Feb 27, 2020

The fast-food giant ditches its iconic look in favor of solar panels and living green walls for a taste of the future

By Katie Nale

Replacing its 2005 Rock-n-Roll theme and the golden arches that defined it, McDonald’s Chicago flagship does not offer the same fast-food experience most Americans grew up with. A warm and colorful interior and a commitment to sustainability along with self-order kiosks and table service make for an updated experience intended to set the tone for future locations. “It’s called a flagship because it is a completely modern and sustainable new concept,” says lead project designer Giulio Pedota.

Starting in 2017, Pedota and Laura Román—both of Schuler Shook (Chicago)—had 10 months to give the existing 19,000-sq-ft glass box a lighting design concept that could be extrapolated by future franchises before its initial opening in the summer of 2018. A clean yet inviting design revolving around sustainability was chosen as the path forward.

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Glass, steel and wood are the three basic materials used throughout the project, emphasizing a modern look. Inside, light fixtures are set to 3000K and a cross-laminated timber wood ceiling generates feelings of warmth and simplicity. “There is not an abundant amount of fixtures,” says Pedota of the ceiling. “We utilized exactly what we needed and nothing more.” Keeping with the minimalist approach, Pedota and Román concealed high-power surface-mounted LED fixtures with individually aimable spotlights within narrow black channels that also incorporate the restaurant’s sprinklers, daylight sensors, speaker system, Wi-Fi antennas and security cameras. “On the one hand, it’s to make the ceiling look modern and simplistic, but on the other hand, it’s to reveal the cross-laminated timber wood ceiling, which is unique and the first one approved in the City of Chicago,” says Pedota. In order to coexist with the sprinkler’s pipes and the wiring of the other systems, the light fixtures had to be installed to the side of the channels (Figure 1).

With glass curtain walls and a “floating garden” allowing large amounts of daylight into the space, keeping the interior lighting at ideal levels throughout the day while ensuring visual comfort became one of the project’s biggest challenges. A slightly tinted glass with 69% transmittance and shading along the sun-facing wall are elemental in maintaining the correct lighting levels, although the solution was not originally considered by the team. “In our initial daylighting calculations, we noticed that there was a lot of daylight penetration, which was going to be detrimental to the interior plants, and also very bright for people indoors, especially around three in the afternoon when the sun starts to set at a low angle,” says Pedota. “We did substantial calculations and we demonstrated that they needed to tint the glass a little, as well as introduce a shading mechanism. That’s one thing we had a lot of influence on.” In addition to demonstrating that the shading system required an openness of 3% to block 97% of the direct sunlight, Pedota and Román also made the case for a centralized system for daylight harvesting. “It was one of the first projects where McDonald’s explored a centralized control system that facilitated daylight harvesting, programming of lighting scene settings and detail monitoring of the lighting system,” says Román.

Over the top of the restaurant—where you might expect to see the golden arches—a standalone photovoltaic paneled shade structure is used to collect renewable energy. Inspired by the exterior lighting of the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern wing, Pedota and Román sought to evenly illuminate the underside of the panels—a challenge, as the structure is larger than the footprint of the restaurant it resides over. To overcome this, linear LED lighting lines the perimeter of the roof’s parapet walls to generate even uplighting of the steel hovering plane. Reflected light from the underside of the photovoltaic roof helps illuminate the building’s immediate surroundings while LED downlights are incorporated within the canopy for added illumination.

Inside, McDonald’s commitment to sustainability is integrated into the design. Living green walls, seen through the building’s glass exterior, are accentuated at night with high-wattage LED track-fixtures with very narrow distribution closely spaced for uniform coverage. Plazas with abundant outdoor seating and a vegetated roof also add to the building’s feeling of sustainability. “The focus was bringing nature inside,” says Pedota. While the majority of LEDs are specified at low-wattages, specific recessed fixtures in the 27-ft-high ceiling deliver high-illumination levels to promote plant growth within the hanging garden and to deliver adequate illumination to the dining tables.

Programming the centralized lighting control system for optimum control and effective daylight harvesting helped the design meet LEED energy credit requirements, but the designers still struggled with light pollution due to the urban location. “We had no control over the city’s roadway and pedestrian lighting, which was brighter than the exterior lighting,” says Román, who worked with a LEED consultant to counteract the light pollution. Adhering to energy requirements was an important factor in creating an example for future “flagship” restaurants in the U.S. “Part of the goal of this new design is to show what they [McDonald’s] are doing globally with respect to sustainability and improving communities,” says Román. Now complete, the Chicago restaurant does just that.


Katie Nale

Katie Nale