Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies
Not Just Skin-Deep: On a prominent Chicago site, a building with a striking faceted facade satisfies an ambitious environmental agenda
With its move to 610 South Michigan Avenue last November, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies now occupies a building that projects its dedication to openness, education, and the arts. Although the more than 80-year-old Chicago organization’s previous home stands on an adjacent site just to the south, the two buildings are worlds apart.
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At 618 South Michigan, Spertus was hidden behind an undistinguished Modernist facade that was part of a 1950s renovation to an early-twentieth-century structure. But the institute’s new 10-story building, designed by Chicago-based Krueck & Sexton Architects and erected on a former empty lot, is anything but anonymous. It has a faceted and crimped all-glass skin and is a decidedly forward-looking insertion into the historic street wall that defines the western edge of Grant Park, which includes buildings by architectural luminaries like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.
But there is more to Spertus than its inventive crystalline elevation. Behind the quartzlike facade is a building designed to be 28 percent more energy-efficient than one compliant with ASHRAE 90.1-1999; in fact, the building is on track to achieve LEED Silver certification. “We were committed to the idea [of sustainability] from the very first planning meeting,” says Howard Sulkin, the institute’s president. “We didn’t know what level we could achieve, but we wanted a green building.”
Spertus’s aspirations for its new home were consistent with its value system as a Jewish organization, embodying the tenets of bal tashchit (do not waste) and tikkun olam (repair of the world). However, the motivation was not entirely philosophical. It was also practical: The building’s green features helped it gain financial support from the city in the form of tax increment financing (TIF). But even with the $3 million TIF, Spertus had a construction budget of only $40 million, or about $275 per square-foot. With that relatively modest sum, the project team had to design a new facility that would house the institute’s three main branches: a degree-granting college, a museum, and a research library. The program also included a 400-seat theater, an interactive children’s center, administrative offices, a gift shop, and a kosher café. “We had a crazy set of needs idiosyncratic to our institution,” says Sulkin.
Visitors to the building are taken with the three-story daylight-filled entry lobby and the expansive views over Lake Michigan from the exhibition galleries on the building’s upper levels. However, they are likely unaware of Spertus’s environmental agenda, since most of the sustainable features are hidden from view. For example, its 6,650-square-foot green roof, installed to help mitigate the urban heat-island effect and reduce stormwater runoff, is inaccessible to the public.
More noteworthy, but no less concealed, is the infrastructure that helps ensure the proper environment for preservation of Spertus’s extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts, and other artifacts. The spaces devoted to the storage, conservation, and display of these objects presented a tough challenge for the mechanical engineers, who were charged with devising an economical and energy-efficient HVAC system that would maintain temperature and humidity levels within a tight range. The system had to provide this “steady state” regardless of outdoor conditions, which in Chicago can range from frigid and dry in the winter to brutally hot and humid in the summer. “It was difficult to identify technologies that the client could afford that would have the greatest impact,” says Andrew Silverstein, vice president of Environmental Systems Design (ESD), Chicago, the project’s mechanical consultant.
The building’s highly variable occupancy levels also presented a design challenge. The galleries and other public spaces might be almost empty one moment but serve as the setting for a 500-guest party the next, points out Silverstein’s colleague and fellow ESD vice president Kurt Karnatz. “We required a nimbleness in the climate-control system,” he says.
The engineers’ solution included a demand-based ventilation system that relies on carbon-dioxide sensors to monitor building occupancy and adjusts fresh-air intake accordingly. The building also has enthalpy wheels that salvage useful energy from discharged air. In winter, the wheels move heat from exhaust air to fresh intake air; conversely, in summer, they transfer coolness from exhaust air to incoming air. In mid-2003, when ESD began working on the project, such heat recovery systems were fairly common in laboratories and industrial applications but still unusual in commercial buildings. The technology was particularly appropriate for Spertus, especially in archival and exhibition areas, because of the need for both high ventilation rates and high humidity levels. “The wheels recover not only sensible energy but also latent energy,” explains Silverstein.
The choice of a transparent Michigan Avenue facade grew in large part from a desire to endow the building and the institution it houses with an open and welcoming image. However, the folded elevation also served the less symbolic but no less important purpose of helping bring daylight into the zero-lot-line, 80-foot-wide, 180-foot-deep floor plate. The all-glass wall, along with a roof clerestory and interconnected light shaft and atria, works in conjunction with occupancy sensors and daylight dimming controls to help manage the amount of energy required for electric lighting. The increased reliance on daylight for illumination in turn reduced mechanical loads and had a direct impact on the design of building systems, points out Silverstein.
With its environmental consultant, Atelier Ten, Krueck & Sexton studied the daylight distribution throughout the building. On the gallery levels, one particular concern was protecting the art and artifacts on display from direct sunlight. The design team analyzed the penetration of sunlight through the roof clerestory and connecting atria at key times of year, such as the winter and summer solstices and autumnal and vernal equinoxes. For the spaces directly behind the Michigan Avenue facade, especially the classrooms on the third and seventh floor, they looked at ways to minimize heat gain and glare created by morning sunlight. The architects and their consultants eventually settled on a curtain wall made up of insulated glazing units with a low-e coating and a ceramic frit pattern that reduces visible light transmission by 40 percent.
The facade’s most unusual feature is its support system. The 726 pieces of glass (556 of which have unique shapes) are clipped into brackets that can rotate inside femurlike Y-shaped aluminum mullions, making the facade’s triangulated surface possible. The mullion system was carefully designed to eliminate thermal bridging and prevent condensation—a particular concern at Spertus given the interior environment’s high humidity levels, points out Silverstein.
Many of the building’s sustainable features helped the design team achieve its architectural goals, in addition to its energy-optimization objectives. The frit pattern is an example of one such feature. In addition to improving occupant visual comfort, the pattern gives the outer surface of the curtain wall a veil-like appearance while still maintaining transparency, says Mark Sexton, Krueck & Sexton project principal. Without the frit, the facade’s low-iron glazing might, under certain sun conditions, appear black and impenetrable. Instead, says Sexton, “The building has an expressive face that broadcasts the activity that occurs inside.”
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