Northwestern medical facility incorporates sustainable design

Six ways Northwestern Medicine's 259 East Erie building incorporates sustainable design.

By Marya Graff, CannonDesign September 14, 2015

For many of the 2.7 million people living and working in Chicago, caring about the planet is more than a trend or a business strategy, it’s a way of life. In fact, current mayor Rahm Emanuel recently upped the stakes with the Chicago Energy Benchmarking Ordinance which requires all existing municipal, commercial and residential buildings larger than 50,000 sq. ft. to track whole-building energy use and report back to the city, accounting for around 20% of total energy used by all buildings. It’s no coincidence that Northwestern Medicine’s 998,280 sq. ft. 259 East Erie building, which was designed and opened its doors in 2014, sought and achieved LEED Gold for Core and Shell certification, solidifying the health system’s place as leaders in sustainable building design. Here is how they did it:

1. Sustainability as a design strategy

From the first conversation about what the building would ultimately look like, both client and designer knew that sustainability would be a large part of the picture. The design allowed for maximum energy efficiency by incorporating an efficient envelope construction, high-efficiency chillers, heat recovery, an efficient condensing boiler plant, variable speed drives on all major pumps and fans, and sustainable lighting solutions. High-efficiency plumbing fixtures help reduce water consumption, while conscious refrigerant management strategies work to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depletion. An underground stormwater detention solution and vegetated roof areas were also woven into the design to reduce stormwater runoff.

2. Designing for flexibility

Impending changes in the future of medicine and the delivery of care required Northwestern Medicine to have flexibility in its facilities. As care delivery needs change, fixed building elements traditionally can’t, so the design team leveraged a universal grid to maintain flexibility over time. The universal grid utilizes a structural steel frame that is based on an optimal set of vertical and horizontal dimensions to support many different clinic layouts while maintaining flexibility to support other functions over time.

The construction process, which is typically resource-intensive, provided additional opportunities to reduce the environmental footprint of 259 East Erie. 95% of construction waste was diverted from landfills and incineration facilities, and materials consisted of more than 20% recycled content and 30% regional content, helping to limit the need for sourcing new materials and taking advantage of local materials to reduce transportation emissions. For the sake of occupant health, construction practices aimed to optimize indoor air quality – including development of an air quality management plan; use of only low-VOC paints, sealants, adhesives, and flooring; and the use of composite wood products and adhesives containing no added urea-formaldehyde.3. Focusing on health of the planet and its people

4. Siting that makes environmental sense

Located at the heart of an urban center, 259 East Erie capitalizes on its location to further its sustainability goals. Some of these strategies include:

  • Parking located within the building footprint to reduce excessive land use;
  • Convenient access to facility via walking, biking or public transit;
  • Location within walking distance of many commercial, residential and community service destinations; and
  • Inherently preserving undeveloped land suited for ecosystems and natural habitats by opting for urban redevelopment.

5. Incorporating mixed-use space for ultimate sustainability

Perhaps the true hallmark of a sustainable building is what value it offers to the community and what it could become in the future. Healthcare systems are increasingly incorporating mixed use buildings into their master plans and bringing in an array of tenants to fill the space, making them a more authentic part of the community and less disposable twenty, thirty, or fifty years down the line. Mixed use/tenant spaces help extend the longevity of a healthcare building. On a more granular level, Northwestern Medicine placed a special emphasis on sustainable design and construction guidelines for all tenants of 259 East Erie. These guidelines informed tenants about the overall sustainability strategy for the building and advised ways they could complement these efforts in their own spaces.

6. Looking toward the future 

To track and measure their building’s performance and comply with local benchmarking standards, Northwestern Medicine took steps to measure the ongoing operational impact of 259 East Erie. By implementing long-term energy tracking via the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager, providing a separate electric meter for each tenet, installing permanent monitoring systems to provide ongoing feedback on ventilation system performance, and installing cooling tower conductivity meters to minimize chemical use and maximize water efficiency, the owners ensure that the sustainability measures implemented in the design and construction of the new facility will offer return on investment for years to come.