Ford Center enters a new, green chapter

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2012 - 6:17 PM

The historic building in downtown Minneapolis has been preserved and improved for prime office space.

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Joe Tarlizzo of HGA Architects, who led the green elements of the renovation of the Ford Center, in the building’s first-floor gallery space.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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United Properties' $40 million rehab of the Ford Center near downtown Minneapolis is unusual in the annals of Twin Cities renovations because of the building's massive size, the cost of the updates and the structure's place in Minnesota history as a onetime Model T assembly plant.

But the 269,000-square-foot Ford Center could stand out in another regard: A successful bid to attain the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold status would place it among only a handful of historically designated buildings in the nation to achieve the honor.

The standards are set and maintained by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which has established a stringent and comprehensive point system that designers must satisfy to qualify for the three levels of energy efficiency: platinum, silver and gold. These measures can then be used as marketing tools to attract environmentally conscious tenants.

HGA Architects and Engineers was tapped as the designer and has carried out the rehab of the 99-year-old building's core and shell. The company also became one of Ford Center's main tenants, designing its own 77,000-square-foot office space to meet LEED platinum commercial office interior standards.

HGA Associate Vice President Joe Tarlizzo told a group of USGBC Minnesota chapter members last week that his firm's efforts on behalf of United Properties to snag the gold designation for the building's core and shell are close to bearing fruit.

"We're really hopeful we'll be able to get that certification in the next couple of months or so," he said.

If so, he added, it would be among the rare breed of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places to achieve the status. This reflects the engineering difficulties and costs involved in bringing such older structures up to the new standards.

The task was made a bit easier because the former industrial building already had some things going for it that scored highly on the LEED point system. One was its location next to the now-approved transportation hub within a dense, urban core, and its proximity to bicycle and pedestrian routes, deemed by the USGBC to be a big energy-saver.

Its site next to Target Field is right at the convergence of the Hiawatha Line, Northstar Commuter Rail and the Cedar Lake regional bike trail.

"We're really taking advantage of that," Tarlizzo said.

"If you go downstairs to the parking ramp, you'll see bike racks lining the walls. We have more than 100 spaces and on a summer day most of them are full. Over 10 percent of the 1,000 people working in the building are biking."

But naturally, the heavy lifting came in the physical upgrades.

Big "green points" for energy efficiency were achieved with the installation of an under-floor air distribution system, which utilizes a pressurized space placed atop the huge floor plates to ventilate work spaces. This has resulted in a 31.3 percent reduction in energy use, and allows individual workers to control the flow of air into their spaces via small floor vents.

And because of its historic designation, HGA had to juggle the demands of preservationists with energy-efficiency goals when dealing with the Ford Center's many drafty, steel-framed, single-pane windows. Those had to be kept to preserve the building's exterior heritage, and HGA found a way to achieve efficiency.

"What we did was to install storm windows on the inside to create insulating layers, while everything on the outside is the same," Tarlizzo said.

United Properties Executive Vice President Bill Katter says he's proud of the energy savings -- as well as the Ford Center's soon-to-be-99-percent occupancy.

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.

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  • Beginning in 1912, Ford Motor Co. operated a showroom and vertical assembly plant in downtown Minneapolis where 100 employees assembled Model Ts. Now the plant, called Ford Center, is being renovated for office space.

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