Aqua: The Beauty of Green

By Matt Baker

Chicago has enjoyed a high-rise construction boom during the last decade. With a few notable exceptions, once the scaffolding and cranes come down, what has often been left behind are towering monuments to the banal: precast concrete behemoths hued somewhere between beach sand and aged asphalt.

But for a city noted for its architecture even before the fire and more so after, where the skyscraper was incubated and first took shape, where elegance and strength blend in world-renowned towers like the Hancock and Willis, blandness won’t do. Chicago’s architectural legacy is strong enough to survive these unexciting buildings, but what of the years to come?

The answer to that question is in the final stages of construction. Aqua, arguably the most photogenic high-rise to go up in Chicago in the last ten years, is set to be completed this February. With its undulating balconies, it seems in constant motion. The building rises like a column of water mimicking the nearby lake, though the building’s designer cites limestone outcroppings in the Great Lakes region as inspiration.

But the future of architecture is more than beauty. Tomorrow’s buildings won’t just be judged for their aesthetics, but also their efficiency. Unrestrained opulence has little place in modern society and the designers of Aqua have embraced this idea while also giving Chicago a splendid new building.

Aqua is the latest edition to the Lakeshore East development, bounded by the Loop, river, lake and Grant Park. Magellan Development Group is the architect of record and developed Aqua, along with all the other new buildings in the Lakeshore East planned development. McHugh Construction served as general contractor. Engineering firm dbHMS acted as LEED consultants and will perform the building’s commissioning.

The genesis for the building that would come to be known as Aqua is a twisted one. Jim Lowenberg, Co-CEO of Magellan and an architect with his own firm, Lowenberg Architects, was attending a dinner several years ago where Frank Gehry was lecturing. Magellan had partnered with several firms over the years—such as DeStefano + Partners and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—on properties in Lakeshore East. At the time, Lowenberg was on the lookout for new talent to collaborate with on one of his properties. Seated next to him was Jeanne Gang. Her firm, Studio Gang, comprised about six people at the time and had no high-rise experience. Though it was their first meeting, Lowenberg  was impressed and invited her to submit some proposals for his building. Out of this meeting grew Aqua.

Aqua is Magellan’s first foray into LEED certification, though they’ve been practicing many green building strategies for years, including installing green roofs, low-emittance glass and energy modeling. But the decision to seek LEED certification came well into Aqua’s development. “One of the big challenges with Aqua is that we got a late start,” said Kris Schwengel, Vice President of Construction at Magellan. “Clearly the LEED process is a lot clearer, a lot easier the sooner you begin.”

All of the building’s rebar is recycled and 84% of construction waste was diverted from landfills, showing the developers’ sustainable instincts prior to even considering LEED. That late start means Aqua will be certified, but might not hit the silver level. “We had to do some rethinking, we had to do some things on the fly,” said Schwengel. “There may be a couple hurdles that we just can’t overcome.”

The most obvious green feature on the eighty-two story high-rise is it’s 80,000 square foot vegetated roof. The largest residential green roof in the city, it covers most of the third floor platform from which the rest of the stories rise up. Interspersed with amenities like a large lap pool, hot tub and cabanas, even some of these are green. A natural gas fire pit offers a meeting place on cool nights and the 1/5 mile running track and exercise space are carpeted in recycled rubber. All of the vegetation is native, which reduces water need. Watering is accomplished through drip irrigation, reducing overspray.

The rippling quality of the building’s cantilevered ledges—from twelve feet out to no ledge at all in the “burn zones”— means solar gain is different all around. Aqua employs five different types of glass on its façade, all low-E, to counter this. The burn zones suffer the most intense heat and therefore have a slightly reflective coating, offering a better coefficient of absorption.

All of the light fixtures in the non-residential portion of the building are fluorescent, which have long been known to be more efficient than incandescent. But because of their mercury content, the building managers are developing a light bulb recycling program. This program will also be extended to the residents.

Aqua’s downtown location gives it an immediate edge over other sites. With the CTA running right past the building and proximity to outside amenities, the building performed perfectly on the walk score. This is a trait common to downtown buildings, but not many residences. Walkability and public transportation in the Lakeshore East development is further encouraged by a propane-powered shuttle service, as well as bike stations and changing rooms for residents and employees.

Lakeshore East is also home to an I-GO car sharing location, which will receive its first hybrid car soon. Aqua also feature’s the Midwest’s first public electric charging stations. “Plus, we’re on a national network so that people with electric cars can see where all the charging stations are,” explains Tricia Van Horn, Magellan’s Vice President of Marketing. “If you’re traveling across the country, you’re going to need to stop.”

One piece of software will earn the project an innovation in design point on the LEED submittal, but more importantly, save the equivalent of thousands of reams of paper. Plans and Specs allowed the building’s architects, designers, contractors, subcontractors and others communicate efficiently and effectively via the Internet. “If you’ve been around a construction project of any size, you know about the paper that’s on a job, from rolls of drawings to specifications to shop drawings,” explains Schwengel. The construction management tool allows all those involved on a project to scan their documents and mark them up on the screen instead of making copies and shipping them. “Logistically its great because it’s a lot faster. But that’s a lot of paper not going into landfills.”

The Aqua management are exploring wind credits and other green power options to offset the building’s utility usage, and may offer the programs to residents as well. “We think it’s a really good thing, but also the marketplace wants to see it, quite honestly,” Schwengel said of the decision to build green. “There’s a lot more awareness just with the general public about what’s going on with the green initiative, especially in Chicago.”

Tags: , , , , , ,

See All Tags

Suggest an article

Send us your articles! Please email any articles or topics that you think we should feature to


5 Responses to “Aqua: The Beauty of Green”
  1. Delores Lyon says:

    Wow, it is so cool to see how green our cities are becoming! Just the fact that the building was made with so many recyclable materials is really cool. It really makes this new building the pinnacle of green living. I know I would want to have a building like this, especially since it would save so much money every month!

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!