition waste accounts for approximately 40% of the solid waste stream in the US. The West Loop is changing fast, and we are losing many industrial buildings to demolition. While it’s not financially feasible to save every existing building, and some buildings are not worth repurposing, we’re excited to work with a client that shares our belief that an original early 1900s bowtruss is worth restoring.

Buildings account for 40% of energy use in the US and 70% of electricity use. We developed a heating and cooling and a lighting plan to reduce energy consumption to address energy usage. To accommodate the various user needs, we designed a VAV (Variable Air Volume)-type HVAC system. The VAV system provides greater heat and cooling control for individual users in the building and reduces required rooftop mechanical units. This is especially important when dropping new structural loads onto an existing roof assembly.

One main objective of our design is to reduce the need for artificial light. To accomplish this, we salvaged the center skylight coupled with cutout openings in the mezzanine level floor, so light permeates down to the darker lower level. The new glass roof atrium permits natural light to penetrate deep into the interior space and public areas. For areas that require artificial light, we installed energy-efficient LEDs controlled by occupancy sensors that automatically switch off when people are not present.

Interior Materials

With more offices transitioning to open, airy workspaces that bring in natural light and offer more aesthetically pleasing design, one concern is increased noise levels. To mitigate this, we centered interior finishes around noise reduction materials.

The millwork office pods’ interior is clad with cork, which doubles as a surface space ideal for pinning concept designs. At the same time, the underside of the ceiling in select areas are finished with industrial felt. Mobile planters and trees will also help dampen sound in the lofty atrium while connecting the grown-on-site ingredients used in the kitchen to the architecture.

Rather than battling acoustic challenges by installing unsightly, afterthought objects that don’t always compliment the design, the interior materials we choose are integrated into the architecture.