Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
Aqua Tour

October 21st, 2009
Report written by Matthew Lacey, CTBUH Assistant

Aqua Tower . Close to 60 attendees of the 2009 CTBUH Chicago Conference began their conference experience with a two-hour technical tour of the recently completed Aqua Tower, located in the Lakeshore East development in downtown Chicago.  Tour guests got an immediate feel for the first class amenities within the building as the group was ushered into the 2nd floor media room, equipped with stadium seating for 30 guests on comfortable leather armchairs.  Jeanne Gang, founding principle of Studio Gang, Jim Lowenberg, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Magellan Development Group, and Ryan Keane, concrete project manager from McHugh Construction, were on hand to give a stimulating presentation on the design and construction of one of the most unique skyscrapers in the Chicago skyline.

In line with the conference’s theme of challenging issues of sustainability in tall buildings, very critical questions about the building’s energy consumption were asked of the presenters.  After a detailed description of how surprisingly simple it was to pour each floor slab with unique curving edges, Tony Kettle of RMJM architects asked why no measures were put in place to prevent thermal bridging from occurring through each slab of the building. 

View looking up at Aqua Tower

Kettle received a refreshingly direct and simple answer, they chose to accept these losses and focus on other ways to improve energy efficiency, most notably through the use of glazing. Six different types of glazing are used in Aqua Tower, with varied tints, opacity, and reflectivity for solar heat gain control, based upon each window’s directional facing and immediate balcony condition.

This holistic approach to the building’s efficiency is inspired by the City of Chicago energy code, which much to the surprise of many tour guests, does not have specific energy requirements for any singular aspect of the building, but only considers how the exterior acts a whole.  The theory for Aqua Tower is that any thermal losses through the exposed slab edges are more than absorbed by the intelligent way in which the building is clad.

Following the presentation hard hats were distributed and guests had the opportunity to visit the largest outdoor pool and amenity deck in Chicago, a one-bedroom rental apartment on the 27th floor, the unfinished penthouse units on the 81st floor, the mechanical level on the 82nd floor and the roof.  Mild temperatures allowed the tour guests to explore all the features of the 2.5 acre park, but nothing seemed as stimulating as simply staring back and marveling at the undulating balconies on the southern and eastern faces of the building. 

Guests await the start of the presentation in the media room

Monica Chadha of Studio Gang answers questions from the amenities deck

Back inside, the tour continued with a glimpse at residential life on the 27th floor.  While the furnished unit felt homey, if not slightly claustrophobic with such a large group, the main attraction was clearly the balcony, and the views provided were both of the lake and of neighboring units.  During the presentation Jeanne Gang spoke about how the shifting balconies allow residents different views of surrounding units, creating a unique ‘neighborhood feel’ not often felt in monolithic tall buildings.  This sensation could easily be understood standing out on this corner balcony with views of over 20 neighboring balconies on surrounding floors.

27th floor residence living room and balcony
View of other units from 27th floor residence

From the 27th floor there was nowhere to go but up, and the tour continued on the 81st floor where the penthouse units remain still unfinished.  The most noticeable difference between this and the previous level (besides the lack of finish material) was the height of the ceiling, a lofty 14’ 3”.  This ceiling height difference of over 5’ made the views of the surrounding city even more stunning, although much of this effect will be diminished once the interior partitions are complete, and it will no longer be possible to look out in different directions from the same place.  Once again the immediate draw for all guests was the balconies, and while the sense of neighborhood community feeling is lacking at this height, it is replaced by the true thrill of being over 800 feet off the ground on a 9” thick cantilevered slab, leaning against a slender steel railing drilled into the concrete.  Stepping out onto the balcony came with the following warning from Ryan Keane: “hold onto your hardhat!” On an otherwise calm day it was extremely windy when rounding the corner from the east to the south side of the balcony.  The wind velocity was enough to question how often these upper floor balconies will really be habitable, and not just visual elements of the building’s facade.  It is unclear when these top floor penthouse units will be finished and occupied, but needless to say it will take a very large check to get the process started.

Jim Lowenberg talking to Irwin Cantor in the unfinished 81st floor penthouse
Windy 81st floor balcony 

Much to everyone’s delight, the tour continued to climb up the building, with the next stop in the 82nd floor mechanical room.  For brave guests, the tour climbed even higher, up a ladder from the mechanical room out onto the open roof of the building.  Beyond the spectacular 360 degree views of the city (even on an overcast fall afternoon) the trip to the roof provided an up close and personal view of the window washing unit, the design of which was one of the many challenges the design team successfully overcame.  Due to the irregular nature of the building balconies, the unit must be able to access the windows in the façade ‘pools’ while avoiding the balconies that project out as much as 12 feet (residents with accessible balconies are responsible for cleaning their own windows).  A novel retractable system was designed and implemented, and has thus far functioned smoothly.

