University of Chicago Keller Center, Chicago

2020 Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Adaptive Use

The 1962, Edward Durrell Stone-designed structure at the University of Chicago has received a thoughtful 125,000-square-foot restoration focused on sustainability and usability to serve the academic and larger communities. The project, now home to the university’s Harris School of Public Policy, has greatly improved the function of the building and achieved LEED-Platinum and Living Building Challenge Petal Certifications, becoming one of the most sustainable adaptive reuse projects in high education. The harmonization of history, technology and sustainability yields a committed resistance to climate change and environmental degradation. The decorative limestome building is a contributing structure to Chicago’s Historic Midway Plaisance – the spine of the 1893 Columbian Exposition — and its historic elements were meticulously restored to celebrate that past while looking toward future use. For instance, the limestone mullions were restored and finished with insulation caps or storm windows to ensure the historical appearance of limestone while improving envelope performance and thermal comfort. And, new entries to the revived Keller Center signal a transparent view into the practice of public policy education and development and create a more open, welcoming exterior.


Project Principals

Architect of Record: Farr Associates

Collaborating Architect – Interiors: Woodhouse Tinucci Architects


Milorad Misho Ceko, Senior Associate Dean at the Harris School of Public Policy

In a long career, the Keller Center project stands out for its rich interwoven stories. To design a sensitive renovation required a full understanding of the planning of University of Chicago’s South Campus, the built work of Edward Durrell Stone, how to manifest public policy in a building renovation and the history of green building firsts in Chicago. All projects should be so engaging and nuanced. While serving as University Campus Architect in the early 1960s, Eero Saarinen hired the leading architects of the day, including Edward Durell Stone, to design buildings for an ambitious south-of-the-Midway campus expansion. The university’s demolition of multi-family buildings south of the Midway displaced African-American residents, triggering community alarm about its expansion plans. Reflecting the town-gown tensions and the norms of the day, the new campus buildings turned their backs on the remaining neighborhood fabric to the south.

While Stone was regarded as one of America’s most prominent architects, the original Kellogg Center for Continuing Education was a pastiche of architectural motifs from earlier Stone buildings across the globe. For example, the lower level auditorium featured ceiling details from 1934’s Museum of Modern Art while the building’s temple form derived from the 1954 US Embassy in Delhi, a form arguably misapplied to Chicago’s climate. Armed with the insight that the three large double volume spaces on the interior were vestiges of the open-air courtyards in the Delhi embassy lead to re-envisioning them as the central Harris Forum and the East and West Skycourts with views to the sky once again.

As the first permanent home for the Harris School of Public Policy, the Keller Center sought a design that showcased the benefits of public policy. Inspired by the Harris School ethos of positive social change, the design is filled with policy-inspired firsts. The Keller Center is the most sustainable building on campus, the most sustainable Top-5 policy school and one of the most sustainable buildings in all of higher education. To use 35.9% less energy than code, the project employs a full menu of strategies to achieve LEED Platinum: daylight harvesting, shaded skylights, LED lighting and radiant heating and cooling. The Keller Center also attained the rigorous Living Building Challenge Petal certification, in the categories of Materials, Equity, and Beauty, among the first of major buildings in higher education nationwide. The Keller Center project can proudly take credit for leveraging its purchasing power to exert influence in this area of construction industry policy. The Keller Center combines public policy initiatives, commitment to sustainability and beautiful harmonization of mid-century historic preservation and modern aesthetics. The Harris School now has an environment that pioneers the new standard in higher education, fostering thoughtful policy and welcoming community engagement.

How did saving this place impact people in your community?

Milorad Misho Ceko, Senior Associate Dean at the Harris School of Public Policy

The original building had one entrance facing north, creating the appearance and presence of a barrier reinforced upon entry by a bank of elevators. The new design carved accessible paths through the plinth, extending the public spaces through the building. The resulting architecture and its dialogue with the site now invites people from all sides and encourages passage through the building. A new campus bus stop, pedestrian plaza with bike parking and a café run by a neighborhood business continue to push the boundary between community and university space.

The south entry connects to the neighborhood and future pedestrian greenway. The building’s original concrete plinth was nearly 100% concrete surface with surrounding lawns. Restoration of the concrete terrace reduced its size by half, coordinating the drip edge of the canopy with continuous gardens showcasing native species. Ground-plane public plazas bordered with native landscaping connect adjacent parks to the site. Thoughtful material selections led to healthy modifications of global manufacturers’ material ingredients. The Red List requirements under the Materials petal include extensive research and vetting to eliminate the use of worst-in-class materials and chemicals in the building which provides the greatest impact to human and ecosystem health.

The Harris School sought to provide the healthiest building in the region, while driving positive change in the design and construction industry. Due to the design team’s extensive vetting process of project materials, numerous manufacturers were forced to rethink their material ingredients and processes on a global scale. Salvaged ash wood was sourced from downed Chicago Park District trees damaged from the invasive Emerald Ash Borer insect. The specification of this wood resulted in the creation of a new mill just blocks from the building by artist Theaster Gates, who uses the mill to train local residents in the craft of woodworking. Partnerships and specification of salvaged ash wood during the design process catalyzed positive economic and social impacts in adjacent neighborhoods, directly showcasing full-circle sustainability and the mission of the Harris School of Public Policy. Among academic units at the University of Chicago, Harris is the most concerned with making positive change in the world. About a third of Harris students have concentrations concerned with global equity and/or sustainability, with the following results.

The biggest change resulting from the transition to the Keller Center is the increased engagement and collaboration. Many students and faculty chose to step away from their workstations to collaborate in team rooms and common gathering spaces. Educational in function and composition, the Keller Center serves as a learning laboratory in which policy students and impactful research can witness real-world challenges and solutions through design. The design of the Keller Center went to great lengths to dismantle decades long physical barriers and to make the interior experience welcoming for both the academic and larger communities. The Keller Center renovation transformed a building poorly suited for human habitation into an adaptable and resilient building, while preserving history and the unique architectural elements of the original building.

(Photo Credits: Tom Rossiter)

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