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Redefining an Icon

By T.R. Witcher

An innovative facade helps a new design center at the Illinois Institute of Technology control the sun—and look to the future.

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The Kaplan Institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which will remain open around the clock, will glow at night to attract students from around the campus. John Ronan Architects

June 30, 2015—Famous for its austere, Mies van der Rohe-designed campus, the Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago's South Side is hallowed ground for architects, engineers, and planners. In recent years significant designers—from Rem Koolhaas to Helmut Jahn—have taken up the challenge of bringing the old campus into the future. 

Those efforts have now accelerated: the school recently revealed plans to propel its campus into the new century with an innovative building: The new Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship is meant to stand as a bright beacon on the campus. "The purpose of the building is to provide a central facility in which our students and faculty from across campus can learn the principles of innovation and practice those principles," says Bruce Watts, the vice president of facilities and public safety for the institute.

Every undergraduate regardless of major will take at least two classes in the new building, and those courses, centered on innovation, are designed to be team-based and project-oriented. The IIT's interprofessional projects program will move to the new building, as will the school's famous Institute of Design, founded in the late 1930s by former Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy; that institute is currently located in downtown Chicago.

"This type of multidisciplinary innovation is at the core of what we teach," says Watts. "We want the building to reflect the innovation that's being taught inside. Our main principle for the building is to foster collaboration and creative thinking."

Kaplan is also planned as a center for tech-based entrepreneurship—leveraging resources from the rest of the university, such as intellectual property courses at the law school and venture capital courses at the business school. "We will also have space in the building for visiting entrepreneurs, or 'entrepreneurs-in-residence,' who are working with our students," Kaplan says.

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The Kaplan Institute is planned as a facility for design innovation and technology entrepreneurship. John Ronan Architects

But design—and the process of design—is at the center of the new space. University officials began planning the building roughly five years ago, and put out a request for qualifications in July 2013. Chicago-based John Ronan Architects won the contract in March 2014. 

Facing down the legacy of Mies van der Rohe was just one of Ronan's challenges. "IIT is one of the two or three most architecturally significant campuses in North America," says John Ronan, FAIA, the founding principal and lead designer of John Ronan Architects. "I took that responsibility very seriously. I don't think a complete design departure is appropriate. You have to be respectful of what's come before but not mimic it or be a slave to it. It has to be consistent with the ethos of the campus and the culture of the university."

Ronan says the new center's design accomplishes this. "It's distinct from other buildings on the campus, but it's descended from Mies," he says. "It learns the lessons of Mies but it's definitely in the present and facing forward." It's a clean, rectangular shape, expected to be between 90,000 and 95,000 sq ft, that fits in with the rest of the no-nonsense look of the campus. But it employs an innovative solar cushion to help control solar energy and give the facade a bright, up-to-date aesthetic. "This building doesn't belong to any one department," says Ronan. "It belongs to everybody. In that way, it's less like a building that's already on campus, and more like the campus itself."

Beyond wrestling with Mies, the challenge that John Ronan Architects faced is that a building devoted to design innovation had to be innovative itself—yet the budget, approximately $45 million, was tight. One key decision was to open the building up visually, with two interior courtyards. "One thing I noticed that is lacking on campus is a destination outdoor space," says Ronan. The current exterior spaces on campus seem to be "residual space"—leftover vacancies between buildings. Ronan wanted to create an outdoor room where people could meet or collaborate or just share a cup of coffee and talk.

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The building will feature two interior courtyards to draw in light and visually connect the various spaces. John Ronan Architects

More radical was the decision to design the upper-level of the two-story facade with ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) foil cushions, a dynamic system that uses pneumatics to control the amount of solar energy coming into building. Glass can't do that. The ETFE system uses a pressurized cushion of air contained by foil layers. Two curved outer layers surround an inner layer, which can be moved back and forth through sophisticated pneumatics. On the outer layer there's a dot-pattern frit, while on the inner layer there's a negative of that frit. When those two layers come together the frits line up, Ronan says, the system blocks out solar energy. Pull them apart and more sun can enter the building. This has been done in skylights but never before on this scale—across an entire building facade.  

The solution arose from the design process itself. Watts says Ronan "had his eyes open, and was looking for unconventional ideas to really help us crack the code for the building." Werner Sobek, a global firm, is serving as the structural engineer for the building itself, and is developing a support system to connect the building's primary structure to the framed ETFE facade system. 

The building will also deploy a radiant structural deck for heating and cooling. Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) tubing, embedded in the concrete slab, will be filled with hot or cold water to convert the metal deck above it into a radiant panel, heating or cooling the building and creating a more comfortable and healthy interior environment. 

As a building dedicated to design innovation, the structure also attempts to serve as a kind of metaphor for the iterative and collaborative nature of design itself. Ronan notes that designing a building meant to support collaboration required ethnographic research on how people actually work together in a space. "Before we started designing, I put together a book of ideas for the university," Ronan says. The book covered everything from the interior qualities that the building should have to how the building should fit within the campus. Some ideas were more specific than others-one that informed much of the subsequent interior planning was thinking of the space, Ronan says, as a "circuit whereby building users can see all the different phases of design going on—from research to brainstorming to making and prototyping—to lay bare the creative process. Walking through the space, one would intuitively grasp how this mode of educational process is different from a traditional classroom."

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The exterior of the Kaplan Institute is clad in ethylene tetrafluoroethylene foil cushions, which can control levels of solar energy entering the building. John Ronan Architects

The building uses transparency—both between the building's interior and exterior, and in layered spaces within the building itself—so that students and faculty can "experience multiple spaces at the same time," Ronan says. For instance, a student could be in a class or meeting, and then see other people meeting in another space.  The student is "aware of other activity going on in the building, whether it's part of [his/her] course work or not, which creates a collaborative community of building users." 

Since the Kaplan will be one of the few buildings on campus that never closes, Ronan plans to give the building a "lanternlike" quality, to draw the campus community to it. "It's meant to be very lightweight in appearance, almost cloudlike," he explains. 

Steffen Feirabend, a principal of Werner Sobek Stuttgart GmbH, one of Werner Sobek's operating units, says that the 320 by 160 ft structure will be founded on a cast-in-place concrete mat slab, which will act in composite with the steel deck above it, will be framed in steel beams and columns. The building will contain two cores with diagonal cross-bracing for lateral stability. Despite the dynamic, interconnected interior spaces, the building will be laid out with a regular grid to simplify the structural requirements of the interior.

Watts notes that the building, combining studio space, classroom space, and "maker" space, is not meant to be pure and museum-like. "When students are working on some of these projects, they need to feel free to get messy," he says. "It's not a pristine environment."

This is true, he adds, even of the legendary buildings Mies designed for the school. "You look at Crown Hall. It is a remarkable, historically significant building, yet students feel free to work down on the floor. It cleans up very quickly. You can have a gala in there one night and have students working on projects the next day, or even simultaneously for that matter."

The university is still in the midst of its fund-raising efforts and hopes to break ground next spring. The Kaplan Institute should be completed by the end of 2017. "It's more than a building for IIT," Watts says. "It's very important to who we are as an institution."



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