Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
CTBUH Summer Tours 2009 - Aqua Tower

19 June 2009, Chicago


Aqua Tower
Aqua Tower, Chicago


The crown jewel of Chicago’s Lakeshore East master planned community, Aqua Tower, was the subject for the second in the series of CTBUH Summer Tours on Friday, June 19, 2009. Led by Ryan Keane and Suzanne Browne of McHugh Construction Company and Mauricio Sanchez of Studio Gang Architects, 36 tall building enthusiasts joined the two-hour technical tour, which took the group through Aqua's completed and uncompleted spaces.

Keane began the tour of this mixed-use facility in the lobby of the building with as-built project statistics. Aqua is made up of a six-story podium structurally separate from the 82-floor tower. The podium houses the facility lobby, office and retail spaces, a five-story parking garage, hotel service space, two hotel ballrooms totaling 20,000 square feet, and nine townhomes facing the park. The first of Aqua’s retail tenants, CVS Pharmacy, opened on May 31, 2009 at the southwest corner of the Aqua podium.


The 82-story tower houses amenities at the podium levels, a presently unoccupied hotel space accommodating 225 rooms on levels 4 through 18, 481 rental apartments on levels 19 through 52, and 264 condominiums on levels 53 through 81, for a total of 970 units each with distinctive floor plans and unique balcony designs.


Ryan Keane and Suzanne Browne of McHugh Construction Company welcome CTBUH Summer Tour guests  

Jay Butler of Walsh Construction joins tour guests   

After Keane’s introduction, tour guests were taken from the lobby to the East Terrace overlooking the Lakeshore East community park. A broad concrete spiral staircase which connects the terrace to park level features a novel concrete rail created with flexible corrugated forms, carrying forward the water theme of the Lakeshore East community.

Lakeshore East community park just to the east of Aqua Tower Stairway from Aqua's east terrace

Tour guests examined building amenity spaces on podium levels 2 and 3, including massage facilities, basketball courts and weight room, indoor pools, spa, club room, and party rooms. The level 3 south patio deck is a prime amenity providing a large outdoor living space with a strong urban edge. It features a 120,000 square foot outdoor pool, barbecue facilities, a yoga area, and a fully landscaped deck garden. Browne spoke regarding the major waterproofing effort undertaken on the deck garden project. The garden landscape is designed with 18 inches of insulation under the fully irrigated landscaped berms. The 1/3-mile running track, intermingling with flower beds and large scale trees, was built up with a high-tech multi-layered running track surface. A second spiral staircase and surrounding Zen garden, unfinished at tour time, will flow between both amenity floors.

Mauricio Sanchez of Studio Gang Architects explains Aqua design from street level   Two featured pools on the patio park atop Aqua's podium   

The technical slide presentation, held in one of the common areas, showed two years of building construction highlights. Browne pointed out the amazing likeness of the building design renderings with actual building images. Due to its unique sculptural form, Aqua Tower has been extensively written about internationally, critically acclaimed, and highly anticipated throughout its construction. A product of Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang Architects, the tower was the largest project to be awarded at the time to a female-led American design firm and won the 2008 American Architecture Award from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture & Design. The Architect of Record on the project is Loewenberg & Associates, Project developer is Magellan Development Group LLC, and construction contractor is McHugh Construction. According to CTBUH statistics, at time of construction Aqua Tower is noted as 39th in the list of Tallest Buildings in North America.

In January 2007, McHugh Construction broke ground on Aqua Tower. In June 2007 they began caisson drilling and then began structural building in July 2007. The 81st floor was topped out in March 2009, and the construction frame was removed in April 2009.

Fully landscaped south patio park garden Running track atop Aqua's podium and neighboring Lakeshore East park   

Keane explained in the presentation that construction began with 67 caissons, 31 of which were drilled into bedrock at 110 feet below grade. The building completed with a total of 301 caissons, 104,000 cubic yards of concrete, 11,000 tons of rebar, 875 linear feet of balcony and 330,000 square feet of glass. As for most skyscrapers, it also was a challenge for Aqua construction to secure a foundation amidst the layers and web of downtown city service mains, with teams delicately drilling caissons between Com Ed services, city water and gas mains. An extensive amount of steel plate girders were placed on top of substation services to transfer building loads. Though Aqua Tower is a concrete construction building, levels 1, 2, and 3 are constructed of steel with concrete over metal pan deck. The tower utilizes sheer walls transferring loads to columns, rather than floor slabs.

