Many of the same firms that worked on the 32-story Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project, completed in 2017, are back to work on the $500 million transformation
of the North Office Building at the company's downtown Milwaukee headquarters campus.
That includes New Haven, Connecticut-based architectural firm Pickard Chilton
, which was the lead design firm for the Tower and Commons project. Principal Jon Pickard
spoke to BizTimes Milwaukee about the plans for the transformation of the North Office Building, built in 1990, into a smaller version of the Tower and Commons.
The rebuilt building will offer connections to nature that the current building lacks, Pickard said, including larger windows providing lake and city views and allowing in more natural light.
"In the lower floors there will be public spaces, exterior gardens," Pickard said. "We're working with the (Dallas-based) Office of James Burnett
, which are the landscape architects for this project, they’ve designed a beautiful garden on Mason Street (OJB was also the landscape architect for the Tower and Commons project). The whole entry experience is going to be transformed with a public garden, available to the public, private gardens for the employees of Northwestern Mutual on the fourth floor to flow out above the podium. It’s going to be a pretty unique experience for the employees."
Pickard said he had not expected that Northwestern Mutual would decide to do a dramatic transformation of the North Office Building on its campus.
"We suspected at some point that the parking garage site (northwest of Cass and Mason streets) might be transformed into an expansion building," Pickard said. "We never imagined that the North Office Building would be reimaged as we are. What's happened, though, it's been interesting, (Northwestern Mutual has) suffered because of the success of (Tower and Commons building). Their employees want to be (in that building). The North Office Building is a perfectly responsibly-designed building for its time. But by comparison, the employees feel like they're in the 'other building.' They want to be here (at the Tower and Commons building)."
While the North Office Building will be transformed into a "mini-me" of the Tower and Commons Building, the interior experience is much more important than the exterior appearance, Pickard said.
"(Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske's) goal was there's an urban campus and it has a continuity," Pickard said. "To be frank, I think he cared about the exterior character, but what he really wanted, he wanted the employee experience to be virtually identical (for the Tower and Commons and the North Office Building). He did not want to have an A and an A-minus. He was really clear. When we had our first conversation, I was honest. I said, 'I don’t know if we can do it for you.' I just didn’t know. (But) it turns out the North Office Building has enough positive fundamentals to allow us to do what we are doing. The structural frame is good. The foundation is good. And so, we’re able to make these kinds of transformations, given the modern mechanical systems that we expect."
To transform the North Office Building, it will be stripped to its bones and rebuilt.
"You'll see a steel frame," Pickard said. "The proportions are a little bit like a shoe box. And then what we do, is to give the sweeping faces that look out to the lake, we're working with the (Chicago office of) structural engineers MKA (Magnusson Klemencic Assoc.
). They come in and they have a series of moment connection welds to the frame and they cantilever out little bits of steel. So one projects out, let’s say 2 feet, another one projects out 4 feet, another one projects out 6 feet. And they make that (curved) shape. And that allows for a circulation zone as well. Which means when we want to put workspaces in the floorplate the floorplates are a little bigger and they’re a little more efficient. And so for the employee, being inside that building is going to look virtually identical to being inside (the Towers and Commons) building, and that was a purposeful goal."
Northwestern Mutual and the design team did consider tearing down the North Office Building to build a new building, but decided the rebuild was a better option, Pickard said.
"What we did is we ran a parallel study," he said. "We also brought in a very sophisticated team. We’re working from day one with Gilbane (Building Co. which along with Milwaukee-based C.G Schmidt was the general contractor for the Tower and Commons project. A general contractor has not been selected for the North Office Building transformation). So we had active, accurate knowledge right up front. And what we did is we did the new design and so we ran it out. What would happen if we take the time to demolish the North Building take it down, put in a new foundation, build up new, how much time does that take? What does that cost? (They found out that) it takes a lot more time to do that and it costs a lot more money."
"We wouldn’t be doing this if the building that resulted from it was not class double-A, but it is," Chilton said. "And because they made a good decision in 1990 to make the floor-to-floor 15 feet, which means we can put in a 10-foot clear ceiling, which is identical to (the Tower and Commons), and we can have proper mechanical systems so that employees are comfortable. If the floor-to-floor had been 13 feet we might have made a very different decision (on building completely new or rebuilding the North Office Building)."
The rebuilt North Office Building will only be "slightly larger" than the current building, Pickard said. But Northwestern Mutual executives say the new space will be more efficient with a higher capacity for more workstations.
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