Indoor Rock Climbing Arrives In West Loop At Brooklyn Boulders Chicago

BKB Chicago North Building

BKB Chicago North Building

Adaptive reuse is a remarkable concept. A structure designed for one purpose can be reincarnated as anything. A couple of years ago, the old Montgomery Ward building became home to the giant Groupon. Fulton Market Cold Storage will soon re-emerge as a high-tech center for Google and other businesses at 1K Fulton.

Another West Loop structure at 100 South Morgan Street took on a new life recently. The former Presbytery of Chicago is now Brooklyn Boulders (BKB) Chicago. In the building’s past life, it held the governing body for the Presbyterian Church. Now, you’ll find climbing walls and a yoga studio.

Chicago Presbytery Monument

Chicago Presbytery Monument

Such a conversion requires careful planning and coordination. The BKB team was up to the task, even as they faced unforeseen engineering obstacles. Chris Ryan, BKB’s chief development officer, explained how you go about building 23,000 square feet of indoor climbing terrain from the ground up.

“This was my second project with Brooklyn Boulders and the company’s third gym overall,” Ryan said. “I came on a few years ago to do the Boston location, which opened a year and a half ago. I coordinate the execution and start with a conceptual design. We look at a lot of properties in a lot of different places before we sign a lease and before we commit any money. We do a fairly extensive design session, to see if it’s a space that will be good and work for the business.

“Once we get to a point where we think the project could work, we meet with the city, get architectural drawings done, not just renderings, then we bring the team together with architects, engineers, and contractors. When we hand the drawings off to the architect of record, it’s a pretty good schematic design that they can import into their own software.”

Ryan is an architect and climber, a near-perfect combination for his job. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado and his master’s from Harvard. Complementing the BKB internal executive team, he said, is the architect of record (Boston-based Arrow Street) and the vendor that builds the climbing walls (Utah-based Vertical Solutions).

The only thing that didn’t change much about the building was the overall floor space. Otherwise, it bears little resemblance to a religious organization. Although, BKB’s president Lance Pinn told me with a smile that climbing can be a religious experience.

BKB Chicago President Lance Pinn

BKB Chicago President Lance Pinn

Pinn walked me through the facility during an open house a few weeks ago and it was impressive. The climbing wall reaches a height of 54 feet in the renovated south building. That’s where the serious climbers usually go. In the north building (which still bears the Chicago Presbytery stone monument) BKB installed a special kid’s zone, a shorter wall, meeting rooms, and a 1,000-square-foot active collaborative workspace.

Before BKB Chicago was ready for climbers, the building went through a massive retrofit which was more challenging because of the climbing walls, Ryan said.

“The coordination of the climbing walls and the architecture is a huge issue and really does drive the schedule,” he said. “If you look in the south building and at the roof, half of it is solid wide plane beams and the other half is lighter weight trusses and that’s because the climbing walls hang off of the ceiling. So the building engineer is totally coordinated with the climbing wall engineer. We have two engineers on the project and they both produce fully engineered stand sets for the projects. And, in both buildings, there are quite a few rooms that are living within the climbing walls, or behind them and that requires a lot of coordination to make sure there isn’t a bracing or beam that’s in the way.”

Rehab and reuse projects also hold surprises, Ryan said, and they don’t always bear good news.

“The south building is effectively an entirely new building that’s sitting within the brick walls that were existing,” he said. “We had to dig an entirely new foundation, which we had engineered to be pretty substantial and pretty deep because we knew from geotechnical and preconstruction drilling we did in a test pit that the water level was high and the soil wasn’t very good. There were 10-foot footings, and when started digging them out, we found it was worse than we expected. We had to do quite a bit of reengineering of the foundation of the south building on the fly, specifically coordinating with the contractor. It was a big means and methods issue to make sure they were comfortable changing the way it was supposed to be done.”

The unexpected foundation problem was the main obstacle BKB faced in the construction, but the team factored in contingencies and they stayed close to the planning budget.

“We had to be smart about alternative solutions that cost a little extra without costing a lot of additional money,” Ryan said. “We were able to keep the contingencies fairly low, and typical issues came up, and only one major structural issue.”

BKBChicago South Building Climbing Wall










BKBChicago Pre-Construction South Building Climbing Wall

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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