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Strange Marriage by the Lake

At Chicago’s Lakeside Technology Center, engineers worked with developers and city officials to convert a venerable former printing plant to a high-tech carrier hotel for Internet and telecommunications companies

By Christine Houde

Judging by its exterior, the Lakeside Technology Center is anything but cutting edge. Terra cotta medallions depicting printing gurus such as Guttenberg and Baskerville decorate the brick and limestone facade. By the main entrance, a two-story vaulted arch with carved shields, grapevines, ships, books, and castles provides an ornate welcome. Inside, the three sets of gilded elevator doors and stately marble steps seem to belong in a medieval European castle.

Built in multiple stages starting in 1917, the fortresslike building claims an entire city block. As the corporate headquarters of printing giant R.R. Donnelly & Sons, it once churned out everything from Life Magazine to the Sears catalog. Upon it’s completion in 1929, the Chicago Tribune called the building, "Chicago’s most beautiful factory."

A structural marvel, the Calumet Plant, as the building was called because of its adjacency to Calumet Avenue, was built with 4,675 steel-reinforced columns and 10- to 12-inch-thick floors that can bear loads of 250 pounds per square foot—necessary to support the hulking printing presses. Situated just south of Chicago’s business district, the Gothic plant contrasts to the city’s shiny modern skyline, though in the 1930s, the building set the tone for Chicago’s industrial presence in America. But over the years, printing business dwindled, and in 1992, the city condemned a portion of the plant, forcing Donnelly to relocate its headquarters to downtown. The abandoned building fell even further into disrepair.

Coming out of Retirement
By 1999, the dot.com boom had created great demand for space to store the heavy, hot, floor-to-ceiling computer equipment used by Internet and telecommunications companies. The Calumet Plant, with its heavy-load-bearing floors, 14-foot ceilings, and huge shafts used to push cool air to the presses, had the structural backbone needed to house high-tech machinery.

Besthesda, Maryland-based Internet real estate company Core Location L.L.C. and Washington D.C.-based investment firm Carlyle Group bought the building and renamed it Lakeside Technology Center. They hired design-build firm McClier, which has a strong background in both preservation and technology projects, to transform the center into a high-tech mecca. Handling engineering and construction, McClier completed the shell and core of the building and all infrastructure. Headquartered in Chicago, McClier has other offices in Atlanta; Denver; Orange, California; New York; San Francisco; and Phoenix and also has architecture capabilities.

Carrier hotels, as these equipment-loaded, people-scarce structures are commonly called, were cutting edge. Tenants, most often Internet carriers and telecommunications companies, share power, fiber-optics access, and security—expensive commodities if purchased by each individual user—and link to each other and outside carriers.

All this happens in the 25,000-square-foot "meet me" room, where the tenants’ systems converge. Each month, the room saves millions of dollars, since data easily jumps from one tenant’s network to another, making it possible to avoid the hefty tariffs charged when the data transmission leaves the building. In addition, the closeness greatly increases efficiency by eliminating complicated switching procedures and long trips over Internet fiber.

Equally important, though, is the fact a carrier hotel provides a constant source of power to the servers and other equipment. "If the power fails for even a second, the servers go down and customers will jump to other carriers. It’s absolutely critical that the tenants have constant power," explains Tom Corning, senior vice president of construction for McClier. This requires reliable redundant and backup electrical power systems. Corning is an architect with a specialty in structural engineering.

First of its Kind
Previously, a few carrier hotels existed, mostly in New York City, but the cobbled-together buildings were a mish mash of high-tech equipment and high-end office space. The Lakeside Technology Center would be the first and largest planned carrier hotel in the country. "Tremendous efficiencies could be achieved because of the master planning that could take place and the coordination of all the different structural, electrical, and telecommunications elements within the building to best serve the tenant requirements," says Christopher Martersteck, the senior project manager, and then senior vice president at McClier. Martersteck is now vice president of Middough Consulting, an engineering, architecrure, and construction firm in Westmont, Illinois.

Besides meeting structural requirements, the old Calumet Plant was close to a city center, where data transmittal needs are more prevalent. It was located on two electrical power grids, so that if one ever tripped up, the second would take over. It had access to major fiber optic routes. Even its cube-like shape was a bonus.

At the start, "The building had a five-level atrium in the center, but we filled it in to create a much more efficient structure," says Martersteck. "It made a 1.1 million square foot facility out of 800,000 or 900,000 square feet, and instead of having to run wiring all around the perimeter of the floor, it could be run right across the center."

