Working in the Cloud

Working in the Cloud

John Ronan’s new building for IIT’s Mies campus will have a cloud-like lightness.
Courtesy John Ronan Architects

It was announced last month that the famously progressive architecture of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago campus will get its latest addition: a new center for innovation by John Ronan Architects.

Officially named the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, the 92,000-square-foot facility will be in the heart of IIT’s historic campus, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Architect John Ronan, who also teaches at the university, said the new Kaplan Institute’s design is inspired by—but not fixated on—that legacy.

“It’s very sensitive to the history and original intentions of the Mies campus, but it’s also forward-looking,” said Ronan. “I would say the design is descended from Mies.”


In addition to continuing the 24-square-foot grid from Mies’ master plan, the new building shares the modernist architect’s faith in technology and attention to detail. Perhaps the signature element of that sensibility is a dynamic facade made of ETFE (Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene) foil cushions. Three thin layers similar to Teflon adjust automatically to shift a frit pattern that can make the facade more transparent or opaque depending on the building’s demand for energy and daylight. At one percent the weight of glass, the material imparts a light, “cloud-like” appearance to the building, said Ronan.

Another high-tech innovation is the Kaplan Institute’s radiant heating and cooling system, which Ronan called a “fusion of the structure and the mechanical system.” Water-filled tubing embedded in the concrete decking converts the building’s floor structure into an engine for heating and cooling. “We wanted to do something that was technologically advanced, but was also better, more comfortable,” said Ronan. IIT said they’re targeting LEED Silver certification.


Unlike the traditional classroom buildings on campus, the Kaplan Institute will be devoted to entrepreneurial, project-based courses and interdisciplinary collaborations. That programming is reflected in the building’s circulation, which is organized around two outdoor courtyards intended to function as the structure’s “lungs,” according to a statement from IIT. Situated in Morton Park—a central nexus for many cross-campus treks—the building beckons passersby to cut through. That transparency is meant to get people out of their academic silos, explained Ronan. The spirit of collaboration continues inside the building, where large, open floor plates create sightlines from floor to floor and through the building.

Groundbreaking is expected in spring 2016. IIT estimates a base cost of $45 million, although total costs are “still being determined,” according to a spokesman.

When the building opens in 2018, the building will host entrepreneurial students and faculty, as well as a bevy of equipment for quick prototyping and iterative design. “The emphasis is on being able to quickly come up with ideas,” said Ronan, whose subtle workhorse of a building should support plenty of them.