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Union Gathering Place

A former elementary school transforms into contemporary meeting space

Ibew1 Mcnaward
Photo: Paul Schlismann Photography, courtesy of Wight & Co.

The transformation of the former Chicago Public Schools’ 1960s-era Drake Elementary School into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 134’s new headquarters and union hall prompted the 2018 Metal Construction News Building and Roofing Awards judges to name the project the winner in the metal wall retrofit category.

Completed in May 2018, the $25 million project in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood is approximately 70,000 square feet, which includes a 48,000-square-foot school retrofit and a 22,000-square-foot addition. Wight & Co., Darien, Ill., was the architect and general contractor for the project, which turned the elementary school into the IBEW administrative offices, conference rooms and lounges, while the adjacent wing houses the union hall and lobby.

According to Milica “Mimi” Stojsavljevic, project designer with Wight & Co., “IBEW Local 134 sought a new home for its members—a home that would create a strong presence within a community, a home that would speak to both the history and the future of this strong brotherhood, a home that would be both inviting and inspiring. They wanted to create a gathering place that puts light on both the union’s future as well as its legacy. Local 134 wanted to build a state-of-the-art facility that would represent the future of their trade and set a precedent for all others.”

Dubbed “the Beacon of Bronzeville,” for showcasing future jobs in the industry and illuminating a potential path to the trades for local youth, Stojsavljevic says the site of the former school was the perfect location, and “an opportunity to transform an existing structure, while contributing to the ongoing revitalization of this vibrant community.”

The original Chicago Public Schools’ 1960s-era Drake Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Wight & Co.

A Team Effort

Stojsavljevic notes that the transformation of the original Drake School was going to be dramatic, “which indicated early on that it would need a profound amount of collaborative effort between the design and construction teams. Wight & Co. was perfect for the job as we were all one team that worked seamlessly together toward the end goal.”

To achieve the desired results for IBEW, Stojsavljevic says the decision was made to demolish everything but the concrete structure and rebuild the exterior skin and interiors. A 5-foot cavity between the renovated school building and the newly constructed union hall and lobby serves as a chase for oversized ductwork running to the lobby.

Demolition began in January 2017 with a tight schedule requiring the renovated offices to be ready by September 2017 and the new union hall and lobby built by March 2018.

A Bold Statement

Although a thinner metal panel was originally specified for the cladding on both buildings, the installer, Architectural Panel Systems Inc. (APS), Naperville, Ill., recommended using Alucobond aluminum composite material (ACM) by 3A Composites USA Inc., Davidson, N.C., to maintain the desired aesthetics of the modern design, which incorporates very large modules.

“The Alucobond ACM panel was selected as the wrapper of the building because it gave us a clean and modern finish that would help emphasize the massing as well as the slim profile that was crucial to the architectural concept,” Stojsavljevic says. “The module we wanted to work with was fairly large and Alucobond ACM was able to achieve this. The custom colors were so helpful; it gave us endless opportunity in color selection.”

The new facility is clad in nearly 24,000 square feet of 4-mm Alucobond PLUS ACM in a rainscreen system. Overall, the project features 19,873 square feet of Alucond PLUS ACM in custom Ridgedale Silver, 2,327 square feet in custom Gray Velvet Mica and 1,747 square feet in Bone White.

The two custom colors were selected to “create a two-tone subtle backdrop to reflect the building’s light feature,” Stojsavljevic says. “We picked these very custom colors to create a silhouette around a light-filled wall. We wanted to create a bold statement in the community that would reflect the Bronzeville revitalization.”

Sobotec Ltd., Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, engineered and fabricated 1,085 large Alucobond panels into its SL-2000 panel system. The majority of the panels measured 5 feet by 12 feet, with some ranging up to 16 feet in length. Since the design required very long panels, Sobotec developed engineering plans that included the installation of aluminum stiffeners behind the Alucobond panels.

Photo: Paul Schlismann Photography, courtesy of Wight & Co.

A Sense of Identity

Stojsavljevic notes that a strong sense of identity was created along Martin Luther King Drive by the powerful use of light. “The architecture not only uses light as a representation of the Union’s trade,” she says, “but it also creates an ambient backdrop for the hundreds of members gathering at the entry plaza, filtering through the transparent lobby and into the solid mass of the Union Hall. This entry sequence symbolizes the notion that the strength of the Union is made up of individuals.”

The illuminated feature walls create a “firefly” lighting effect, a visual magnet that attracts members of the local community to approach and explore the building’s exterior.

A Lasting Legacy

Additionally, Wight & Co. turned the original gymnasium into a community center for neighborhood residents to play basketball, soccer and other indoor sports for free. IBEW 134 is also partnering with the nearby Dunbar Vocational Career Academy High School to provide instructors to teach electrical courses, while guaranteeing program graduates positions in the union’s pre-apprentice program.

Award judge James E. Theimer, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal at TRILOGY Architecture, Redding, Calif., notes, “What stands out is the elegance and careful detail of the metal façade with a creativity employed by the designers that enlivens what might otherwise be a featureless expanse of wall. Here, extra effort was clearly on display to take an adaptive reuse project to the next, higher level of design.”