Photos: Mark Ballogg, Ballogg Photography

“The use of traditional panels gave them what they were looking for while doing something very unique.”

Debra Kunce


Best Schools: K-12

Exelon Gynnasium

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Built on a vacant lot in a Chicago, Ill., neighborhood struggling with poverty and crime, the Exelon Gymnasium has changed the daily lives of the 590 students at the Rowe Clark Math and Science Academy of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. The facility’s design, which features precast concrete insulated sandwich wall panels, not only helps encourage community but achieved LEED gold certification.

The project faced significant obstacles, including a tight $300/ft2 ($3,200/m2) budget and a compressed schedule aimed at opening the gym’s doors for the beginning of the next school term. The precast concrete panels helped meet both goals.

“This project used very traditional precast panels in a way that supported the unique design,” says Debra Kunce, a member of the buildings awards jury. “Schools are constantly challenged with budget and schedule, so the use of traditional panels gave them what they were looking for while doing something very unique. Schools can have good, strong design with glass and precast.”

The wall panels feature a 2 in. (50 mm) outer architectural wythe and an 8 in. (200 mm) interior structural wythe sandwiching 3 in. (75 mm) of noncomposite, polyisocyanurate insulation. The combination of insulation and thermal mass provided high energy efficiency for the building’s exterior, as well as a durable finish for both interior and exterior walls. The walls’ energy efficiency allowed designers to downsize the HVAC system, saving initial costs as well as long-term energy costs.

Casting the building’s load-bearing walls, insulation system, and interior finished walls at the plant simultaneously with site preparation helped to speed up the construction. The panels took less than one month to erect, and the building shell was completed in less than two months, allowing interior trades to begin work quickly.

The building was ready for occupancy less than 10 months after the start date. The City of Chicago was so pleased with the results that it has encouraged using this technique on campuses in other neighborhoods.

The ceiling over the center court consists of 24 coffers, each crowned by a skylight. The light reflects off the coffers to amplify entering daylight, absorb sound, and conceal mechanical systems and audio speakers. The bubble in each skylight is filled with an aerogel insulation that diffuses light, avoiding shadows on the court.

A variety of sustainable-design concepts were used, including a green roof, a heat-recovery ventilating system, and a lighting-control system that harvests energy savings from daylighting and occupancy sensors. The project, which nearly achieved platinum certification, will save more than 40% of the energy consumed by a comparable, traditional structure.

“This project provided a very simple way of doing a very simple job,” says Tom Brock, a member of the buildings awards jury. “It has a simple elegance. It’s a really good example of how precast can be integrated and allow things to happen that aren’t necessarily about the precast itself.”

Location: Chicago, Ill.
Owner: Noble Network of Charter Schools, Chicago, Ill.
Architect: Wheeler Kearns Architects, Chicago, Ill.,
Engineer: Thornton Tomasetti, Chicago, Ill.
Contractor: Bulley and Andrews LLC, Chicago, Ill.
Precaster: Advance Cast Stone, Random Lake, Wis.,
Project size: 11,500 ft2 (1,070 m2)
Project cost: $3.5 million