UI Labs

UI Labs

Chicago manufacturer Republic Windows and Doors went bankrupt in 2008, setting adrift 240 employees and a Spartan midcentury warehouse on the Chicago River. In May the facility reopened as UI Labs, an advanced manufacturing office, business incubator, and modern factory floor that Mayor Rahm Emanuel said will help “inspire a modern manufacturing renaissance” from its dusty outpost on Goose Island.

Working with solid if utilitarian bones from the original 1965 Booth Hansen-designed building, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) have revived the old structure by applying new ideas and technology to old principles—not unlike how the building’s tenants hope to breathe new life into American manufacturing.

A venture of the University of Illinois, UI Labs calls itself a “consortia of university, industry, and civic partners who innovate and commercialize new technology solutions.” The group convenes clusters around specific topics in the world of so-called advanced manufacturing, collecting fees from $500 to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from its members. Depending on the level of membership, users are granted access to the intellectual property produced in the lab. The first two institutes are the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) and CityWorks, which is focused on urban infrastructure.

Funded by a grant from the Defense Department to the tune of $70 million, and helped along by $26 million in city and state tax incentives, the fledgling tech hub is no mere startup. DMDII’s senior director of operations Naresh Shah said they’re built for expansion, with about one third of their 94,000 square-feet unfinished and awaiting new tenants.

“The point of this is not to be a standalone project,” said Shah. In addition to some demanding technological specifications, UI Labs tasked SOM with providing flexible workspaces.

What SOM principal Brian Lee calls the “Hall of Machines” occupies the western third of the building, separated from a more standard open-plan office by a wall of glass. The glass partition lets through daylight, which pours in the existing clerestories, but also a bit of machine noise. Lee and Shah said that was intentional so employees and visitors never feel too isolated from the manufacturing activity.

Not a traditional factory floor in the assembly line sense, the building’s “manufacturing lab” instead features 3D printers, prototyping gadgets, and other automobile-sized machinery on consignment from DMDII’s institutional partners, as well as sophisticated metrology tools that can measure objects at a micron scale. Access to such tools is critical to innovation “whether you’re making toasters, washing machines, or tanks,” said Shah.


Exterior Glazing

But Lee said the architects were careful to not override the existing industrial context, citing The Republic Newspaper Office and Printing Plant in Columbus, Indiana as a possible ancestor of this design.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t doing anything too affected,” said Lee.

Shah said he plans to invite community groups and local artists to collaborate on projects and longer lasting initiatives. “This is not a spaceship that dropped into the neighborhood,” he said. “We want the local community to feel welcome.”

Historically a home for heavy industry, including steel and cement, the artificial Goose Island and its environs were designated a Planned Manufacturing District more than 20 years ago. In the years since, it has become surrounded by residential and commercial development in the in-demand neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Near North Side, and Wicker Park. For its immediate neighbors, at least, UI Labs’ new experiment may well define the image of manufacturing in the coming decades—for better or worse.

But Shah is happy to bear that responsibility.

“I want students to see the manufacturing floor as this pristine place. It’s not the dirty factory of your grandfather’s days,” he said. “So when they’re looking at tech jobs at Google or Apple or in manufacturing, they’ll come here.”