New Research Takes a High-Impact, Low-Visibility Approach to Thermal Efficiency in Crown Hall

Personal Comfort Systems Being Explored to Address Thermal Performance of Historic Landmark



By Andrew Connor
S. R. Crown Hall

Completed in 1956, S. R. Crown Hall is an early steel and glass building that helped usher in, among other things, a new approach toward educational spaces while echoing the historic “one room schoolhouse.” As such, the building is a National Historic Landmark, both for its historical significance and its continued integrity to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s original design.

But glass insulation and glazing was not nearly as advanced in the ’50s as it is now, and as time has progressed, thermal efficiency has been one of Crown Hall’s weak points. That became abundantly clear to Lobna Mitkees (ARCH Ph.D. Candidate) when she interviewed College of Architecture students for a class paper examining the comfort of the building’s occupants.

“I think everyone in Crown Hall knows me now because I talked to everyone,” says Mitkees. “A great number of people are not so comfortable in Crown Hall and are unsatisfied with the thermal performance of the building. A lot indicated that they are dissatisfied to the extent that they leave the building.”

Essentially a large glass box, Crown Hall has difficulty retaining its internal temperature and thus is prone to become very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. But due to the building’s landmark status, there are restrictions on what changes can be made to the building to improve the building’s thermal performance.

Though the survey was initially done for a class project, it has snowballed into the core of Mitkees’s Ph.D. work: how can energy and comfort systems be improved in historic buildings while preserving the buildings’ originality?

In the case of Crown Hall, small, localized interventions throughout the building—known as “personal comfort systems”—could provide a way to offer a more comfortable and customizable experience for the building’s occupants while making the space more energy efficient.

Working with Assistant Professor Mohammad Heidarinejad and Professor and Department Chair of Armour College of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering Brent Stephens, as well as Associate Professor Martin Felsen from the College of Architecture, Mitkees and her fellow researchers will prototype, deploy, and evaluate new design interventions for personal comfort systems in Crown Hall. They will begin by understanding where the biggest needs for interventions are, simulating energy use and airflow patterns in the space with and without personal comfort systems, and then building prototypes of promising designs.

While engineers have studied personal comfort systems as a means to stymie energy loss, this interdisciplinary project between Armour College and the College of Architecture is unique in the melding of their respective disciplines to find a solution to a common preservation problem.

“Personal comfort system research is often driven by engineers, but learning to integrate these systems within the architecture and design of the building has the potential to make big impacts on people with minimal impacts on the space,” says Stephens. “I think that only through the merger of architecture and engineering can we really come up with both clever and realistic solutions.”

The group has received a cross-disciplinary seed funding grant from Wanger Institute for Sustainable Energy Research to conduct its research. And although the resulting personal comfort systems will be designed and optimized specifically for Crown Hall, the group believes the research can be extended to other buildings as well.

“Although our case study building is Crown Hall, we envision to develop a framework to extend the solutions to other historic buildings and even older existing buildings when major retrofit of the building enclosure and interior design are prohibited,” says Heidarinejad.