In Aqua Tower, every floor plate has a unique slab edge curvature and had to be individually created. McHugh Construction had to create a system to custom-build all the forms for pouring the concrete in a time-efficient manner. The challenge of constructing all 82 unique floor plates was solved by implementing a computerized civil engineering and surveying software program and digital CAD files for inputting coordinates of each unique slab to a robotic station used onsite. This system led to the solution for easily laid and reusable forming edges using light-gauge steel and brackets. The innovative measures were so successful that McHugh’s Concrete Superintendent Paul Treacy was named one of Engineering News-Record's Top 25 Newsmakers of 2008.

Podium-top park view to Aqua's unique south balconies and neighboring buildings  Each balcony designed with a unique size and shape

After the 23rd floor, the construction team was able to complete each floor slab in a three-day pour cycle consisting of the floor east-half plus vertical core on day one, the floor west-half plus vertical core on day two, and no concrete pour on day three. Slabs were poured on around 19,000 pound flying forms and attached to shoes which connected the forms to column sheer walls.

The undulating balconies consist of cantilevered edges between four and twelve feet. A system of three different lengths of rebar was exercised for efficiency in the cantilevered balconies. Floor slabs were poured with a common slope at nine inch from the building window, but then each slab features varied slopes tapered to its unique profile. The cutting edge digital systems and equipment employed by McHugh Construction teams allowed for the highly customized construction on each of the 82 floors of Aqua Tower.

Six types of glazing designed according to solar condition further customizes each residential space      

    View east from Aqua condominium

Custom features continue in the design of the tower glazing. Each window has a protective solar coating, reflective in some areas and non-reflective in others. In fact, Keane pointed out that 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.

Browne explained that it even required a major effort to get engineering worked out for the window washing requirements at Aqua. A specialized window washing rig with telescopic and rotating arm which will drop a basket from the rooftop is planned to be installed for use beginning July 2009.

View to Navy Pier from Aqua condominium Custom steel rails along balconies

The tour group was divided in half and taken to unfinished upper levels of the tower. Though the building was topped out architecturally, at the time of the tour, framing was complete through floor 73 and drywall installed through floor 63. Utilizing the construction lift, tour members were allowed to visit all the way through the 81st floor, which after completion will be the highest occupied floor at Aqua.

52nd floor condominium     81st floor penthouse

The 81st floor penthouse is actually designed as three two-story townhouse condominiums. The 80th floor also houses two additional single floor penthouse condominiums. Though an average floor to floor height in the Aqua Tower residential space is 9’5”, each penthouse features 14’3” floor to floor height. Aqua also features all owner-customized luxury finishes in condominium spaces from floors 53 through 81.

Tour guest Dave Vopatek enjoying Aqua balcony views   

   View to Millennium Park and the new Modern Wing of the Chicago Art Institute     

On visit to the upper levels, tour guests immediately made their way to step out onto the exceptional Aqua balconies for amazing Chicago views. Keane explained each balcony is covered with two layers of a highly slip-resistant epoxy insulating coating. Balcony steel rails are designed with extra bracing to withstand 50 pounds of linear pressure per foot. The entire structure is estimated to be complete in 2010.

The essence of Aqua

CTBUH wishes to thank Ryan Keane, Suzanne Browne and Mauricio Sanchez, as well as the many tour guests who joined us for this most informative technical building tour on Aqua Tower, Chicago.

For more information on Aqua Tower, visit
For more information on past and upcoming CTBUH Study Tours, click here .

For more information on the final tour in the 2009 CTBUH Summer Tours series, click here.

Picture Gallery
Click an image below to enlarge. Photos courtesy of Jan Klerks, Marshall Gerometta, and Matthew Lacey.


Aqua lobby for residents and future hotel guests

Guides Ryan Keane and Suzanne Browne of McHugh Construction Co.

Jay Butler of Walsh Construction joins tour guests  Mauricio Sanchez of Studio Gang Architects

Tour guests at construction site entrance

Keane leading tour at corrugated concrete rail of east terrace stairway East terrace stairway to community park View of tower and podium top from east terrace South deck of podium-top park Running track on south deck
Pools on the patio park View to Blue Cross-Blue Shield over landscaped berms on podium-top park

Building views from patio park

Common occurrence: visitors stopping to gaze up the side of Aqua Tour continues on Columbus street near building entrance.

Slide presentation of construction sequence Tower elevator to apartment residences  Six different types of glazing used in building 52nd floor residence Penthouse condominium
Unique balcony size and shapes. Undulating balconies unique at each level Tour guest enjoying views Discussing steel rails at balconies View to Columbus Street below
View to building and community parks
View South from Aqua View Northwest View Northeast Waves of Aqua