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Chicago Dorm Brings Students Together

Exterior rendering of the new University of Chicago Campus North Residence Hall and Dining Commons
The new University of Chicago Campus North Residence Hall and Dining Commons features three residential high-rises that will house 800 students. Pedestrians will be able to pass underneath the middle building, a space dubbed the portal, to access the rest of the campus. Courtesy Studio Gang Architects/© The University of Chicago

A new residence hall provides a dramatic gateway to the University of Chicago and complements other architectural treasures.

August 20, 2013—The Campus North Residence Hall and Dining Commons is the latest in a series of high-profile structures at the University of Chicago to be designed by prominent architects. Others include a new arts center by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, a new hospital pavilion by Rafael Viñoly, and a new library by Helmut Jahn. The new, three-tower residence hall, designed by Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects, is meant to provide better campus living options for a growing student body.

Jeanne Gang, FAIA, a principal of Studio Gang, noted in a press release on the project that the firm is “excited to develop our design that focuses on creating vibrant student communities within the residence halls, connected to a series of new, active public green spaces and environments.” (Studio Gang declined a request for an interview for this article.)

The project consists of three buildings and a dining hall. Of the three buildings, one will have 5 stories, another 11, and the third 15. A passageway on the second floor of each building will connect the three. The floors above will be organized into three-story sections called houses that will each accommodate about 100 students. The center of each house will feature a three-story hub, a central public area in which students can gather and socialize. The dorm rooms themselves will be near the centers of the buildings and will each accommodate two students. Apartments along the building perimeters will house third- and fourth-year students. The project, which calls for the demolition of an aging residential tower designed by the noted Chicago architect Harry Weese, the designer of the Washington, D.C., Metrorail system, will also feature ground-level retail space. 

Rendering of the dorm building, which will be clad in wavy, three-story tall precast concrete panels

The dorm buildings will be clad in wavy, three-story tall precast
concrete panels. The panels will be attached on two floors by a
flexible joint that will keep the panels steady while allowing the
building to move in the wind.
Courtesy Studio Gang Architects/
© The University of Chicago

Several design details take the complex beyond a series of simple boxes. For example, each building is bent, or kinked, at its center, the hubs acting as hinges. Two of the project’s towers loosely frame the northeast corner of the campus, at 55th Street and University Avenue. The third is angled between the other two and set back from them, and at its bend the designers plan a passageway that will take pedestrians beneath the building, thereby linking the edge of campus with a green space to the north.

“The most dramatic structural move in this whole complex is something we’ve loosely dubbed the portal,” says Ron Klemencic. P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, the chief executive officer of Seattle-based Magnusson Klemencic Associates, the project’s structural engineers. This passageway will take pedestrians on a diagonal from the corner of 55th and University underneath a portion of the middle tower. No one is calling the portal a tunnel; instead, pedestrians will make their away along a 30 to 40 ft wide walkway beneath the central tower.

Klemencic and his team are still figuring out the best way to engineer the span, which will be about 120 ft long. “The objective is to make this entry portal a very unique and exciting experience for people entering the site,” he says.

One option that’s being considered involves deep, multistory trusses that will simply transfer the building’s loads across the entire distance, he says. A striking benefit of this approach is that it offers a dynamic, column-free passageway. But it’s expensive. The other option is to use a handful of columns, cutting the length of the column-free span and cutting costs. The problem with this approach, however, is that columns could, Klemencic notes, ruin the “magic” of the passage. “That’s what’s being worked out quite diligently right now,” he says.  

The twisting forms of the towers’ exterior concrete panels give the structures a dynamic quality. The panels are also unusual in another way. Whereas most precast-concrete panels affixed to a building’s exterior are one-story high, these have a height of three stories.

“The challenge that creates for structural engineers is that as the building moves in the wind, we have interstory drift, and one floor moves with respect to the next,” Klemencic explains. “The three-story panels are supported on—let’s call it level 1—and while they’re attached to levels 2 and 3, the attachment is kind of a moving, flexible joint.” In other words, the floors have to be able to move while the panels themselves remain stationary.

The three buildings of the new dorm will be connected by a second-story passageway

The three buildings of the new dorm will be connected by a
second-story passageway.
Courtesy Studio Gang Architects/
© The University of Chicago

Finally, the residence halls are very thin, their widths ranging from 35 to 37 ft. Most residential buildings are twice as wide, says Klemencic, but the buildings in this project are long. Wind bracing therefore presented a challenge, but it was surmounted with concrete shear walls that will provide the needed stiffness.

The civil engineering for the residence hall is being handled by St. Louis–based David Mason & Associates. Another formidable challenge of the project has to do with water runoff. To conform to the city code, the project will need at least 5,300 sq ft of surface area for a detention basin capable of storing 26,500 cu ft of runoff. The landscape plan for the project, which is still being developed, will dictate which parts of the site will be accessible to engineers so that they can design this underground vault.

“The current landscape plan has a number of species of [large] trees that they want to incorporate into the site [and] that blocks out entire sections of the site and makes those unavailable to us for underground detention,” says Tom Kracun, P.E., the director of Chicago operations for David Mason & Associates.

Kracun and his colleagues are evaluating whether that vault will discharge to the city’s combined sewer or infiltrate into the ground; the area around the university is unusual in the city in that it’s not underlain by clay and therefore may be suitable for infiltration. The engineers will investigate whether adjacent buildings with deep foundations have any issues with their drainage systems so that they can assess the suitability of this option.

Adjacent buildings with slab foundations—for example, the Henry Crown Field House, which is south of the site—shouldn’t pose a problem during construction, Kracun says. With regard to the field house, he notes, “we don’t have to worry about impacting that foundation beyond the first few feet below grade.”

The open site plan, which will consist of both a large common and private courtyards, will incorporate a number of large tree species. “Trying to have structural soil that can be a good growth medium as well as provide foundation for a sidewalk is not an easy thing,” says Kracun.

So the firm is looking at different strategies, he continues, to “provide some structural component underneath the pavement that will provide structural support for the sidewalk but also provide an underground area that will provide a better soil mix and allow the trees to thrive in that environment.”

Engineers are considering an underground chamber system since this would be strong enough to provide the structural foundation and could also contain soil to promote tree growth. Also under discussion is a plan to use some of the storm-water runoff to irrigate the trees.

The Campus North Residence Hall and Dining Commons is expected to open in 2016.



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