Studio Gang is going to gimme a thermal break in new Chicago project

City Hyde Park
© Studio Gang

Everybody loved Jeanne Gang's Aqua Tower, but she took some heat, so to speak, from engineers like Ted Kesik, who called it "architectural pornography" and from me, who complained that the vast radiator fin balconies were thermal disasters. Or Engineer Robert Bean, who asked What happens when artistic expression and culture trump common sense and principles in sustainability? The building has become the thermoporn poster boy for the issue.

Most architects would just continue to ignore it; their developer clients would rather put money into granite counters than thermal breaks, which are used all over Europe. To their everlasting credit, Studio Gang is doing the opposite and is actually studying the issue, testing thermal break technology in their new City Hyde Park project.

City Hyde Park closeup© Studio Gang
Right off the bat from a design point of view, it has an unusual balcony configuration, "with a playful array of stacked concrete panels forming columns, bays, sunshades, and balconies, offering multiple opportunities for residents to socialize and enjoy the outdoors and connect to the surrounding neighborhood and city."

plan of unit© Studio Gang

The design actually minimizes the length of the connection of the balcony to the building, which makes some sense as those thermal breaks are expensive. Some of the balconies are being installed with breaks, and others without. Thermocouple sensors are being installed inside and and out, adjacent to the exterior wall;

Temperature of the concrete slab will be measured at the balcony and at the interior floor to determine temperature differentials in the balconies with and without thermal breaks. Each pair of sensors will be located approximately 1 foot from the envelope on the exterior and interior sides. These measurements will allow the team to also evaluate effective heat flux through the balconies and could be coupled with periodic measurements of heat flux with heat flux meters. The measured values may be used later to perform energy performance analysis of the two unit groups. In addition, we propose to collect utility bills for the appropriate residential units to compare energy performance between the two groups.

facade© Studio gang

The data will be collected throughout 2016 and presented in January or February of 2017. One could ask why a building with such a complex facade, with different angles and shading conditions, would be chosen for such an experiment rather than one with a simple, repeated form that reduces all the variables; One might well wonder whether data from such a complicated design is relevant to a more conventional building.

One could also ask why they have to do this at all; similar data have been available for a decade at least. A look at the Schöck website will quickly turn up case studies on hundreds of buildings in all kinds of climates, all the research and studies that anyone would need. They don't just do it to save energy, either; as one engineer trying to sell thermal breaks in North America told me:

Another neglected issue is well-being and comfort. Imagine standing bare foot in front of a non-insulated balcony in Chicago in a harsh winter- you will definitely need to wear boots in your apartment. In Europe the question is not whether I should insulate the balcony or not, it is a question of which supplier to use.

Here's a link to Building Science Corp's library page listing lots of existing research, Illustrated, of course, with a picture of the Aqua tower.

But I shouldn't complain; the research is getting done, by one of the most respected firms in the country, the designers of a building that has probably been the subject of more thermoporn than any other. Perhaps when they are done, thermal breaks will be added to the building code or the LEED standard where they belong.

Studio Gang is going to gimme a thermal break in new Chicago project
Jeanne Gang's architectural firm is studying thermal break technology in the City Hyde Project

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