PHYSICAL THERAPY BUILDING

It isn't often that an urban hospital campus has the opportunity to expand into an open, empty lot - typically, expansions are confined to the existing footprint of the campus.

This was a special case.

Stepping over the CTA tracks to one of the busiest corner of its neighborhood, the confidential Chicago hospital joyfully reclaimed an old parking lot to add a state-of-the-art expansion to their physical therapy platform. But with great building comes great responsibility. How does a hospital use architecture to simultaneously project its identity and model of care? How does it do so while simultaneously leaving intact the neighborhood's aesthetic identity? How can it go a step further and give back to its community through architectural design?

 

THE DESIGN OPPORTUNITY

As the confidential Chicago hospital client was planning to expand the capacity and functionality of its various platforms, the goals it had for the building that would inhabit the busy intersection created curious dualities. 

 

On the ground floor, the building would house the Physical Therapy spaces, staff, and patients, while the above floors, on the other hand, would become a parking garage, adding 400 staff parking spaces for the entire campus. The building had to give back to and and blend into the existing neighborhood as much as possible, but it also had to take advantage of the foot- and vehicular traffic on its two busy, neighboring streets to the south and west as well as the CTA L tracks and station to the east. It needed to become a projection of the hospital's brand identity beyond the campus, but it could not become a projection into people's bedrooms while they were trying to sleep.

It was the perfect storm, and an exciting design opportunity.

 

MY ROLE

Having been a member of the project team since the initial proposal and competition, I was moved into the role of the project's main designer. Having touched every aspect of the project, from the general massing of the structure, to interior experience and staff and patient flows, to the exterior expression and facade systems, I quickly became better acquainted with the project from a holistic perspective than any other staff member in the firm.

With the intricacy of my knowledge about the project, my responsibilities ranged widely from coordinating and reviewing the finest assembly details with other disciplines and departments, to working directly with the head of the Chicago office and the president of the hospital on modeling and rendering graphics for the community, to representing the design team at meetings with user groups, contractors, and building technology and engineering specialists.

 

USER EXPERIENCE

The project had two clear personas, whose concerns it had to address and hybridize together into one harmonious design.

 

On one hand are all of the hospital staff that work in the Physical Therapy clinic or park their cars in the garage for the duration of the workday, as well as hospital administrators and stakeholders. On the other hand are all of the families and individuals living in the community as well as the patients that come to both the clinic, as well as the rest of the hospital itself.

Dr. Park

▪ His first and last experience of the campus on a daily basis is the parking garage, so he wants it to be bright, welcoming, and free of congestion and exhaust fumes

▪ He takes pride in the work he does and personally invests in providing the most cutting edge, advanced care possible - he wants the campus to look the part.

▪ Care must always be delivered on time, so he seeks to provide his employees, assistants, and patients with the most streamlined and convenient work environment possible

The Morrisey Family

▪ As proud residents of the neighborhood, they enjoy its quiet charm. They love the brick houses that line each street as well as the sensible proportions of the buildings there.

▪ Mr. Morrisey goes to the PT clinic on a regular basis to treat his bad knee, and it just adds to his anxiety when the environment he is in looks and feels like a hospital. 

▪ Their living room windows look out to the east, and they like seeing the skyline about as much as they would dislike seeing car headlight glare in their flat in the evening.

 

EXTERIOR EXPRESSION

Flexible Content

To resolve the conflicting ideologies of visual expression between the neighborhood and hospital, the Sheffield building put on two different appearances, with a warmer, brick expression on the north, west, and south sides which face the neighborhood, and a more contemporary and industrial concrete and aluminum aesthetic - inspired by the steel and glass facades of the other new buildings and the CTA L tracks - hidden around the back on the east side.

To catch the eye of passersby on the train and to declare to thousands of commuters on a daily basis that the hospital is pushing the envelope with regards to both medicine and architecture, the east facade boasts an array of over 700 extruded aluminum fins. Each fin is computationally modeled and placed at one of several dozen fixed angles. As trains pass by the building, the fins appear to animate themselves to the human eye, creating a spectacle of opening and closing gestures, never looking quite the same from any angle.

