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A Sustainable Showcase

Safer, healthier building environments are key to LEED Gold-certified tower

Rubenstein July21 2

Photo: Brett Beyer

Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), New York City, the David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago builds on the city’s rich history of the Midway Plaisance, “City within the Park,” of the 1893 World’s Fair, which showcased a new American optimism for greener, safer and healthier cities. Citing the building orientation, window-to-wall ratio and its use of zinc panels, the design award judges unanimously awarded the LEED Gold-certified Rubenstein Forum the 2021 Metal Architecture Design Award in the Sustainable Design category.

The University of Chicago prioritizes investing in sustainable building environments that provide safer, healthier spaces. The Rubenstein Forum, which serves as a congregation space for global thinkers tackling the challenges of today and tomorrow, it was important to maintain that ethos, explains Sean Gallagher, project director for the Rubenstein Forum, and director of sustainable design at DS+R. “Our design both introduces more green space to the Midway Plaisance and draws the natural environment into the building. We incorporated state-of-the-art technologies including bird-safe glazing, natural and LED lighting systems, radiant conditioning and rainwater harvesting to promote energy conservation and produce a healthier environment.”

Opened on Sept. 28, 2020, the Rubenstein Forum offers expansive views of downtown Chicago, Lake Michigan, the University campus and Woodlawn community. The 97,000-square-foot building is made up of a two-story base and an eight-story tower. It has a 285-seat auditorium, as well as multipurpose meeting spaces for workshops, symposia and lectures, among other activities.

Organized as a stack of neighborhoods, the tower has meeting and communal spaces offering diverse environments. Each neighborhood merges around a central private social lounge, which offers a sense of community and identity. Creating a panoramic 360-degree form, the vertically stacked neighborhoods are rotated and oriented to provide their own unique perspective of Chicago.

Photo: Brett Beyer

Green Spaces

The Rubenstein Forum adds several new green spaces to Chicago, which aids in the urban heat island effect, stormwater flooding, air pollution and biodiversity. The University Room roof, the largest area of the tower, integrates an intensive green roof across its 100-foot span, while a Zen garden at Friedman Hall is integrated into the roofscape overlooking the Midway Plaisance and north campus, introducing biodiverse habitat zones. Lighter than a typical green roof assembly, the Zen garden minimizes the impact on the 30-foot cantilever over the Entry Plaza.

“The Forum’s design purposefully shrinks the tower’s footprint to provide more open space on-site, allowing the incorporation of a diverse variety of landscapes that increase biodiversity and permeable surface areas, and introduces green roofs on the largest surface areas of the tower,” says Gallagher. “The natural landscapes surrounding the tower—including a bosque, habitat beds, and rain gardens—harvest stormwater to reduce strain on local infrastructure systems, and for re-use throughout the year to maintain the greenspace’s ecology.”

Photo: Brett Beyer


To provide unobstructed views of the campus and city, the building’s curtainwall system was specifically designed and engineered with minimized transitions. The curtainwall is base supported and consists of steel-reinforced aluminum panels and high-performance insulating glass units with low-E coatings.

As part of its glass facade, the Rubenstein Forum integrates new bird-safe technology that is visible to birds but not humans, for the protection of the Mississippi Flyway Zone along the Midway Plaisance. “DS+R worked with Arnold Glas Corp., Houston, to integrate state-of-the-art film technology into the curtainwall assemblies, explains Gallagher. “The clear film is printed with an ultraviolet pattern resembling a spider web that is visible to birds but invisible to humans. The effect creates a glass curtainwall that appears transparent to humans but solid to birds.”

Photo: Brett Beyer

Zinc Facade

The Rubenstein Forum is designed to uphold the University of Chicago’s legacy of resilient buildings, which informed the architect’s decision to use zinc, a natural, recyclable and resilient material that has a life expectancy of more than 100 years. “Zinc also has the added benefit of aging naturally and reflecting light in subtle ways that improve over the years,” adds Gallagher.

For the project, ATAS International Inc., Allentown, Pa., custom fabricated 60,000 square feet of flat lock and Shiplock panels with 1-mm Gray Zinc supplied by Tuschall Engineering Co. Inc., Burr Ridge, Ill. Additionally, DAMS Inc., Alsip, Ill., fabricated 7,000 square feet of 4-mm Reynobond ACM FR rainscreen in a Natural Brush finish from Arconic Architectural Products LLC, Eastman, Ga. The backup structure is the Nvelope support system by SFS Intec, Wyomissing, Pa., which is 100% aluminum and recyclable. The insulation is mineral wool made from igneous rock, which does not need any additional treatment for fire or mold and is also 100% recyclable. “We had the zinc coils produced in several exact widths to minimize waste,” explains James C. Tuschall Sr., president of Tuschall Engineering. “Any damaged panels can easily be replaced without worry of color match due to the natural patina process.”

As Tuschall notes, the panel system was assembled as a rainscreen, which eliminated the need for synthetic caulking or soldering of the joints. “This building envelope will remain attractive for over 100 years with subtle soft changes in the patina,” he says.