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Gensler’s Sheryl Schulze on reimagining Old Main Post Office, and elevating women in real estate

Sheryl Schulze with a model of the Old Main Post Office building

When it comes to turning a 2.5-million-square-foot husk into a laboratory for the next generation of office design, there’s no precedent or playbook to fall back on — not even for Sheryl Schulze, who over the past 20 years had a hand in some of the city’s most ambitious office developments and renovations.

Schulze, a senior associate and landlord services director for architecture firm Gensler, is overseeing day-to-day design work for 601W Companies’ $600 million renovation of the former Old Main Post Office. An army of workers has already removed some 20,000 pounds of debris from the 97-year-old building, which sat empty for decades on a site the size of eight football fields, and crews are now starting to solidify Gensler’s lofty plans in steel and concrete.

Schulze sat down with The Real Deal at Gensler’s Midwest headquarters in the Loop’s historic Sullivan Center to give a preview of the digs that await Walgreens and other tenants when the project wraps up late next year, including loft office spaces and “mobile amenities.”

She also described how office designers are reimagining amenity spaces, and how tenants can shrink their real estate footprints by “densifying” in a way that encourages better collaboration and productivity. And she discussed the value of having women at the table in every meeting, and what Gensler is doing to elevate women in a male-dominated industry.

The following interview has been edited for length.

What stage is the Post Office redevelopment at right now? If I were to walk into the building, what would I see?

It’s still a heavy construction site — currently, all the base building infrastructure is being installed to support future tenants. We’re taking a lot of existing elevator shafts and renovating them, but we’re also putting in new elevator shafts. Considering that this was a post office and not an office building, you have to redistribute accessibility to the floors. Most of the new windows are installed, but there’s still a lot of building material that’s coming in and out of the building through its upper windows. We’re also starting to look at the structure for the roof, which will be a rooftop park. And next month we’ll also start to build out the tenant amenities on the second floor. This is a very intricate Swiss watch with a number of different traits, and we’re coordinating all those efforts so they’re in sync, they don’t overlap and don’t cause delays. So between infrastructure, structural work, vertical transportation and building out a finished space, there’s not one inch of this building that’s not being touched — except for the grand historic lobby, which we wanted to preserve to its original design. That was the first thing we tackled.

The size and scale of this building are almost incomprehensible. How do you turn such wide, lofty spaces into offices? And what kinds of opportunities does that offer?

What we have found across the firm is that people are looking for larger plates — whether it’s a larger floorplate in a brand new ground-up building, or taking mega-plates like this where you’re not so vertical in your stack — you’re not saying,“This floor is finance, this floor is HR, this floor is accounting.” What these large floor plates offer is the ability for everyone to interact and see the work, and to be able to tell the story of the firm and participate in its mission.

What will that look like at the Post Office?

The typical floor plate is 250,000 square feet, but not all of the floor plates are contiguous. What that offers is floors that don’t align, because different parts of the building were designed with different functions. So maybe we’ll only need 13 feet of ceiling height where there’s 18 feet of space. What that does is create really interesting opportunities to connect floors with communicating stairs to give that loft-like feeling you just can’t get in other buildings. The predominant portion of the building, where all the mail processing used to happen, mostly has 18-foot ceiling heights, and we have windows commensurate with that height. If you compare this building to the Merchandise Mart, which was designed by the same architect and was built during the same era, the Post Office gives people a lot more natural light. Another wonderful thing about this building is that there won’t be any tall towers abutting it, so you get a lot of great daylight, even on an overcast winter day.

We’ve heard a lot about how more office tenants are trying to consolidate space and shrink their leases, mostly in the context of how nervous it makes landlords. How long has Gensler been thinking about this kind of shift, and how is it being carried out in different kinds of spaces?

