Shrink-wrapping the skyline: Chicago architects unveil design for energy-saving ‘double wall’ at Cleveland federal building



With help from Chicago architects, federal officials on Thursday unveiled an innovative design that leave the exterior of Cleveland’s aging federal building in place and wrap a new metal and glass skin around it. This type of design, known as a “double wall,” is expected to cut energy costs and give the stolid steel-and-glass building a fresh skyline identity, making its appearance change constantly in the light.

The $121 million plan (left), which was made public at a Cleveland news conference, will be funded by the controversial federal stimulus program. It was prepared by Interactive Design Eight Architects, which worked under Italian architect Renzo Piano on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing. It will be the most extensive use of double wall technology in a U.S. federal building, though not the first.

Renovation work already has begun on the 16-story Peter W. Rodino Federal Building in Newark, N.J. It’s laying the groundwork for that building to be “shrink-wrapped,” as the plan’s chief architect, Richard Dattner, puts it, in a new metal and glass skin. As at the Cleveland building, the two walls in Newark will be separated by a cavity of air, about three feet wide.

Such double walls filter out harsh sunlight and create an insulating layer of air that moderates climatic extremes and lowers energy costs. Office buildings in Europe have used double walls for more than a decade, but the technology remains unusual in the U.S.

In Cleveland, it will now be applied to the A.J. Celebrezze Federal Building (left), a 32-story structure completed in 1967 and located a short walk from I.M. Pei’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum along Lake Erie. Bob Peck, commissioner of public buildings at the General Services Administration (GSA), which operates federal buildings, approved the design last week.

Construction is scheduled to begin this summer and to conclude in 2014, according to Charles Young, a principal at Interactive Design. The project will reduce annual energy costs by 17 percent, he said in an interview before Thursday’s press conference, calling the existing structure “a massive energy drain.”

The architects arrived at the double-wall solution to meet three renovation criteria set by the GSA: The project should slice energy costs; allow federal workers to remain in place during construction; and protect them from the sort of deadly flying glass that killed scores of office workers in the 1995 truck bomb attack on the Oklahoma City federal building.

These aims led to a more complex–and costly–solution than simply changing existing windows. It will take roughly 50 years to recoup the renovation’s cost in lower energy bills, he estimated, but he stressed that such a calculation was deceptive because it ignored savings and benefits on non-energy items. The government won’t have to rent temporary “swing space” during the renovation, for example, and the building will offer greater protection to its occupants, who works for federal agencies including the Department of Defense.

“This is a blast resistant building,” Young said. “You can’t do it by replacing the existing skin.”

After studying the motion of the sun and its impact on the building’s energy performance, the architects devised two variations of the new exterior skin.

On the building’s south and west sides (at left in the rendering), the skin will consist of projecting aluminum fins, high-strength laminated glass and three fixed glass louvers in the cavity. The louvers will serve as additional filters for harsh, direct sunlight.

On the north and east sides (at right in the rendering), which need less protection because they get less direct sunlight, the skin won’t have the louvers.

The old facade will be visible through the new one. For the building as a whole, the architects hope to create more shadows and visual depth than the current, flat-walled building displays. They also hope to achieve shifting plays of light, like those that animate the exteriors of Ludwig van der Rohe’s high-rises and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago.

“The idea is to work with light,” Young said, adding that the design could be used for commercial 1960s buildings whose building systems are now wearing out. “It’s a problem we’re going to be wrestling with for the next 20 years,” he said.

Scheduled for completion in 2013, the Newark project (left) will retrofit the Rodino office building, which was finished in 1968. Clad in pre-cast concrete and glas, it suffers from many of the same problems as its Cleveland sibling, among them poor insulation and corroding exterior walls that have forced the erection of scaffolding around the building.

As designed by Dattner Architects with Richard McElhiney Architects, the Newark renovation will have some features absent from the Cleveland project. Its outer wall (below), for example, will be outfitted with operable, awning-like windows that will swing open in summer, releasing warm air. They will close in winter, insulating the building. As in Cleveland, however, the inner windows won’t be operable, as they are in many European double-walls–a feature that allows office workers to breathe fresh air.

The building’s top will have an array of angled solar panels that will create what Dattner called a “tiara.” That feature will send a message to Newark, he said, saying “you’ve got a great new building.”

Dattner could not estimate how long it would take for the building to recoup the renovation cost, which he pegged at $146 million, but he insisted that of all the options the architects studied, including tearing down the building and constructing a new one, the chosen plan would cost the least.

“Shrink-wrapping,” he said, “was the least expensive.”


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