When life throws you curves, sometimes the best choice is to respond in kind. When Wheeler Kearns’ clients approached the firm with this duplex penthouse apartment, they yearned for the expected benefits of a lofty perch. Instead, the partially framed space was disappointing—denser and darker than it should be, given its position 40 stories above Chicago.
Occupying the top two floors of a building designed by Lucien Lagrange, the 8,000-square-foot apartment was saddled with the internal compromises of the exterior’s mansard roof. Although the developer had attempted to mitigate the sloping walls and canted, round-top windows, the result lacked precision and refinement.
“It was a very challenging space,” recalls Jon Heinert, AIA, of Wheeler Kearns. “The developer had struggled to sell it, and it sat empty for many years. It had a traditional form of mansard construction, but it was not constructed traditionally at all. It wasn’t just the sloping walls—the way they were dormered out required a lot of bracing. There were kickers and metal studs protruding into the space, and each window has its own unique geometry.”
To resolve the awkward proportions, the firm’s first response was to frame the raw space into a uniform, orthogonal perimeter. “It was ours and our clients’ impression that suppressing the sloping of the walls was the goal,” says Jon. “The walls made the space seem very cavernous and heavy and were at odds with being so high up and overlooking the whole city.”
The architects had the apartment 3D scanned to create digital point clouds, building a kind of forensic floor plan to guide the design. “The measurements are precise within an eighth inch of tolerance. We could see the variations within each window—and how imprecisely they had been installed,” he continues. “It really helped us understand what we were dealing with.”
The scans import into REVIT, where they form the basis of design solutions. Once the process was completed, the firm moved apace to square everything up. “We got pretty far along with the inner stud walls, when the clients walked through and saw how much interior space they were losing in making the walls vertical,” says Jon. “They asked us to revisit it and see if we could come up with a better solution.”
And they did. In their second take, they decided to reveal instead of conceal. They reframed the walls to allow the slope but did so in a precisely fitted, 3-inch-thick Venetian plaster “shell.” The plasterwork gives the walls a subtle, lively sheen that changes throughout the day. Window dormers were then reframed to accentuate their height and depth and to control their intake of natural light. The effect is soaring, dramatic, and even a little enigmatic—like a de Chirico painting, infused with mysterious sources of light and shadow and surprising geometries.
Reveal Instead of Conceal
Celebrating the angles instead of suppressing them was the new path forward for the four-bedroom apartment and it guided every subsequent decision. “Overall, it creates something unique that we would not normally have gravitated to. We are more orthogonal, and this was all curvilinear geometry,” Jon says. “There are concrete columns between the window bays, and we initially tried to hide them, too, with furring. But then we realized that because of the geometry, we had to reveal them.”
Inset in the white plaster walls, the gray columns echo the gray lacquer walls of the service core—the kitchen, bathrooms, and utility areas. The window dormers are also detailed in gray to reduce incoming glare and facilitate the 270-degree views. “Had that white surface of the walls continued to the windows, it would have affected the eye and how it takes in light.”
The layering of wall and ceiling planes hides a number of architectural tricks. HVAC slot diffusers tuck into the recessed areas, as does linear cove lighting. “The cove lights are tunable LED fixtures, and they’re installed in a way that allowed us to get a hairline precision to the angle,” says Jon. “That gives us a uniform grazing of light on the perimeter.” Lighting control set on a timer automatically changes the color temperature of the LEDs based on the time of day. “Following a circadian rhythm, they start low in bright white, and later in the evening the level comes up and becomes warm white.
“The lighting highlights coves and reveals, which helps pull apart the project materially,” he continues. “The apartment is very much like an onion—a series of material layers in plaster, gray lacquer, walnut, and black metal. And because of the gray service core, you always have a sense of where you are on both floors.”
The J-shaped plan allowed careful placement of rooms and functions to optimize the apartment’s amazing views. “The guest and public living spaces face east, and the family space gets the main view looking back to the city to the south,” says the architect. Entertaining spaces are on the lower floor to capture the most ceiling height and breadth of space, while the bedrooms nest into the topmost floor.
A sculptural blackened steel stair connects the two levels. From its location adjacent to the main entertaining areas, it enjoys both the east view and a long view to the city skyline to the south. Its glass-topped platform, or plinth, is illuminated from within, casting a warm glow on the white oak treads above it. “There’s steel buried within the treads, something you can see expressed at the edge and that becomes the attachment point for the glass rails,” Jon explains. “The stringer snakes from the inboard side, which allows us to pick up the intermediate landings and suspend the whole thing between two rods. We wanted it to feel like it’s floating. The wood treads are milled with a pair of fine grooves; and the plinth has a fine dot texture to the glass to make it safe walking in socks.”
Having maximized the indoor square footage and harnessed all the best vistas, the architects were left with an even greater challenge—creating an outdoor space in a landlocked unit. Despite its airy location, there was no terrace or roof deck—just that ponderous mansard shroud. The answer? Remove one of those giant dormer windows. Two steps up from the kitchen, the new loggia offers al fresco dining and a full “outdoor” grill, albeit properly ventilated to the real outdoors. There’s enough kick out to the roof to avoid inundation during storms, and a sheet drain takes care of any residual moisture.
Working with the slope of the mansard roof and its garret windows, instead of fighting them, generated a fresh architectural solution that straddles classical and modern design. It feels very much of its time and, somewhat mysteriously, of others, too.
Plans and Drawings
Architect: Jon Heinert, AIA, principal architect and project architect, Wheeler Kearns Architects, Chicago
Builder: Norcon, Inc., Chicago
Interior Designer: Sharlene Young, Symbiotic Living Architecture and Design, Chicago
Project Size: 8,000 square feet
Construction Cost: Withheld
Photography: Steve Hall,
Hall + Merrick
Cooking Ventilation: Best
Countertops: Quartzo Bianco; Calacatta; Porcelanosa Krion
Flooring: Hakwood Aura
Home Control: Savant
Humidity Control: DriSteem
Lighting: Lucifer; Lumenpulse; Acolyte; No. 8 Lighting
Lighting Control/Window Shading System: Lutron
Passage Doors/Hardware: Accurate, SIMONSWERK, Dormakaba
Refrigerator/Freezer/Wine Refrigeration: Sub-Zero
Specialty Appliances/Grill: Wolf