St. Louis County and architecture firm Perkins+Will blend advanced sustainability and comfort in their renovation of a 1980s municipal building in downtown Duluth

By John Reinan

They say real change must come from within. That was the idea behind a complete interior renovation of the St. Louis County Government Services Center in Duluth. The existing structure, built in 1981, is a standard-issue government building of its era: a post-tensioned concrete frame, with concrete block walls faced in brick. From the outside, bland but sturdy. Inside was a different story.

“It was an energy hog,” says Tony Mancuso, the county’s property management director. Poor heating and ventilation left some workers freezing while others roasted. In recent years, the county logged more than 500 indoor air-sickness complaints. The traffic flow was terrible, with limited views to the outside. A small front entrance that opened onto customer-service windows was constantly bottlenecked, and public services were spread over four floors, an arrangement that both confused clients and created security issues.

When an economic analysis showed that the building would cost the county about $45 million to operate over the next 20 to 30 years, the county board of commissioners decided it was time to put its own house in order.

Now, after an $18.5 million interior renovation, the 160,000-square-foot structure uses 36 percent less energy than before. The county has been able to bring together employees who once worked in five separate buildings. An elegant, two-story glass atrium welcomes visitors and serves as an airlock, while workers benefit from dramatic improvements in daylighting and views. Public access is concentrated on two floors, improving services and security.

With public art and interior finishes evoking the North Shore, “we were able to take an inexpensive building and make it feel grand,” says David Dimond, FAIA, project principal for the Minneapolis office of global design firm Perkins+Will. “We were able to enhance the public stature of the building, rather than having it feel like the cheapest structure in town.”

All agreed that the building had “really good bones,” as Mancuso says. The goal was to open the interior up to allow for more daylighting and more flexible use while also bringing the structure up to modern energy-efficiency standards. To improve the building’s energy performance, the architects specified new triple-pane, gas-filled windows, as well as a white membrane roof insulated to R50. The building uses LED lighting throughout; according to Perkins+Will architect Douglas Pierce, AIA, it’s the first full-scale application of LED lighting in a major Minnesota office building. There’s a solar array on the roof to help manage electrical peaks, and the break room features chairs made from recycled plastic soda bottles.

Another key move was the installation of a variable refrigerant flow system. VRF systems, popular in Europe and Japan, haven’t yet made big inroads in North America. “The VRF turns your building into one giant heat pump,” says Pierce. The services center also benefits from its connection to Duluth’s downtown steam system, which helps with both the creation and disposal of heat loads.

The concrete frame, with its seven-foot-high window heads, posed a challenge for designers looking to create airier interiors. Raising the ceiling height around the perimeter of the floors helped eliminate the boxed-in feeling that resulted from the low window heads, says Pierce.

“We used a lot of low-tech, common-sense stuff,” says Mancuso. “Doug really gets that.”

Dimond says doing a renovation rather than a new building makes him think of a food analogy: “How do you take a recipe that’s been around for nearly 40 years and actually make your kids interested in that food?” With the St. Louis County Government Services Center, Perkins+Will has cooked up a fresh, flavorful dish that seems unlikely to go stale.

Location: Duluth, Minnesota
Client: St. Louis County
Architect: Perkins+Will
Principal-in-charge: David Dimond, FAIA
Project lead designer: Douglas Pierce, AIA
Associate architect: Krech Ojard & Associates
Energy modeling: Gausman & Moore
Landscape architect: Perkins+Will
General contractor: Johnson Wilson Construction
Size: 160,000 square feet
Cost: $18.5 million
Completion: September 2015
Photographer: Brandon Stengel, Assoc. AIA/Farm Kid Studios