If it were only a case of “practice what you preach,” the sustainably designed Midwest offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) would offer an impressive enough example, with a new space that exploits daylight and incorporates reclaimed materials. But this esteemed environmental-action group and its architect, Studio Gang, wanted to set a new standard. The project surpasses LEED Platinum to become the world's first tenant retrofit to achieve certification through the Living Building Challenge, the built environment's most rigorous performance standard. More than that, though, the office is a stunning workplace, with a carefully considered layout that caters to the unique needs of the Chicago branch of the organization's small but growing staff of lawyers, economists, engineers, communications specialists, and policy experts.

“When we asked ourselves, 'What kind of measure do we want to use?' ” explains Studio Gang principal Jeanne Gang, “we realized that by taking on the Living Building Challenge, we essentially joined the movement to require transparency in the content of building materials. That has the potential to transform the industry faster.”

The 7,800-square-foot office occupies the 16th floor of the entire northern wing of the 1929 Civic Opera House Building in The Loop. “We wanted to address the already-built environment and show that we could renovate an old structure to meet our own mission goals,” says NRDC Midwest director Henry Henderson. “We also liked the space and its position on the river.” Its deep footprint was a factor in the decision to forgo private offices for an open plan that would bring sunlight and ventilation to all workstations, strategically located along the perimeter. Daylight-responsive sensors control lighting within 15 feet of the perimeter glazing and over 50 percent of the total lighting load. LED task lamps supplement illumination at cubicles. Such measures contributed to the project's impressive Lighting Power Density calculation, which shows a 40.02% reduction compared to an ASHRAE 90.1-2007 baseline.

Dedicated areas for both collaborative and focused independent work surround the staircase and elevator core. An irregular configuration of glazed meeting rooms, kitchen, flex areas, and support spaces cheekily takes the shape of the state of Illinois in plan (oriented east'west). Large, more private conference rooms cap the eastern edge of the office. Occupancy sensors regulate the locally sourced pendant lights that serve as focal points in many of these areas.

To unify the open areas, the architect reprised and refined a rope structure it first experimented with for an exhibition of the firm's work at the Art Institute of Chicago last year. For this project, a more intricate version of the installation became the perfect framework on which easy-to-maintain plants could flourish, aided by overhead grow lights.

With scant material, the rope latticework provides a striking three-dimensional surface that conceals structural columns among the shoulder-high workstations and graces a wall of the reception area. A second wall composed of reclaimed door moldings also greets visitors there.

The d'cor is playful and straightforward. Refurbished vintage mid-20th-century pieces comprise many of the furnishings in the space. Staggered two- and four-foot fluorescent tubes intermingle with cutouts in the acoustical ceiling to lessen the sense of directionality of the lighting'an arrangement that also offers flexibility for future ceiling modification. The finishes and all light fixtures were approved by the Living Building Institute.

Meeting the Living Building Challenge naturally lent itself to the “back to basics” design approach the architect took. Remarkably, it also satisfied the client's limited budget and constricted timeline for the project. According to Gang, “Truly engaging the users and setting goals at the beginning of a project are key parts to its ultimate success.”

Trained as an architect, Josephine Minutillo is a New York'based writer for RECORD.

Size: 7,800 square feet

Cost: withheld

Completion date: July 2013

Studio Gang Architects ' Jeanne Gang, design principal; Mark Schendel, managing principal; Margaret Cavenaugh, director of interiors; Angela Peckham, project manager


20 N. Wacker Drive, Suite 1600 Chicago, IL 60606

Completion Date:
July 2013

Gross square footage:
7,800 sf

Natural Resources Defense Council

Natural Resources Defense Council

Studio Gang Architects
1212 N. Ashland Ave, Suite 212
Chicago, IL 60622

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Jeanne Gang, FAIA
Founder and Design Principal

Mark Schendel, FAIA
Managing Principal

Margaret Cavenagh, AIA
Director of Interiors

Angela Peckham
Project Manager

Architect of record:
Studio Gang Architects

Interior designer:
Studio Gang Architects

MEP Engineering + LEED: WMA Consulting Engineers

Acoustical: Threshold Acoustics

Owner/Client Representative: Closed Loop Advisors

General contractor:
Norcon, Inc.

Credit: “Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, Courtesy of Studio Gang Architects”
Steve Hall
Hedrich Blessing
400 N Peoria St, Chicago, IL 60622
(312) 491-1101



Metal doors: Ceco Doors

Wood doors: Custom Manufactured wood frame glazing system by United Wood Working, Inc.

Locksets: Schlage

LCN Closers
ABH Mfg, Inc.

Exit devices: Alkco/Phillips Signage

Pulls: Rockwood Mfg.

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings:
Custom Grey Buffalo Felt Treatment over 1.5' Fabri-Tough by Tectum
Painted 1.5' Concellico Acoustical Panels by Tectum

Suspension grid: U.S. Gypsum

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Custom Manufactured by American Custom Woodworking, Inc.

Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore (chalkboard paint, 'Natura' WG Eggshell and 'Eco-Spec' WB Eggshell)

Paneling: See 'Special Interior Finishes'

Solid surfacing: Reclaimed Granite Countertop & Backsplash by Bourbon Tile & Marble

Floor and wall tile: Rubber EPDM by EcoSurface ('EcoNights for ESD') in server rooms

Resilient flooring: Aquaria Floor Finish by Diversey, Inc on Levelrock ('Ultra Armor') by U.S. Gypsum

Carpet: 'The Brights' carpet tile collection by Bolyu

Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Custom manufactured wood trim walls by United Woodworking (salvaged or FSC Certified)
Custom manufactured steel trellis by Vector Custom Fabrication with Nylon Ropes by Cancord, Inc.
Interior Plantings by Christy Webber Landscaping

Window covering:
'Green Screen Revive' shades by Lutron
Black Out Shades by Lutron

Furnishings Office furniture: Systems Furniture by Knoll

Reception furniture: Custom reclaimed barn wood reception desk by United Woodworking

Bertoia Guest Chairs by Knoll
'Liberty' Task Chairs by Humanscale
Bar Stools by Coalesse
'Bob' Lounge Chairs by Coalesse
Cork Stools by Moooi
Refurbished Saarinen Executive Chairs by Knoll
Diamond Lounge Chair by Knoll

Kitchen Table by DWR
SW-1 Conference Tables by Coalesse

Knoll Textiles

Interior ambient lighting:
'Line' by 3G Lighting
'Avenue C' by Focal Point
'Edge 60' by XAL
Z-Strip Fluorescent by Lithonia

'Skydome' by Focal Point
'Element' by Tech Lighting
'Seem 4' by Focal Point

Task lighting:
'Lumelex 2044' by Lighting Services, Inc.
'Ecoline' Round LED by Optolum
'Non-Random' by Lightology

Dimming System or other lighting controls: Lutron


  • The project's Lighting Power Density calculation shows a 40.02% reduction compared to an ASHRAE 90.1-2007 baseline.
  • Daylight responsive controls have been installed for all lighting within 15 feet of perimeter glazing and for over 50% of the total lighting load.
  • Occupancy sensors have been installed for over 75% of the lighting load; occupancy sensors have been set to vacancy mode to further reduce power consumption.
  • Plumbing
    Faucets by Hansgrohe
    Dishwasher by Maytag/Whirlpool
    Expansion Tank by Armtrol
    Sink & Drain by Elkay

    Energy management or building automation system: Noveda Smart Box Metering

    Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:


  • The project is an interior build-out and the project scope did not include energy modeling. As a result there is not a predicted EUI.
  • There is no on-site renewable energy
  • Interior Build-outs are not eligible for Energy Star Target Finder
  • Project's Lighting Power Density calculation shows a 40.02% reduction compared to an ASHRAE 90.1-2007 baseline
    • AIA 2030 Challenge threshold is 25%
    • Project utilized space by space method
  • Daylight responsive controls have been installed for all lighting within 15 feet of perimeter glazing and for over 50% of the total lighting load
  • Occupancy sensors have been installed for over 75% of the lighting load; occupancy sensors have been set to vacancy mode to further reduce power consumption
  • Over 90% (by rated power) of equipment and appliances installed carry the Energy Star label
  • Noveda spot energy and water meters have been installed to allow NRDC to track energy and water consumption and modify habits to further reduce energy consumption when possible
  • NRDC has negotiated a lease which requires them to pay a tenant proportionate share of whole building energy consumption for heating, cooling, and water (not typical for Civic Opera House tenants); electricity usage is sub-metered directly to the utility
  • Water

  • 39% water use reduction using the LEED for Commercial Interiors baseline (EPAct 1992 with subsequent rulings from 2005)
  • 39% reduction includes fixtures installed within the NRDC space and common area fixtures upgraded per NRDC's request
  • 31.8% reduction for only fixtures installed within the NRDC office space
  • No irrigation has been installed for interior plantings
  • No grey water or waste water is used on-site (per code)
  • Community

  • No vehicle parking spaces have been provided for NRDC occupants
  • 4 bicycle storage spaces have been provided for NRDC occupants
  • Project neighborhood has a Walkscore rating of 97
  • Project is within ' mile of the CTA Blue, Brown, Orange, Green, Pink and Purple line trains; with ' mile of the Ogilvie Transportation Center with access to Metra trains; and within ' mile of multiple of CTA bus lines, including standard service and rush hour express buses
  • The project is within walking distance and provides safe pedestrian access to multiple community amenities
  • The base building density is approximately 300,000 SF/ acre
  • Materials

  • The project has only installed products that meet the Living Building Challenge Red List requirements and has advocated for transparency within the industry
  • 100% of permanently installed wood (excluding furniture elements) was purchased FSC Certified Wood or Reclaimed Lumber
  • 96.32% of construction waste was diverted from landfill; design preference was given to unit dimensions of standard materials (i.e. carpet and ceiling tiles) to further limit the waste generated during construction; project team developed a conservation management plan to address material reuse and end of life disposal
  • 10.57% (by cost) of products were reused or reclaimed (does not include furniture)
  • Installed materials that contain over 14% (by cost) pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled content (includes furniture)
  • Over 42% (by cost) of products were manufactured within 500 miles of Chicago; Over 17% of products were also harvest/extracted within 500 miles of Chicago (includes furniture); in additional all products met the sourcing requirements of the Living Building Challenge
  • Project utilizes both compost and recycling collection areas
  • Indoor Environmental Quality

  • Composite wood products contain no added formaldehyde (above and beyond LEED requirements)
  • Adhesive, sealants, paints, and coatings meet the LEED VOC content requirements
  • Carpets meet the Carpet and Rug Institute Green Label Plus requirements; hard surface flooring meets the FloorScore testing requirements
  • Systems furniture and seating meet the GreenGuard IAQ testing requirements and AMSI/BIFMA M7.1-2007 testing requirements
  • Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
    Living Future Institute Case Study (Living Building Challenge Certification Authority)