Behind the building, a pipe bridge that encases steel conduit, electrical lines, and low-voltage cable runs from diesel backup generators, each rated at 2500 kilowatts, into the building. An enormous chilled water tank system pumps water to chillers each tenant keeps on the north roof. These, in turn, send chilled refrigerant to blowers with heat exchanger coils in the spaces. Large, split systems such as this are required to maintain the optimum temperature and humidity for operating banks of computers. Windy City Fire Protection, a firm in Elk Grove Village, Illinois that designs and installs fire protection systems, designed a system with ten standpipes, new electrical fire pumps, and more than 12,000 sprinklers.

The developers felt confident they could fill the building within five years, putting multiple tenants on each floor, says Corning. The project began under this assumption, but just as McClier was nailing down how the building should function, everything began to change. "We anticipated needing a forest of teeny desk-sized generators because of all the smaller tenants. All those generators didn’t fit in the building. That’s part of the reason the pipe bridge is so big. We had to put the generators outside and run the conduit from each of them into the building somehow," Corning explains. The engineers leaned toward using natural-gas-powered microturbines for generators if they were to go inside. With them placed outside, they opted for units driven by diesel engines. The need for storing fuel to run the generators added impetus to putting them outside.

The pipe bridge allows electrical conduit to travel from the generators into the basement of the building before it gets directed upstairs to the individual tenants. At several locations, 10-foot square shafts are full of four-inch conduit traveling throughout the building. Measuring 10 to 12 feet wide and roughly that high, the pipe bridge handles some 500 four-inch conduits, each with 500 or 750 MCM cable, which weigh about 12 pounds per foot.

Change of Plans
But instead of leasing space in little bites, tenants like Equinix and Global Center, both of Silicon Valley, swallowed up entire 130,000-square-foot floors. Amazingly, within one year of its purchase, more than 95 percent of the building was leased. Today, full-floor tenants occupy five of the building’s eight usable floors.

The change of floor usage actually made things easier for McClier. "We were expecting to have 60 generators, for 60 clients, which means lot of conduit," Martersteck says. Today, there are 18 generators, with room for 26 total. The extra space will be used if floors ever divide further, since each tenant provides its own backup generator.

The full-floor tenants "created a much higher density of use than anticipated because instead of having all these little tenants with little support systems, we got these huge economies of scale. It dominoed down into the needs for infrastructure to support everything in terms of shaft space and coordination of incoming electrical service," Martersteck says.

When it came to reconfiguring the building’s electrical systems, "We sized the vaults for a certain number of square foot per user, and when the users got to be bigger, their service requirements got bigger," recalls Robert Weber, vice president of electrical engineering for McClier. "Instead of a needing a lot of smaller services, it turned out to be fewer bigger services, so actually there’s more room in the vault than we’d originally planned." The vaults are electrical junction boxes used to store hardware such as switches, breakers, and connectors. Weber designed the systems along with Dilip Mehta, senior electrical engineer.

Lakeside Technology Center can support 210,000 computer servers, stores 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel to power the generators, and requires 85 watts of power per square foot. To put it in perspective, that’s 96 million megawatts for the building—30 percent more than the Sears Tower, or enough to light 10,000 Chicago homes. The average office building uses only eight watts per square foot.

To keep everything up and running, four power lines, two from the area’s North substation and two from the South substation, run into two separate vaults in the building, to help prevent power failures. But the real hero in a blackout would be the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems provided by each tenant. If both substations fail—as reportedly happened once, thanks to a construction crew working a few blocks away—the individual UPS systems kick in. After a 10-second delay, the generators come online, but critical loads are supported in the meantime. The building also has one generator to support common areas.

With the city of Chicago contributing $4.5 million to the project and Mayor Richard Daley eager for the new high-tech companies and 300-plus jobs Lakeside Technology Center would bring, the city expedited the updating of its building permit process to reflect changing times. "The old codes simply didn’t work with this new kind of building," says Corning. The city based requirements for things like fresh air, exhaust, toilets, and lighting on the number of people who typically work in a 1.1-million-square-foot space. "It didn’t really apply. We have about 300 people working in this building; we don’t need all those toilets," he says. Another issue for the city, Martersteck says, was the generators, since they require huge tanks of potentially flammable diesel fuel that had to go somewhere. "This building was going to be 90 percent machines, 10 percent people. I don’t think the city had seen anything like this before. Let’s just say we had a lot of talks," he comments.

In March, 2004, the Lakeside Technology Center was granted landmark status in Chicago, firmly cementing the building’s place in history and further emphasizing the stark contrast of old and new. The old Gothic-styled headquarters of a printing giant and high-speed computers driving the Internet make for a strange marriage, but by all accounts, a solid one. As the Lakeside Technology Center proves, opposites attract.


Christine Houde is a freelance writer based in Chicago


Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer