The lead architect for the newly renovated University of Chicago Keller Center aptly describes the project as a “thoughtful transformation.”
Located on the university’s Hyde Park campus, the center is the permanent home for the Harris School of Public Policy, embodying the philosophies of sustainability the school impresses on its students.
The Keller Center, erected in 1962, is considered a midcentury masterpiece designed by architect Edward Durrell Stone. The four-floor building is instantly recognizable by its limestone façade, perforated white concrete canopy and the soaring hexagonal engraved pillars flanking the sides. While the exterior maintains its period architecture, the interior has been entirely rethought and remade to reflect what is now a center for public policy education and development. The school reopened its doors to students in January 2019.
Keller’s new interior design and building operation was conceived, refined and constructed over a period of five years. It brought together university administrators, planners, architects and building contractors. Misho Ceko, chief operating officer and senior associate dean of business operations for the Harris School of Public Policy, was one of those seated at the project table.
To foster student collaboration and discussion in an educational public policy setting, an open layout filled with natural light became a chief design objective.
“Architecturally, we wanted the new interior design to promote activeness, an energy of movement and space,” Ceko said.
That required some major changes in a closed, traditionally designed building that began as a school of continuing studies and was later converted to a residence hall for graduate students. Today, the new Keller Center features floor-to-ceiling glass panels on the front and west side of the building, three skylights, daylighting and circadian LED lighting systems, and a reconceived building center that required cutting through floors to create a three-story atrium. The Harris Family Foundation King Harris Forum atrium bathes the center with natural light supported by LED fixtures.
“The brain benefits by bringing in natural light,” Ceko said. “We also added a circadian lighting system in the building’s lower level, which allows LED light to emulate the full spectrum of light the sun emits throughout the day. There is also a lot of open workspace and a newly installed four-story master staircase with an elevator hidden behind so people use the steps. It’s another centerpiece of the building.”
A rigorous example
One of the Harris School’s five Urban Labs, the Energy and Environment Lab, was developed to address urban living challenges. The lab is a partnership with community leaders to “identify, rigorously evaluate, and help scale programs and policies that reduce pollution, conserve limited natural resources, and improve environmental outcomes, while ensuring access to reliable and affordable energy.” The Keller Center is now the living embodiment of this mission.
The lead architect and lead designer for the Keller project was Farr and Associates. The Chicago-based firm, known for its sustainable design, is led by Doug Farr, a leading voice in smart building and urban design. Gabriel “Gabe” Wilcox, associate principal of architecture, served on the project.
“The Keller may be healthiest building in the region and in higher education,” Wilcox said. “We submitted the building for LEED Platinum certification and the Living Building Challenge [LBC] Petal Certification under materials for a healthy interior. This project was a strenuous exercise for the design team.”
Under LBC’s Red List, project partners must avoid or reduce to acceptable levels 814 chemicals commonly used in building materials that pose harm to the environment, individuals or the food chain.
“Related to the electrical contractor, RoHS was one requirement we had to follow,” Wilcox said. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive [RoHS] established by the European Union aims to restrict certain dangerous substances commonly used in electronics and electronic equipment. Limits on the presence of lead, cadmium and mercury are just a few of the chemicals cited. “[The RoHS] added to the Red List,” Wilcox said.
Project general contractor M.A. Mortenson Co. and Farr worked with suppliers to replace ingredients on the LBC’s Red List with more environmentally friendly alternatives ranging from the roofing system and fire system to adhesives, countertops, caulk and even the grease used to pull electrical wire through conduit. As a result, some suppliers expanded their product offerings adding the new Keller-driven materials to their inventory. The construction project itself became public policy in action.
Because the Harris School promotes evidence-based research, it expected the same of the choices its design team suggested.
“We had to show the university result-based evidence for the choices we recommended and the certification program levels we choose to pursue. The ‘what’ of our actions and the ‘why’ were questions we were expected to answer,” Wilcox said.
