May 1, 2007
by Jessica Sheridan Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: Crown Hall — A Study in a Building’s Sustainable Evolution
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.26.07
Speaker: Nico Kienzl — Director, Atelier Ten, NY Office
Organizers: AIANY Committee on the Environment; AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

Crown Hall at IIT in Chicago.

Crown Hall at IIT in Chicago.

Courtesy AIANY

Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall is much more than a symbol of Modern architectural aesthetics. After evaluating the building, monitoring temperature and humidity, and studying original drawings, Atelier Ten realized that Mies’s design helped foster a sustainable environment — before sustainability was topical. It was renovations in the 1970s and 80s that decreased the quality and effectiveness of the interior.

The landscaping originally called for many more trees along the south and west façades to prevent the sun from penetrating the building. A whole row of trees was cut down to make room for a widened driveway in the 1970s. Mies’s design called for zoned radiant floors. As the controls began to wear, the building channeled all of the zones into one lever with one control. When first constructed, students could adjust blinds and operate vents to prevent glare and control natural airflow. Now in disrepair, neither is possible. Furthermore, when the air conditioning system was installed in the late 70s, the same diffusers for heat were used. The narrow shape does not disperse the cool air; instead it pushes it directly downward. Students located below the diffusers are cold, while their neighbors are warm.

Recently, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) hired Atelier Ten to explore how the comfort problems in the building could be improved without altering the building’s appearance. Replanting trees, rezoning the radiant floors, and fixing the operability of the vents and blinds could restore the success of Mies’s design. With a few extra moves, such as replacing the diffusers to spread out cool air and installing new lights similar to those that Mies intended, much of the work did not require innovation and 50% of the building’s energy was saved.

The most substantial difference between 1956, when Crown Hall was completed, and now, is the number of students (up to 350 from 200) and the use of computers by every student. The uniform light created by the original sandblasted glass along the bottom half of the building and clear glass along the top is perfect for hand drawing at a drafting table. Unfortunately, it creates glare on computer screens. Atelier Ten saw an opportunity to improve the sustainability of the building. Installing double-pane, acid-etched glass coated with an energy-efficient sealant saved more energy. By incorporating daylight controls, and zoning lighting so inner lights turn off when the building is not in use, students’ comfort would be improved and the glow of the building at night would be preserved (of utmost importance to preservationists). Ultimately, Atelier Ten hopes to improve comfort, reduce energy consumption, and restore Crown Hall’s original architectural details, according to Nico Kienzi, the director of the NY Office.

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