We’ve been thinking about it for as long as we’ve been a firm, for over 50 years. We have seen the evolution of office space, of people being more responsible with the real estate footprint that they have. Offices are less hierarchical now, so you don’t necessarily have a C-suite floor, you don’t have a ton of different offices. If you have offices, they’re probably distributed within the floor plate — they aren’t all dedicated to one area. And people are working more collaboratively with each other, so you’re breaking down the scale of office work where everyone has a dedicated workstation with high walls.

What’s happened over time is that the walls have been lowered or eliminated, and we now have what’s commonly called benching. But also, we want to focus on dividing space for social, collaborative and focused types of work. Focused is, “I really need to get this report out, I need to wrap my head around this.” I may go to a space where I can lock down and not have a lot of distraction. A collaborative area is where I’m sitting with a bunch of people who can engage, the furniture is flexible and mobile so that if we need to team we can easily pull things together to get something done. And then there’s the social aspect, where work is no longer a place where you come to work. A lot of people have their social network within the place they work. They’re having coffee with people in the morning, they’re going to lunch with them, they’re hanging out with them after work at their workplace.

But how do you keep those focused, collaborative and social spaces separate while also consolidating space? It almost sounds like a contradiction.

This is a perfect reason why [the Gensler office] is expanding. We have densified so much, and we’ve grown. There’s a point where we will need to take additional space because of our growth. We can’t absorb it anymore, and we have to try and address the situations that are attributed to the densification of the space, such as a loud phone call happening next-door [to someone trying to work quietly].

So you’re saying there are limits to densifying.

At some point, yeah. But here’s a perfect example: look at what we did recently for Deloitte. They had half a million square feet at 111 South Wacker. They did their real estate due diligence to see if they should pick up and move somewhere else, or stay and densify and do a phased renovation. They decided to stay in place, and they went from 500,000 square feet to 300,000, with [employee] growth. What they were finding is that their consultants who were out on the road Monday through Thursday had dedicated workspaces, and they decided is that they didn’t need those workspaces. What they really needed was space for these folks to come in on a Friday and connect with their colleagues, and then be back on the road. By doing that, we shaved 200,000 square feet off their real estate portfolio here in Chicago. And they did that by offering focused spaces, collaborative spaces and social settings to support their work effort.

Let’s talk about that social space. We recently published a round-up of some of the most over-the-top amenities being included in new residential projects, but we’re also seeing new office buildings with amenity decks and swimming pools and bocce ball courts. Why is that suddenly an expectation for a work environment?

It really goes back to that idea that work is no longer 9-to-5. And the office buildings that support work now have to be 24/7 entities. Some buildings are putting in micro-apartments so that if [employees] can’t make it home because they’re working late, they have a place to crash. It’s a place to have meals. Office builders are creating amenities to keep people inside the building, because that’s what owners are asking for. You look at a climate like Chicago or Minneapolis, and who really wants to go outside to get a sandwich when there’s a 20-below wind chill, or a parade going down State Street?

Part of that is creating an incubator space as well. We have a lot of building owners and managers and developers creating co-working spaces where people can come together and interact and get to know each other. Post Office has those kinds of spaces in the tenant amenity lounge, and we’re sprinkling these spaces in with amenities that also have beer on tap and a barista. There’s a place dedicated for drop-in concierge services if you need to get a shoe-shine or a manicure. You have mobile amenities coming to buildings to offer services. That’s where we’re seeing things take a turn — it’s becoming a concierge level of amenity that’s flexible, not fixed.

We’re seeing office users embrace food halls, which trend toward more local and temporary users than traditional food courts do. How is Gensler applying that shift to the post Office?

At the post office, the food hall is located in the more industrial south part of the building, so we have to play up to historic preservation there. It will have concrete floors, exposed ceilings and we’ll have a number of different stations. We can’t go into detail yet, but it’s going to have a variety of foods, and some of them will change out throughout the year. And also you’ll be able to spill out onto an outdoor plaza on the northeast part of the building and have great outdoor space, but you’ll also be able to take your lunch and go up to the roof if you want.

Has it become more important to incorporate publicly-accessible space into commercial properties?