Beyond its energy-efficiency and healthy lighting efforts, the Keller Center added a working rooftop photovoltaic (PV) array consisting of 354 solar panels that provides an estimated 150,000 kilowatt-hour or 11% of the building’s energy. A $14,000 per year in energy savings is projected.
“We have space to grow and maximize the space devoted to solar panels. We are discussing extending the roof to add more PV,” Ceko said.
Net metering is also employed and a building automation system (BAS) allows campus engineers to login to modify the schedule of the building operations.
Another feature, which required power, was a pumping system designed to support 15,000-gallon rainwater cisterns that enable the center to divert 525,208 gallons annually from the city’s sewer system. That’s enough water to fill the entire atrium. Located in the lower level of Keller, cistern rainwater delivered through multiple pumps is used as gray water for toilets and landscaping irrigation. Wilcox noted the addition of the cisterns was another instance of public policy in action as it required convincing the City of Chicago to issue a code variance.
Because most of the spaces are lit with support from a daylight harvesting system, planners wondered whether there would be a need at all for a circadian lighting system. The answer was yes but in a limited way.
“We installed a system in the lower level of the building,” Wilcox said. “The system educates and exposes students to this lighting approach. A wall plaque explains the principals and benefits of circadian lighting. In fact, Keller has 14 informational plaques explaining different features of the building.”
Starting on the ground floor, daylight harvesting sensors are placed in perimeter spaces to read the natural light and communicate to LED fixtures that then set artificial light levels. Daylighting sensors are also found near the skylights and central atrium.
The Keller Center also addresses air quality in yet another nod to smart energy use. It uses a radiant heating and cooling system, which eliminates the need to heat or cool fresh air coming into the building while reducing the size of ductwork.
A sustainability-trained project team
“We partnered with other firms who needed no learning curves (e.g., dbHMS Engineers) in sustainable design,” Wilcox said. “They were also good mentors (e.g., Mortenson) to smaller contracting firms who had less experience in sustainability. We hired consultants who offered very specific expertise to help us achieve success in areas such a daylighting (e.g., Seventhwave). Some eco-consultants helped vet material choices. I think this project used 17 consultants in all.”
The project’s structural engineering firm, Ardmore Roderick, worked with Mortenson to better understand the sustainability aspects of the project.
“Ardmore Roderick, Farr [and] Associates and ourselves overcame multiple challenges due to the rigorous sustainability goals the University put into place for the Keller Center,” said Vladimir Stevanovic, project executive for Mortenson’s Chicago office. “Challenges included vetting the materials trade partners would use, tracking the carbon footprint trade partners and laborers created traveling to and from the project site, and helping win the variance with the City of Chicago to reduce the required size of the project’s green roof by offsetting rainwater storage in a cistern.”
Stevanovic added that the integrated approach the Keller project provided is often found in the university market sector and healthcare. Sustainability and life cycle become big discussions in these markets.
“An integrated approach is how we prefer to build,” Stevanovic said. “As input on improvements and process was given, work developed along the way. Everyone embraced the process and the sustainable building goals we needed to meet. The University wanted to think out-of-the-box, and we all obliged.”
Stevanovic added this project demanded partners who looked beyond the drawings and always asked what could be improved.
“That, in part, is why we feel it’s important to teach and mentor other contractors that may be new to sustainable design, and different certification programs,” he said.
Working as designed
Stevanovic has found himself sitting in the Keller atrium just observing the space. He sees students collaborating on projects, in discussion and then moving to smaller, private spaces for study or one-on-one meetings. The new Keller Center is working as envisioned.
“I am impressed by the energy in this building between staff, faculty and students,” he said. “It provides a totally different dynamic compared to the previous home for Harris.”
Mortenson has commissioned the building and will collect BAS data at year’s end and take a hard look at how the building has performed. Stevanovic added that inspired students are already gathering data from Keller engineers to discover how much water and power the building is using.
“Lighting and energy usage and environmental policy is something our students are passionate about,” Ceko said. “In the end, we created a building that practices what is preached in our curriculum.”