Little did the Aqua Tower tour guests realize, but as the cool lake breeze rifled through their hair on the roof, they became a spectacle to conference attendees touring surrounding buildings in the city.  Guests on the Trump Tower tour (one of the few buildings in Chicago taller than Aqua) could see figures on the Aqua roof over a quarter mile away.  In addition, those touring the neighboring Blue Cross Blue Shield Building were able to look up with envy at those on top of Aqua.

Guests tour the roof (as viewed from Trump Tower to the west)
Discussion on the roof

Overall the tour was a positive experience for those in attendance, and unique insights into the building were obtained by even the most knowledgeable guests.  As the tour progressed, critical and detailed questions continued to be raised, and the leaders gave honest responses or directed the inquiries on to those who could field them.  The CTBUH would like to thank the countless representatives from Magellan, Studio Gang, and McHugh Construction for offering their time, as well as behind the scenes access to this innovative building.

Attendees: Said Abu Odeh, QIPCO; Doua Al Khatib, QIPCO; Stuart Allen, QIPCO; Angela Allen, QIPCO; Leonid Avramkov, Spetsvisotmontag; Alan Brake, The Architects Newspaper; Torsten Brendel, i+o GmbH & Co. KG; Kyle Cantone, Illinois Institute of Technology; Irwin Cantor, Irwin G. Cantor PE; Hi-Sun Choi, Thornton Tomasetti; Kwang Ryang Chung, Dong Yang Structural Engineers Co. Ltd.; Charles DeBenedittis, Tishman Speyer; Rebecca Dixon, Chicago Architecture Foundation; Gregg Garmisa, WMA Consulting Enginers, Ltd.; David Genc, DeStefano + Partners; Benet Haller, City of Chicago; Chris Harris, Faithful + Gould; Bohdan Ivanets, Osnova Solsif; David Jennerjahn, Valerio Dewalt Train Associates; Young Kyu Ju, Korea University; Boo Seong Kang, Seoul National University of Technology; Tommy Karagula, David Engineers Ltd.; Tony Kettle, RMJM; Dong Hoon Kim, SAMOO A&E; Byung Sung Kim, SAMOO A&E; Mykola Kozoriz, Architecturna Spilka; Igor Krykun, Spetsvisotmontag; Valeriy Lazarenko, Maksibud; Luke McGuire, Chicago Architecture Foundation; Emile Nacouz, CICO Consulting Architects & Engineers; Wilhelm Obermeier, GIG Fassaden GmbH; Joong Hee Oh, Mooyoung Architects & Engineers; Yulin Park, Illinois Institute of Technology; Dennis Poon, Thornton Tomasetti; Sara Popenhagen, Chicago Architecture Foundation; Jay Pridmore, Chicago Magazine; Nozar Ravanbach, CICO Consulting Architects & Engineers; Farah Ravanbach, CICO Consulting Architects & Engineers; Supreedee Rittironk, Illinois Institute of Technology; James Robinson, Hong Kong Land Limited; John Rovi, Curtain Wall Design & Consulting; Jung SangJin, Dankook University; Hyung Jong SangJin, SAMOO A&E; Antonia Savoliuk, Osnova-Solsif; Scott Seyer, Goettsch Partners; John Sheehy, Architecture International; Danit Shenhav, Canaan Shenhav Architects Ltd.; Gil Shenhav, Canaan Shenhav Architects Ltd.; SunHo Shim, Thornton Tomasetti; Judith Spurgin, Chicago Architecture Foundation; Elke von Nida, CICO Consulting Architects & Engineers; Lawrence Weldon, Goettsch Partners; Frank Zabel, CICO Consulting Architects & Engineers; John Zerafa, CICO Consulting Architects & Engineers.

Picture Gallery
Click an image below to enlarge.
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View looking up at tower

Project presentation in media room

Amenities deck

South deck of podium-top park

Running track on south deck

Guests get hard hats

Typical unit kitchen

Typical unit bedroom & balcony Neighboring balconies Guests in unfinished penthouse
81st floor balcony


Guests on rooftop

Ladder for roof access

Waves of Aqua