It’s a big deal for any architect to build at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). It was a big deal when Rem Koolhaas did in 2003—the last major construction on Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated Chicago campus until now. In designing the latest addition, John Ronan, a Chicagoan and professor at the school’s prestigious architecture program, has more skin in the game. But Ronan wasn’t afraid to take risks, from a technical point of view, and with respect to history; his just-opened building embodies the spirit of Mies while at the same time representing a complete break.

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The Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship—which hosts a variety of collaboration spaces for IIT’s team-based endeavors, contains state-of-the-art prototyping and fabrication facilities, and serves as the new home for the formerly downtown Institute of Design—is the first academic building completed at IIT in over 40 years. (Rem designed a student center; Helmut Jahn built residence halls the same year.) Dimensionally, the innovation center, as it’s more succinctly known, is a perfect fit within Mies’s orthogonal master plan, and it follows Mies’s 24-foot-square grid that served as the structural module. The low, rectangular building is similar in footprint and height to its neighbor to the south, Hermann Hall, a 1962 SOM version of Mies’s campus buildings from the 1940s and ’50s, including Crown Hall (1956), considered among his masterworks. In terms of appearance however, the innovation center is nothing like the originals or later facsimiles.

Most obviously, Ronan’s building is all white—the only such one on campus—and a sharp contrast to the strong black palette to which even Koolhaas and Jahn adhered, and the 19th-century redbrick buildings originally part of the Armour Institute, IIT’s predecessor. And while Mies obsessed over the curtain wall, and integrating the structure into it—which SOM’s later buildings failed to fully do despite mimicking the roof girders of Crown Hall—Ronan turned the whole thing on its head with a startling choice for the facade. His puffy ETFE envelope is a first not just for this campus, but for the city. Says Ronan, “I wanted it to be like a cloud against the heaviness of Crown Hall.”

Indeed, while the other campus buildings seem so firmly rooted in both the ground and Mies’s rigid plan, the innovation center—its ETFE-wrapped upper level slightly cantilevered over the glass-enclosed ground floor to provide sunshading—hovers above the quad on one side and a parking area on the other. Though employed more prevalently in buildings in other parts of the world, ETFE’s architectural use in the U.S. has been limited mainly to sports and transit facilities. Fortunately for Ronan, his client, then president of IIT John L. Anderson, is a chemical engineer. As Anderson puts it, “ETFE is a hybrid of teflon and polyethylene. I like it.”

ETFE is also a material that was unavailable to Mies, which made it appeal to Ronan. The long bands of ETFE flowing along the exterior and interior of the 302-foot-long building remain permanently puffed, while two inner layers of the polymer membrane move back and forth pneumatically, responding to the amount of daylight. When the inner layer is pressed against the fritted outer layer, the offset dot patterns overlap to reduce light transmission. A building automation system “talks” to the facade, triggering fans, similar in size to those in CPUs, that circulate low-velocity air within the layers to mitigate glare and heat gain. The dynamic facade adapts throughout the day to changing weather in real time to minimize energy usage and maximize daylighting potential. As an assembly, the ETFE walls retain a rather opaque outward appearance during the day while providing somewhat transparent views from the inside. At night, they become more translucent, the luminous floating bands like a giant lantern on campus, according to the architect.

Ronan intentionally designed the 72,000-square-foot building to be so horizontal to make it easy for students and professionals from different disciplines to collaborate, resulting in vast areas not unlike Mies’s “universal space.” Given the choice of several locations, Ronan selected this site on the north end of campus because it was the only one that allowed him to spread out, and because of its proximity to buildings for various academic departments. The lot was once used for parking but was then planted; the mature trees, which had to be felled in any case because of emerald ash borers, were turned into wood for tabletops in the new LEED Gold–accredited building.

Within that long two-story volume, Ronan inserted two courtyards that bring daylight deeper into the structure. They are faced with a unitized curtain wall clad in low-E-coated insulated glass. These areas also provide stormwater detention by means of openings in the gutter around the courtyard, letting water run unrestricted down rain chains to the gravel-covered surface below, which is planted with serviceberry, hornbeam, and eastern redbud trees. On the upper level, a terrace walkway of galvanized-steel industrial planks wraps around the courtyards.

Despite its renown, IIT is not a wealthy university. Construction costs were kept to under $400 per square foot. Finishes are raw—concrete floors, visible steel columns sprayed with fireproofing, and exposed metal deck ceilings—though all cabling is white to maintain the cloud-like aesthetic inside and out. (Pops of Post-It Note colors enliven the Tribune Stair, an assembly space on the ground floor, and furnishings throughout the building.) In another sustainable move, Ronan merged HVAC systems with the structure by way of water-filled tubing embedded in the building’s floor slabs, to provide radiant heating and cooling. The ETFE foil is approximately 1 percent of the weight of glass, reducing the amount of required structure, and, when used as an exterior wall assembly, significantly less expensive than one in glass. Layered as it is here, it also has a higher insulation value than glass. One drawback of ETFE is its inability to serve as an acoustic barrier. Open studios and lounges, which are less disrupted by outside noise, line the perimeter of the upper level along the ETFE walls, where it does indeed feel like being in a cloud, or at least Bubble Wrap. Enclosed spaces for offices, conference rooms, classrooms, and project rooms are located within the core.

With so little construction at IIT, each addition is especially significant. Ronan’s choices for this building, even if surprising, were good ones. The first structures after Mies were inferior copies. A new wave of more daring construction had Koolhaas and Jahn simultaneously introducing curves to what was until then an inflexible campus aesthetic. Seventy-five years after Mies’s first building at IIT, Ronan is pushing things further. His design addresses 21st-century needs for collaborative space, sustainability, and cost efficiency while experimenting with materials and systems to channel the pursuit of innovation that its users aspire to and that Mies so memorably brought to the campus.

John Ronan will be speaking at RECORD's annual Innovation Conference on Thursday, November 1.

For more details:



John Ronan Architects — John Ronan, principal and lead designer; Marcin Szef, project architect; Danielle Beaulieu, Sam Park, Eric Cheng, Laura Gomez Hernandez, project team



Werner Sobek (structural);

dbHMS (m/e/p/fp, sustainability);

Terra Engineering (civil)



Arup (acoustics, AV, IT);

Charter Sills (lighting)


General contractor:

Power Construction Company



Vector Foiltec



Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope, Guardian


Curtain wall




Steelcase, Turnstone, Coalesse, Vitra, Casprini, Emeco, Blu Dot, Kristalia, Knoll, Quinze & Milan


Interior ambient lighting

Birchwood Lighting, Lithonia Lighting, Luminii, ALW


Custom woodwork

Parenti & Raffaelli





Solid surfacing

DuPont Corian