The Gothic architecture of the University of Chicago, Ill., founded in 1890, was chosen specifically to convey a sense of history, seriousness, and intellectual fortitude. Over the years, the university has remained committed to the Gothic and neo-Gothic design aesthetic, creating a community defined by its pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, and light, airy interiors.
When Studio Gang Architects was hired to design a three-building, multistory addition to house 800 students on campus, they knew it had to stay true to the style. “The biggest challenge was how to respond to the University of Chicago’s architectural context in a contemporary way,” says Emily Licht, a design team member in Studio Gang's Chicago office.
They needed a material that could mimic the look of carved stone but could also be delivered on a tight timeline and within a limited budget. These demands led them to precast concrete. “The precast concrete panels allowed the design to emulate the collegiate Gothic tradition, updating this traditional architecture through form, rhythm, verticality, and scale,” Licht says. “They were also an affordable option that were able to be produced not too far away, in Wisconsin, expediting the delivery schedule.”
The goal of the new project was to create a gateway connecting the campus and community with plazas, gardens, walkways, courtyards, and retail space. The housing would include shared entryways, lounges, reading rooms, classrooms, and dining commons, as well as outdoor spaces meant to encourage interactions between students.
“The precast concrete panels serve as the primary visual element of the entire project,” Licht says. The façade of the new structures features brilliant white precast concrete panels that have an added sparkle, which plays off the coloration of the surrounding limestone architecture. Each panel has an acid-etch finish with subtle arcs that come to a point and twist up and down each of the three buildings in varying directions. “The arcs pay tribute to the university’s history of architecture,” she says.
The depths on the panels provide the sun shading and the thermal mass necessary for a radiant slab heating and cooling system. To achieve thermal performance, spray foam insulation was applied to the backs of the precast concrete panels, which helped eliminate the need for a rain screen system. The design of the precast concrete panels and window system also allows maximum natural light and fresh air into the building, Licht says. “The precast concrete panels provide the durability necessary for a building designed to be a long-lasting home for hundreds of students each year.”
Precast concrete was chosen to replicate the University’s Gothic architect in a more cost-effective form. The panels were cast three stories tall to identify each house unit.
To ensure the precast concrete elements would exactly meet the specifications of the architect, a two-story mock-up was produced prior to construction. “The mock-up not only provided the architect with a visual of how the building would look, but it provided a training session for all trades to practice how the building was going to come together,” says Therese Hurley, business development manager for International Concrete Products.
The precaster then created 156 custom molds to produce more than 1000 panels. Because of the unique shapes and the fact that they had to be stored and shipped facedown, special cradles were produced to keep the sharp points and arcs safe during transport. “The cradles were so unique that they were later incorporated as benches in the garden on campus,” Hurley says.
The final design met all of the owner’s and architect’s goals, and fits seamlessly with surrounding structures. “The panels helped the building fit comfortably within the Gothic tradition of the campus, complementing the university’s past without competing with it,” Licht says. “It serves as a beacon and portal that anchors the northeast edge of the campus, creating a new front door for the university.”