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Chicago Architecture Firm GREC Knows How to Energize a Space

Developers and hoteliers looking to create a one-of-a-kind luxury experience for their clients and the public have started to turn to the Chicago-based architecture firm GREC. They’re behind the neighborhood-making Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, and just completed the new Ace Hotel in Chicago’s West Loop. Just a few blocks away is Emme, a luxury residential tower that emphasizes green living, and soon nearby will be a new Hoxton hotel.

Managing principals David Ervin, Don Copper, and Greg Randall have made experiential design their signature, convincing clients to change the way amenities are typically accessed. They create environments where unexpected interactions can take place—between tenants and the public alike.

Whitewall spoke with Ervin, Copper, and Randall about the welcoming shift taking place today in luxury real estate projects.

WHITEWALL: The firm was founded in 1989. In nearly 30 years, how has your focus changed?

DAVID ERVIN: We first started doing public-sector projects—schools, libraries, fire stations. In the early 2000s, we wanted to exhibit our capabilities in the private sector, with things like commercial projects, hotels, residential buildings, office buildings. We made a very conscious effort to make that transition. Now if you look at our portfolio, that’s 90 percent of what we do.

WW: When you begin a project, what are the key questions you ask?

DON COPPER: We don’t try to apply the same principles that we’ve used in previous buildings on a new project. What we do is to learn the history of the site and the neighborhood and how that has created the context that we’re working in.

For example, we opened a building a year ago called Emme, a residential rental building in the West Loop of Chicago. It is at the location where the Haymarket [riot of 1886] was. We researched the history of the event and the impact that it had globally. It informed our process.

GREG RANDALL: We’re creating a narrative. What’s really the story behind the experience that we want? What type of interactions might we want for those people to have—residents, users, neighbors? We talk about that from the very beginning. We support that behavior and we try to shape responses for the people that experience the space.

WW: Don, you’ve said, “We want to bring hospitality’s social component into our residential work. How can we promote people coming out of their units for a greater sense of community.” How do you create that sense of community beyond the standard list of luxury amenities?

DC: It’s not uncommon for a residential building to have all of the amenities on one floor in one space. When you do that, it’s hard to energize those spaces because it’s a larger-scale environment and it takes more people to give the room energy. Instead, we’ll often encourage our clients to disperse those spaces throughout the building, which allows the residents to have different experiences, different views, different environments, and on a smaller scale. It’s easier to energize those spaces with just a few people and then, when you get a larger group, you’ve really got something happening in that space.

WW: How does the culture of a location factor into your approach for a new project?

DE: History and culture are very much a part of what we refer to as context—the environment, the way the sun is moving across the sky on any particular site. There are a lot of factors that make up the site context. We start fresh with each canvas. Authenticity is paramount for us.

WW: Have you found that expectations for luxury residential projects have changed? For instance, at Emme you included a lot of green space and a pretty substantial rooftop garden.

GR: Amenities are changing. It’s not necessarily a demand so much as it follows the tastes or desires in people. High-level concierge service and programming in residential buildings foster that sense of community as well. People just want to be taken care of. They want to have a well-appointed, personal experience as a resident. They want the doorman to know their name, they want to know that their pet is taken care of during the day, they want to know that when they get to their unit there’s a bottle of wine set out.

Interactions with natural environments and garden settings are really becoming a path of discovery for residents. It may not be a demand, but it’s a super-welcome surprise that opens up a certain portion for the residents that they didn’t even know they had.

For us, sustainability is completely mainstream in our work. We just try to encourage residents to participate and be mindful. It’s in everyone’s DNA, and whether or not it has been awoken is really the question.

WW: You’ve worked on projects like the Ace in Los Angeles and Chicago. For luxury boutique hotels, what are the new rules?

DE: For me, working with groups like Ace and this new breed of hotels (we’re working with Hoxton out of London), their ethos is one of openness. In other words, you can obtain luxury while still being open to the public.

One of the best experiences as a guest is interacting with the entire city or area. That’s certainly true in Los Angeles, where the building was absolutely a neighborhood-making place. Downtown Los Angeles was a neighborhood where most people would be very concerned to open up a business. But they felt that they could build a luxury project that everybody would enjoy because it was very welcoming.

The same thing is true in Chicago. Although the neighborhood might not have been as depressed as in Los Angeles, they tried to put the building a little out of the mainstream and draw in all types of people with no real boundaries of “Are you a guest or not?”

It’s exciting for us to create spaces that are going to be energized by the public.

WW: Will the Hoxton be in the West Loop as well?

GR: Yes, on Lake and Green Street. It will be a very communal space. It’s about interacting with the neighborhood and community there.

At the Ace, I have seen all kinds of events—music, film openings, television screenings, burlesque show, classes, and pop-ups. And that’s bleeding into the residential market, we’re seeing.

WW: How so?

DC: In the residential buildings, it’s still a private environment, but we tried to accommodate that same level of hospitality and welcoming environment for people so that there’s no intimidation about going to the deck or the lounge or the pool. Greg was talking about the level of service that people are comfortable with these days, and we’re seeing that the hospitality environment is bleeding into all of these other contexts—both residential and in the workplace.

It’s a much more qualitative approach to where you work and where you live and where you might stay if you’re traveling.

WW: And you’re working on a living and working space in Portland now, 5 SE MLK Blvd.

DC: The same client we did Emme with invited us to their hometown in Portland, Oregon, to do a mixed-use building—100,000 square feet of office space and 230 residential units above. The project combines the public and amenity spaces for both the office spaces and the residents.

They will share a lobby, and the idea is to have a space that’s energized at more hours of the day. It could be programmed with live events or special exhibitions. On the amenity floor that separates the apartments from the office levels is a fitness center, outdoor terrace, and a conference center that both residents and office tenants will be invited to make use of.

We’re hoping that’s going to lead to some surprising and positive interactions between the different users of the building. The client is very open to these new ideas of how people can live and work together.

GR: I think, interestingly, we’re being sought out to create these sort of experiential environments. People are really starting to discover that we are taking this approach to our projects.






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