Balancing Creativity and Value: United Way of Metropolitan Chicago
When United Way of Metropolitan Chicago merged with its suburban counterparts a decade ago, the nonprofit human services agency was housed in a West Loop loft building. Its various departments and functions were physically spread out and segregated across three separate floors. That environment wasn’t optimal for an organization that views one of its primary roles as a “community convener.”
Cushman & Wakefield’s J. Frank Franzese and Steven Bauer identified these challenges very early on in the process and worked closely with the board of directors. When the board decided to sell the property and relocate the agency to the 30th floor of the CNA Center, building out a new headquarters from scratch for 100-plus employees was the perfect opportunity to engage strategic design and construction to better reflect and support their mission. “We knew we wanted to change the way we worked as an organization, so there were some features we had to have,” said Joseph Vanyo, the organization’s chief operating officer. “One was that everyone must be on the same floor. We also needed meeting and work space for our agency partners and donors when they visit. And we wanted the design to reflect who we are and the communities we serve, but not in an ostentatious way.”
Those weren’t the only considerations. The budget was tight, and so was the space. The agency was downsizing from nearly 60,000 square feet to 28,000 square feet. Fortunately, large conference space was no longer needed because it was available elsewhere in the CNA Center.
The new headquarters began as a blank square box, with the elevator bank and utilities in the center. The exterior walls are nearly floor-to-ceiling glass, capturing impressive views of the city. From there, the architect designed a floor plan with workstations and small conference areas positioned along the perimeter and glass-fronted executive offices circling the core. The entire floor is filled with natural light.
Architect Michael Berger of Partners by Design explained how the office geometry conserves space while expanding function: Conventional build-outs place offices along outer walls, where their size is defined by window mullions usually set five feet apart. They end up measuring 10 feet or 15 feet on the perimeter side and are rectangular in shape. The United Way offices, unrestricted by mullions, are 13 feet square. The size is conducive for office use or for small gatherings.
“We can place a larger work surface or meeting table there, and get four or five people in the room,” said Berger. “They don’t have to sit across from someone’s desk. By doing that, we were able to cut down on some of the other meeting spaces.”
And employees get the best views, said Vanyo.
The organization’s departments are arranged so that associates with related functions can conveniently interact. The marketing department is near the community building and fundraising departments, and finance is near operations. To further encourage confabs and innovation there are three hub areas, each designed for different work styles: One with comfy lounge seating, one with traditional table seating, and one with high-top counters for those who prefer to stand.
“The open floor concept helps us build collaboration across departments and allows us to more expediently get the information we need to make decisions,” said Vanyo.
The décor, with input from an employee team, is contemporary yet inclusive. The color palette of mostly white furnishings and slate gray carpeting are punctuated with accents of mustard, brown, taupe and turquoise. Environmental graphics in key locations boldly pronounce both the agency’s legacy, and its current work to bring quality programs and services in education, income and health to communities that need them most. In the reception area, for example, a wall of reclaimed wood is engraved with the United Way logo. In the lunch room, another wall is imprinted with the names of the 58 communities the agency serves.
Vanyo credits the project team for understanding the agency’s culture and values, and then translating it into an exceptional space on a lean budget.
“Partners by Design shared the concepts, and Skender helped us get the best price,” he said. “They have a very creative approach. They would say, ‘We can get you a beautiful piece that is scaled down from the original design but still something very professional.’”
Among the cost savings: Creating reception area seating from reclaimed wood was less expensive than buying sofas. Custom millwork was limited to cabinetry for the marketing group and the reception desk; other furnishings were stock purchases.
The three-month project was delivered on time and under budget. All the agency’s goals have been met, said Vanyo.
“We feel a different level of energy and camaraderie that is much more effective in how we work in this space than we ever did before,” he said. “We hear much less about ‘I work in operations’ or ‘I work in marketing.’ Now we hear, ‘I work for United Way.’”