Chicago’s Iconic Willis Tower Undergoes Historic Transition

Willis Tower retrofit Gary MichonWillis Tower practically begs for an aerial view. Formerly called the Sears Building, this iconic Chicago tower boasts 4.5 million square feet of commercial office, retail, broadcast, and the country’s highest observation deck.

Originally built in 1973, the 110-story building is undergoing extensive upgrades and infrastructure retrofits. They include retrofitting the HVAC, adding motion sensors, putting lighting control panels in tenant areas, and switching to LED fixtures. A complete upgrade of the building automation system is expected to provide better temperature control, HVAC sequencing, and energy monitoring.

The list doesn’t stop there. Plans call for modernizing chillers, retrofitting cooling towers, and replacing antiquated variable frequency drives with new ones that can communicate with the building automation system.

“I’m witnessing a historic and great transition from old to new,” says Gary Michon, Willis Tower’s general manager. Recently the tower became the largest office building to earn Energy Star certification, which means it uses an average of 35% less energy than a typical building. We caught up with Michon to learn more about his approach to improving efficiencies.

Tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I’ve been in commercial real estate for over 30 years. I’ve managed single low-rise suburban buildings to some of the tallest high-rise buildings here in Chicago. I’ve been at Willis Tower now since about 2009. I’m witnessing a historic and great transition from old to new that includes improvements to the building systems, elevators, and tenant amenities areas.

In addition, we’re adding over 300,000 square feet of retail, which is basically putting a three-story building completely around this building. It’s a large challenge. That total project is valued at about $500,000 in improvements to the property. The timeline will be early 2020.

What was the impetus for all the upgrades and retrofits?

The building was underachieving for a number of years. It’s over 40 years old so some of the mechanical systems are starting to age. As good as our staff was at maintaining the equipment, it comes to a point where sometimes replacing it is better. That helps us gain efficiencies, lower our operating costs, and get higher net rents, which turns into adding value to the building. It actually helps us increase our occupancy.

Our goal is to reduce operating expenses by replacing old, inefficient equipment, and achieve energy savings through improved operational sequencing. We’re not just doing one improvement here, we’re doing many, and pretty much all at the same time. That incorporates new building automation systems, new chillers, new VFDs, new LED fixtures, and an elevator retrofit.

What is the time frame?

Some projects can take six months, and some can take up to six years. For example, to date we have retrofit a 4,800-ton chiller and a 1,400-ton chiller. The three remaining chillers are scheduled to be completed over the next three years.

The chiller retrofit helped us achieve electric savings from .9 watts a ton to .6 watts per ton. By replacing the cooling tower media, gear boxes, fan blades, and VFDs, this helped provide cooler water to the chiller plant. We estimate 20 – 30% in savings from all the combined improvements.

We’re also just kicking off an elevator modernization here, which is a five-year project.

What are the goals with the elevator project?

The goal is to improve efficiencies. We’re bringing in the destination dispatch system, which services the tenants faster and better. There are no buttons inside the elevators. You start by selecting the floor you’re going to instead of the up-and-down call button. The elevator calculates which elevators will get everyone to their floors the quickest.

It’s also helping our freight elevators finally talk. In the future, only one elevator is going to respond to the hall call instead of the other two wasting time coming to that location. Construction people, the deliveries, the services that tenants are ordering, people coming here —that’s going to all go faster.

How do you work to minimize the effects of all the building’s upgrades and changes on tenants?

I have a great team, and each team member is empowered to do their particular job. There is a lot of communication every day. The goal is to work as a team to keep each one of these projects on time, value engineer whenever possible, and to make sure tenants are happy in the building. We have team meetings where each one of us goes over what we’re working on and how it’s impacting their departments.

What makes these team meetings successful?

The meetings I have are an hour — no more, no less. And it’s not a working meeting. This is a reporting meeting. Then if a situation warrants extra discussion, just those members involved meet outside the team meeting. Maybe that’s an extra 15 minutes. But it doesn’t hold up everyone else.

And I try to keep it fun. Recently I acquired an old-fashioned hourglass. We try to keep each other’s comments now to the hourglass time. We all watch it, and we respect it.

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