It’s not every day you come across a 90-ton boulder in the middle of Chicago. Or any size boulder outside a daycare, for that matter. But that’s exactly how you’re greeted at the UChicago Child Development Center–Stony Island, an urban oasis in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan and across the street from the Frederick Olmsted-designed Jackson Park, site of the Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The 13,300-square-foot building is z-shaped, emphasizing access to the outdoors while offering ample natural light for staff and children alike. It was a long time coming for the faculty of the University of Chicago and its medical school, who for years had hoped for such a facility on campus.
Location Chicago, Illinois
Client University of Chicago
Size 13,300 ft2
Completion September 2013
Program UChicago Child Development Center – Stony Island
Certification LEED Gold
Awards American Institute of Architects’ 2014 Committee on Architecture for Education Design Excellence Award; U.S. Green Building Council – Illinois Chapter’s 2015 Green Building Innovation
Cost $7 million
Architect of Record Wheeler Kearns Architects
General Contractor Leopardo Companies Structural Engineer Thornton Tomasetti
Civil, MEP & FP Engineer Primera Engineers Landscape Architect MIG
Acoustical Consultant Threshold Acoustics
Bark Siding Bark House by Highland Craftsmen Pervious Paving Belgard
Green Roof Live Roof Roofing Firestone Boulders Krukowski Stone Co., Inc.
Cement Board Architectural Products Window Wall System YKK AP
Glazing Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope
Microtopping Flooring Miracote MPC Tree Cookies Flooring Nature Explore
Gabion Fence Mesh Ameristar, McNichols
Gabion Fence Fill Lake Street Supply Gabion fence mesh
Other Fencing Ameristar
Drawing inspiration from Jackson Park, the design integrated nature from the very first plans, according to Larry Kearns, principal of Wheeler Kearns Architects. The Chicago-based firm knew it was competing against architects from across the world, all of whom were seeking to, as Kearns explains it, “design a daycare for the children of future Nobel laureates.” He wanted something more timeless, more meaningful than the “knee-jerk primary colors” that tend to dominate these kinds of projects. The facility, which serves 124 children up to five years old, offers the chance to interact first-hand with the world.
Beyond the boulders, one of the most eye-catching examples of this philosophy is the poplar bark siding used both on the exterior and inside the center. Crafted by North Carolina-based Highland Craftsmen, the Bark House siding is constantly drawing attention, Kearns says, noting that people “always want to come up and touch it.” That’s somethingChris McCurry, Highland Craftsmen co-founder, hears a lot. “‘Touch is perhaps the most important stand-alone characteristic about the product,” she says. “People want to touch it all the time—and are touched by it.”
The siding isn’t just innovative in appearance. City codes wouldn’t typically permit wooden siding on an industrial building, Kearns notes. But the architects collaborated with Highland Craftsmen to design a fire-resistant shingle, backed by fiber cement board, which offers a rustic appearance while creating a non-combustible exterior barrier. Just above those shingles is the green roof, which covers half the building’s footprint. Wheeler Kearns created a folded design, allowing the greenery to be viewed from Jackson Park and the neighboring high-rise Vista Homes—a welcome change from most green roofs, which go unseen except for those passing by in a plane.
And when it rains, the water falling onto that roof is purposely spilled into splash tanks, which divert the stormwater. It becomes like a fountain, Kearns explains, demonstrating a natural phenomenon to the city kids playing inside the center. The architects far exceeded the city’s minimum requirements for stormwater storage by installing pervious pavement. It’s a smart solution in a city built on flatland swamp, which has long faced struggles with its combination sewers.
Another feature far exceeding code minimums, Kearns points out, is the size of the play courts. The outdoor spaces, in fact, can accommodate all 124 children at the same time. From the slide embedded in the ground to the chimes—half of which play a Western scale and the other half, a pentatonic scale—all the features are designed to facilitate learning. “All these elements in the play area [encourage] the interrogation of the natural world, from the child’s point of view,” he says.