The west facade of the building proved to be a greater challenge. To perfectly blend into the surrounding aesthetic, the entire facade would have had to consist mainly of brick, stone, and glass. Architecturally, this was feasible; however, in order to create a friendly experience for those using the parking garage on the upper floors, there needed to be natural ventilation throughout the space bringing fresh air from the exterior. This meant that the west facade needed to retain a certain ratio of openness, prompting the design team to keep the brick, but emulate the reflectivity and liveliness of glass using anodized aluminum panels as infill. Those, unlike glass, could be perforated to allow air into the building.

 

With the building over 250 feet long, however, the pedestrian experience on the sidewalk was still rather harrowing - the mass felt completely out of scale with the neighborhood and filled one's field of vision. To remedy this, the long stretches of brick and metal were broken down into smaller pieces more easily understood by the human eye. Then, the pattern was made irregular and shifted, creating a much friendlier and digestible aesthetic.

This still left us with the north and south facades, which somehow needed to tie together the human scale brick on the west and the train scale fins on the east. To achieve this, we picked a pair of ingredients from each - perforation and the human module of 32" from the west, and verticality and angularity from the east - and hybridized them into a folding perforated metal screen that appears to be compressed like an accordion between the two sides of the building. Finally, taking a cue from the community, we masked the fin wall on the east by wrapping the brick around the northeast and southeast corners, unifying the visual expression.

 

USER-INSPIRED REFINEMENT

We, of course, didn't want to be done designing just yet. Having scheduled several rounds of meetings with various community groups, hospital staff user groups and executive board, and the ward' alderman, we noticed a pattern among users' reactions to the design. There was general acclaim, however many expressed that they still thought that the west facade was too "harsh" and "unfriendly". Digging deeper, we narrowed the probable causes of this two two distinct design issues.

1. Perforated Panel Design

Members of the community, especially those living directly across the street from the west facade of the building, still seemed rather uneasy about having car headlight glare enter their living rooms during the evening hours.

2. Streetscape Scalelessness and Lifelessness

While we did a nice job of breaking down the scale of the building at the upper levels, the read at the sidewalk level, where most users would experience the building from, was still flat and infinitely long. 

We got straight to work on the perforated openings. To ensure there was absolutely no possibility of headlights shining out of the parking garage, we extended the top face of the west perimeter spandrel beams 46" above each floor level, capturing light spillage from even the tallest SUVs. This, however, created a hard edge mid-way through each floor that could be seen from the exterior - the light-colored spandrel created a sharp mask in front of the dark garage interior.

To remedy this, we put our perforated pattern through several iterations until, through varied opening sizes, it obscured the spandrel nearly perfectly while still providing enough openness. 

Several different schemes of perforation were explored, each with their own ratio of openness and aesthetic qualities. The primary design driver was the need to soften the edge of the spandrel and carry the same kind of lively and flowing characteristic that is imbued by the rest of the Sheffield Building's assemblies. The final perforation pattern chosen (5th from the right) achieves this with both an irregular, flowing pattern as well as a decreasing average diameter of openings towards the bottom of the panel. The result is a barely visible spandrel - even from up close - and an even more playful facade.

Arguably the greatest improvement, however, we saved for last. Picking up on the subtle layering and push-pull effect present throughout the entirety of the west facade, we took it a step further along the sidewalk. Two column bays of glass were pushed two feet in, creating an undulation that brought the seemingly infinite length of the glass along the ground into the realm of human understanding. Filling in these new niches were planters with vegetation that stretched towards the westward light, interrupted occasionally with recessed, narrow benches.

 

The introduction of this extra layer provided a greater degree of experiential separation between the sidewalk and the interior, increasing patient comfort without compromising natural light. To put the cherry on the care, the space between the sidewalk and the street was further enhanced with planters of its own, turning the sidewalk into an oasis.

Streetscape Before

Streetscape After

The physical therapy building has broken ground as of early 2020, and is expected to reach substantial completion in early 2021. It is currently a finalist for the 2020 SmithGroup Design Awards.

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