Sustainability Takes Center Stage

By Matt Baker

A recurring theme in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is how echoes of the past inform the present, which makes it a fitting inaugural production for the new Writers Theatre in Glencoe. The first permanent home of the 24-year-old theater company takes cues from the surrounding community and its heritage, but contextualizes them for this century.

Like other North Shore suburbs, Glencoe is replete with Tudor architecture, easily identified by exposed timber, leaded windows and white plaster. It’s a style that came to prominence in England at the same time as theater-going when luminaries like Shakespeare and Marlowe were active. “There was too much synchronicity,” said John Faris, Writers Theatre General Manager. “It felt like it had to be this,” noting that the building is even sited along Tudor Court.

This was the inspiration for Studio Gang’s design as the building exterior has three main components: wood, glass and plaster. The underlying components of those plaster sections are precast panels. The three-layer system mixes cementitious plaster and insulation to reduce thermal bridging. Eventually, much of the exterior plaster walls will be planted with ivy to help the theater meld even better with the surrounding neighborhood.

“When you come up to the [Writers Theatre], it’s a very inviting building, it’s a landmark building,” said Charlie Seville, Vice President of Sustainability Solutions Group at WMA Sustainability Solutions. “The first thing you see isn’t cars, it’s a park-like atmosphere.” WMA acted as LEED/Sustainability Consultant on the project, which is seeking a LEED Gold certification.

There are two green roofs atop the building, planted with sedum and tall grasses. For this and other on-site plantings, landscape Architects Coen + Partners consulted with the Chicago Botanic Garden, a mere two miles away. “They have a very large green roof at their Plant Conservation Science Center where they study what works well in Glencoe, in this sort of micro-climate,” Faris said. Those portions of non-vegetated roof are covered in Energy Star-certified reflective material.

But the focal point of the building is the grand gallery walk, a balcony suspended over three sides of one of the building’s wings. Constructed of rot-resistant Port Orford cedar, 16-foot-long battens hang down and carry the full weight of the walkway, a 9,000 pound design load. A cat’s paw joint does away with the need for mechanical fasteners at the bottom of the wood screen.

Downstate firm Trillium Dell Timberworks created a 12-foot-long, full scale model of the walkway. “They hung this mock-up from a steel frame and tried to rip it apart out of tension,” Faris said. “They had to stop because they were afraid the steel frame would break before the wood.”

Writers Theatre started in the back of an independent bookstore in 1992 with a total capacity of 50 seats. They eventually expanded with more shared space, opening a 100-seat theater in the Women’s Library Club building in 2003, on the site of the current Writers Theatre. For a number of factors, they explored their options to open a facility of their own. For one, stability; all of their space had been secured through a lease or a handshake. There was lost revenue also, as the two small stages were always at capacity.

And of course, neither the Women’s Library Club nor the bookstore was ever intended to stage a play. “While they were lovely, they didn’t have the amenities for either our patrons or our artists to make it feel like you were coming to see a professional theater,” Faris said. “Once you got into the theater, you saw top notch, high quality work, but the facilities didn’t match that. A big part of this project was bringing the quality of the facilities in line with the quality of the art that’s on stage.”

After a five-year process of securing funds, permits, demolition and construction, the new Writers Theatre is set to open its doors to theater-goers. Once inside, patrons will notice that while deconstructed Tudor is the theme of the building’s exterior, the stage rules the interior.

The lobby is designed like a stage, with stadium seating surrounding a space that can double as reception area or performance space such as lectures and after school programs. Inspired by the theaters of Shakespeare’s time, with the audience above and surrounding the stage, the lobby atrium can accommodate people in the stadium seats or, in nice weather, from the gallery walk. The lobby space is structured almost entirely out of wood, including glue-laminated Douglas fir, oak and elms. Much of this wood was sourced on-site, from the trees that were removed to make way for the building.

“The main feature of the building is the lobby box,” said Juliane Wolf, Studio Gang Design Principal. “It’s a glass element in order to connect to the community and connect to the parkland around it.” The large glazing panes are consciously shaded through architectural features, set back from the timber structure on the exterior to prevent overheating in the summer.

The building’s primary production space, the Nichols Theatre, is larger than the two pre-existing spaces combined and it has some flexibility built in to allow the theater company to use the space differently depending on the production. The first two rows of seats are removable, so the stage can be extended up and into the audience. The large metallic screens to stage left and right that create the proscenium are on casters, allowing the architecture of the stage to flex depending on the needs of a particular play.

“Intimacy has always been a big part of who we are and what we do,” said Adam Friedland, Writers Theatre Production Manager. “The challenge of intimacy when you go from 108 seats to 250 was that all those extra seats create an extra volume in the space.”

One solution to address these particular acoustic needs was on site before construction ever began. When the Women’s Library Club building was torn down, its bricks were salvaged and now line the walls of the Nichols Theatre. Unglazed brick is a fantastic acoustic material; its surface being simultaneously hard and porous, it reflects and absorbs sound at the same time. This disperses the sound evenly around the theater without creating echoes. The tessellated pattern mimics the bricks’ surface on a macro scale, with cavities between bricks acting like the pores. Staining the bricks black allowed them to fit with the theater’s lighting needs without losing the bricks’ porosity.

The Gillian Theatre, a smaller, black box space, accommodates between 50 and 99 people and is fully flexible. Movable, acoustic panels can configure the space to virtually any imaginable shape. Behind the panels, exposed concrete has been sandblasted and stained black to perform like the bricks in the main theater.

The building also features a rehearsal space, donor lounge and concession area, as well as an outdoor event terrace. In the back-of-house, a green room, performers’ suites, makeup rooms, staff offices and other spaces fill out the 36,000 SF building.

Most of the lighting is LED; the main exceptions are the performance and support spaces. The aesthetics of LED technology have come a long way, but not to the high standards of a professional theater company. For this reason, the more efficient lamps exist alongside incandescents in the theaters, dressing rooms and prop shop. “If the actor was putting on makeup and it was just LED and he came on stage, it would look completely different,” Friedland said.

A design strategy called displacement ventilation is used to handle temperature in the theater. Air comes in through grills behind the seats and then rises naturally as it warms. “Typically in a theater environment you have a lot of heat which is generated from the lights and rigging equipment they use,” said Sachin Anand, dbHMS Principal. “When we do displacement ventilation, we don’t have to cool the entire height of the theater, we can cool the lower piece where the people are and then it can stratify.”

Because the building will see uneven occupancy, carbon dioxide sensors were a key component of the air handling system. “When there are not as many occupants in the building,” Anand said, “it tells us that the air quality is great and we can reduce amount of fresh air we bring in and thus the amount of energy we are expending in tempering it.”

Heat exchangers in the HVAC system also ramp up the building’s efficiency. Compared to ASHRAE Standard 90.1, Writers Theatre saves 20% over the baseline. “That may not sound like a lot, but for a building of this type, it is quite a bit,” Anand said. Anand and dbHMS have done MEP engineering on similar projects and have only been able to achieve around 12% efficiency because of the energy use incumbent in the theatrical lights and rigging of a performing arts space. “That’s why getting to 20% is a difficult ask,” he said.

For years, Writers Theatre has competed with better-known companies in Chicago. Considering its suburban location and found spaces, it was punching above its weight with the quality of the productions it put on. “Writers has been one of the top half dozen theaters in the greater Chicagoland area,” Faris said. “I think that this building is really going to elevate the profile of the company. I run into people every day in Glencoe that don’t know there’s a theater here. But I think that’s about to change.”

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