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Business School Design Combines Curves, Views

By T.R. Witcher

The winning design of a new school of business at Northwestern University features four curvilinear wings, each with its own unique views of Chicago and Lake Michigan, united by a central gathering space.

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Exterior rendering of the new building for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, in which each hub will have its own gathering spaces and unique identity

January 14, 2014—With tuition at America's top MBA programs hovering between $50,000 and $60,000 a year, there is an increasing expectation that the buildings that house those programs will communicate the right message to students—namely top-shelf quality. Top business schools across the country have been opening or constructing new facilities for a number of years. Now, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has begun work on its own new temple to business education.

Plans for the $350-million facility were released in the fall; the competition to design the new building was won by Toronto-based KPMB Architects. Kellogg officials spoke of a global hub, but KPMB architects thought instead of a global village. "What is a global hub?" says Bruce Kuwabara, AIA, RIBA, a founding partner in the firm. "What are you trying to make in terms of a community of scholars?" he asks. "Shouldn't it be more like an academic village?" Kuwabara recalls making a connection in his firm's presentation between the shores of Lake Michigan and Venice's famed Piazza San Marco. "We just threw that out there to stimulate ideas about building close to water."

Certainly, Kuwabara could scarcely have found a better location: perched at the edge of Northwestern's Evanston campus, bordering the lake to the east and a lagoon to the south that frames an immaculate view of downtown Chicago. The magnificence of the views, he says, "was a powerful factor in our thinking about the scheme." 

It's a large building at 410,000 sq ft, divided into four curved lobes joined by a central atrium. Aerially, the building subtly suggests the letter K. "[From the] inside out [it] was all about organizing one large building," Kuwabara says. "We said the issue will be to maintain a sense of identity and scale within a very large building."

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The new building for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University will feature four hubs connected by a central atrium. Courtesy of KPMB Architects

The KPMB scheme was the only proposal that didn't include a five-story atrium in a five-story building. Instead the design calls for a central atrium of four stories, placing faculty seminar commons above. The underlying idea is that spaces for collaboration and interaction must work at different scales of interaction. Each of the four pavilions also has its own central gathering space, giving each wing its own unique identity.

There will be plenty of additional spots for gathering, including wide "Spanish Steps" in the interior and a spacious South Terrace on the exterior. One of the four pavilions features a double-height auditorium space that can be configured for such events as lectures and conferences. "It will be incredible," Kuwabara says. "You can orient the room with Lake Michigan as a backdrop, or organize the event lengthwise on the long axis, with retractable seating, to look out at the city of Chicago."

Throughout the project, he says, "We tried to make [the views] appear again in different ways at different levels in the building and not give it away in one go."  

Kuwabara strove for a balance between the heart of the building—the rational, the efficient, the logical—and something more curvilinear and dynamic at its perimeter. He took inspiration from the shoreline stabilization system around the edge of campus. "The shoreline is stabilized by granite boulders and precast [concrete]," he notes. "What I noticed was that all of it has been smoothed over by the wave action. They're beautiful. They're quite sensuous. Things that are broken eventually get smoothed over. That gave us inspiration for how to deal with the building that would stand there in this environment."

The result is a building of "studied fluidity," with more curves than the firm has previously designed. The result helps break down the mass of the large structure. Visitors will see only two of the four sections from the oval-shaped entranceway. "You sense the lake, you walk to 'center ice,' you turn 90 degrees, and there's the city," Kuwabara says.

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Open interior layouts and glazed walls will facilitate interaction among students and faculty. Courtesy of KPMB Architects

With sustainability in mind, KPMB and engineers at New York City-based Thornton Tomasetti, Inc.—the project's structural engineers—decided to use concrete, which offers superior thermal mass properties versus structural steel.

"Due to the difference in the bay size requirements on the classroom floors versus the office floors, level three is what we're calling the primary transfer floor, where we have large posttensioned transfer beams," says Todd Whisenhunt, P.E., S.E., an associate with Thornton Tomasetti.

There are approximately 170 transfers designed into the building. At level three nearly 50 percent of these are made to facilitate more column-free spaces on the levels below. The 170 transfers were more than Carol A. Post, P.E., S.E., LEED AP BD+C, a principal of Thornton Tomasetti, has designed into one building in her more than 30-year-long career. (She says she thought that the Booth Business School at the University of Chicago, with its large central winter garden, would be the top, at 96.) Most typical high rises have about 30.

But because concrete is difficult to transfer, the engineers turned to posttensioning, which was "the only way we could really handle the depth restriction," Post says—a restriction that arises from the need to maintain the maximum floor-to-ceiling heights possible. "You don't want to have an eight-foot deep member in there," Post says. "That would affect the cost of the curtain wall and it would just look crazy."

However, because concrete is so heavy, Whisenhunt says the engineers had to plan for staged posttensioning for many of the transfer beams. Posttensioning is expensive, and Post notes there may be challenges on-site with getting them all to work, but the effort is worth it to achieve the required thermal mass. Additionally, connecting the curtain wall to the concrete wall will prove easier than would be the case if steel were used; with steel, torsion might be an issue.

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The site’s location, bordering the lake to the east and a lagoon to the south, heavily influenced the design. Courtesy of KPMB Architects

As an added feature, and an added challenge, the building has many cantilevers. The trickiest of these may be a 12 ft steel canopy adjacent to the building's main entrance, which is supported by a strong-arm moment connection. Post and her team also had to incorporate a thermal break assembly on the building's west side, over the entrance. Without a break, the steel canopy there would conduct cold air straight into the building. 

The building will engage in a complex dance to both fit into Northwestern's traditional limestone campus and to stand out within it. The triple-glazed, unitized curtain wall alternates horizontal bands of windows with bands of "burnt gold" spandrel glass that references the limestone. Sixteen-inch long projecting glass fins, featuring a frit pattern, will surround the building, providing both solar shading and a visual emphasis. "They will play up the curves," Kuwabara explains. "They just radiate around the curves of the building, [catching] the light in multiple ways."

KPMB is studying the visual effects from the light that will hit the projecting fins and also pass through them, as well as the light that will hit the shadow boxes of the spandrels on the curtain wall system, to create the optimal appearance.

Inside, the focus was on simplicity, so the materials include white oak and "jet mist" stone on the floors, along with glass walls and exposed concrete columns. "It's about trying to unify the building through a very selective material palette," Kuwabara says.

The building is scheduled to open in late 2016. "I think there's going to be fights about who gets to sit where," says Post. "If people are fighting about what spaces they're getting in a building, I think that's a success."



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