When AIA Chicago executive vice president Zurich Esposito started his new job last May, he found himself with nine months to move the organization into new offices. Although the space had yet to be identified (just one of the most pressing items on his to-do list), the chapter had already started a competition called “Genesis” to gather ideas for the space from young architects. Esposito characterizes the program brief as “open-ended.” Twenty-six first-stage submissions were received and juried in June 2006, yielding five finalists who were interviewed by Esposito and several members of the board of directors before the winners were chosen the following month. An independent team of 20-something designers—Natalie Banaszak, Daimian Hines, Andrew Senderak, and Daniel West—all of whom worked in HOK's Chicago office at the time, were selected for a proposal they titled “Interface.” Their solution identified ways that the AIA's space could facilitate communication between members and others interested in architecture. “The way they talked about communication was refreshing,” says Esposito.

The team chose to work with HOK's Chicago office as the architect of record, even though half the team had left for positions at other firms by the time they were selected in August. That fact, and the potential dissonance between young designers and a large corporate firm, was the subject of some debate within AIA Chicago, but the pairing worked better than anyone could foresee.

The selected site comprised 4,000 square feet of space on the second floor of the historic Jewelers Building, a 1926 gem within view of such iconic Chicago buildings as Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building, Graham Anderson Probst & White's Wrigley Building, and Howell & Hood's Tribune Tower. “It's Architectural History 101 right out our window,” quips Esposito.

The program requirements were simple enough: seven workstations for staff who needed some privacy from the public, a more centrally located and accessible office for Esposito (separated from a central café area by glass walls), a reception area, a library, a boardroom, and storage areas. AIA Chicago's previous home in the Merchandise Mart comprised a similar suite of spaces, although each entity was a discrete room and interaction between spaces was minimal. The designers identified the café as a previously unexploited focal point. Opening this most utilitarian space to the surrounding reception, boardroom, and library creates an informal public atmosphere crucial to the designers' initial concept of “interface.”

While the design had to project forward-thinking, a professional association— particularly one of architects—doesn't have a large budget. To maximize the available funds, donations of materials and labor were solicited from most vendors. “People know lots of design professionals will see their product here,” Esposito explains. “We had to do value- engineering through donations.”

HOK's stature as a large international corporate firm—initially seen as a potential liability for the small, young design team— became a huge advantage when soliciting products. “Haworth might have been inclined to donate all the furniture just for AIA Chicago, but the relationship they had with HOK definitely helped,” says Esposito. In fact, Haworth's considerable donation extended beyond furnishings to include workstations and the demountable Enclose glass partition that defines Esposito's office. Long-time AIA Chicago sponsor (and locally headquartered) USG donated acoustical ceiling tile for certain areas, high-recycled gypsum board throughout, and their Levelrock brand Proflow material, which gives the public spaces a durable flooring with an industrial aesthetic.

Not everything was donated. Rapidly renewable bamboo veneers, black granite worksurfaces, and the café's unusual Alkemi recycled-composite countertop material were all purchased specifically for the project. Since much of the space's informal interaction is planned to take place at the sprawling café counter, it's appropriate that the designers chose to splurge with an unusual product that's likely to spark conversation. The gray surface initially appears to be a ubiquitous granite, but closer inspection reveals innumerable shavings of post-industrial scrap aluminum suspended in a polymeric resin. The embedded slivers reflect light to provide a depth that few stones can match. The material earns LEED points for its reuse of an otherwise waste material, though it's unclear whether it can be recycled again.

High-end hardware supplier Häfele donated their engineering expertise as well as products to help the young designers realize two intricate walls of doors that flank both ends of the reception area. One, with sandblasted glass, provides privacy for the boardroom when necessary. The other permits acoustical isolation of the library. Both walls are configured as a series of pivot doors that can function in a manner similar to traditional French doors, but for maximum open use of the public spaces, each series of doors can also be slid away.

Diamondman donated the perforated ceiling that floats above the entry and café area. The product tested Esposito's faith in the designers. “I had concerns that the aperture of the openings was too large and it wouldn't obscure the ductwork,” he says. In the end, the 1.8-inch diameter openings specified by the team do adequately shield the messy ductwork, while giving little glimpses of the 80-year-old building's structure. Threaded in a random pattern through the openings are the most interesting of the project's light fixtures— dainty Lytespan pendants that were partially donated by Lightolier.

The lighting is the most complicated of the product installations, involving six different fixture manufacturers and another company that provided the control system. All supplied at least some of their products for free and several donated all that were specified. One reason for the multiple suppliers was the sophisticated design of the overall lighting, which will have a power usage some 15 percent below the most stringent of current ASHRAE standards. This level of performance is a result of HOK's lighting design department's input-expertise, contributed from their St. Louis office.

The AIA Chicago staff was settling into its new quarters in March and some products remained to be installed. No doubt further donors will be found as the space and its new potential uses become part of the chapter's everyday functions. Upon completion, the project will be submitted for LEED Commercial Interiors certification. Esposito still marvels at the quality achieved by such a young group of designers. “They're going to pick our furniture?” he asked at the start. “They're so young they probably don't even own furniture!”

Interface team, left to right: Daimian Hines, Andrew Senderak, Natalie Banaszak (Daniel West, not pictured)
Interface team, left to right: Daimian Hines, Andrew Senderak, Natalie Banaszak (Daniel West, not pictured)

PROJECT AIA Chicago Offices ADDRESS Chicago, Ill.


PROJECT TEAM Interface Team—Natalie Banaszak, Daimian Hines, Andrew Senderak, Daniel West


ENGINEER Kent Consulting

CONTRACTOR Executive Construction Inc.