I think we’ve seen an ongoing trend for a number of years in the activation of the first-floor space in a way that brings people in the neighborhood into the space, so they can grab a coffee or sit and get some work done. It’s a matter of creating a building that’s not so secure that only the people who work there can get in. The level of security in many places has been pushed back so it’s not at the front door, so you’re allowing people to experience different types of retail. At some point, developers are making the decision of how much they want the amenities to be shared or dedicated, based on the scale.

And you think the balance is shifting more toward shared space?

It depends on the building, and it depends on the neighborhood and what the other offerings are. Look at Fulton Market and everything that’s happening there. Retail is moving into that neighborhood, either within those new [office] buildings or adjacent to them, and it’s smaller and more curated retail. You’re not going to see typical franchises up and down, because people are looking for character and interesting alternatives.

Let’s talk about innovation and new technology in design. We often hear about how architecture and property management are both on the verge of huge technological shifts. What’s one innovation you think will really transform the way your job is done?

We’ve been using virtual reality for a number of years. We have a virtual reality suite in the back of the office. We also have drone pilots that will go and take close-up footage of buildings that you couldn’t find on Google Earth, so you can create sight lines to inaccessible spaces. Those are two very strong tools we’re using. We also developed an app for the post office where you can go on a self-guided walking tour, and it can show you historical data or show you what art would look like on the walls. Because of the technology we use, we’re approaching architecture and research and fabrication methods in a way that wasn’t even possible five or 10 years ago.

When you say “fabrication methods,” are you talking about 3-D printing?

3-D printing, and you’ve got companies now that are creating spaces that can be dropped into buildings pre-fab. Instead of developing the building from the ground up, if that building type is more modular, you can assemble more units off-site like a lego kit. That way it can be assembled more quickly and can be reconfigured based on the need.

A lot of industries, and especially the real estate industry, seem to be struggling to compose senior leadership teams reflective the city and century we currently live in. What are some of the unique barriers you think women have faced in the real estate industry? Which of those barriers persist, and how can the industry break them down?

I feel very fortunate to work at Gensler, where the women really don’t have to worry about that. We all have a place at the table. I think being in this field for as many years as I have, I’m very conscious of where I came from and where I am now, and how that experience is vastly different now. And part of it is also paying it forward, so women in senior leadership positions are mentoring and paving the road for younger women. When you get men and women of all ethnicities together to come around to solve a creative issue or problem, it’s just addictive, and it’s so incredibly impactful. When you get a group of people behind one issue trying to solve, you will have the diversity of thought reflecting all their experiences.

I’m interested in hearing what you think can be done on the institutional level to foster that diversity. Because I hear what you’re saying about why it’s important to strive for that, but how do you do that?

What we try to do here is mentor all the staff, whether it’s male or female, and bring them into meetings, bring them into the C-suite, bring them into situations where conversations are being had that affect the outcome of our project. It’s breaking down that hierarchical sense of the experience. We live and breathe an inclusionary process here. Even on the general contractor side [of Old Post Office], we had Christine Lussow from Bear Construction, who was the project manager responsible for the interior renovation of the lobby. We have Emily Ramsey from MacRostie Historic Tax Advisors, who was the conduit for guiding historic preservation. Here in the office, the senior technical adviser on the project is Becky Calcott. Angela Harper and I are running the day-to-day responsibilities of the project. You’ve got Mariah Digrino from DLA [Piper] advising on the legal aspects. So we are very fortunate to have a lot of strong, diverse women around that table who are the go-to people for the owners of the project.

I feel that if there are women in the room, the meeting moves. It’s more organized, it’s more on-point, and we create a story and we don’t walk out of the meeting without resolution. It’s all about keeping things moving forward and collective buy-in.

And not just a lot of men trying to hear themselves talk?

And that can happen. (laughs) Is the field where it needs to be? No. Is it getting there? Yes. But it’s also a place where everybody has to prove their place at the table. And if you’re willing to do that, and work hard and include others along the way, you’ll get there.

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