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Is this Iconic building actually a Terrible Design? Thermal Bridging Explained!

You NEED to know this for the ARE 5.0


When it comes to architecture, beauty, and uniqueness, it all comes down to the details.

If you were like me when I was a young designer starting, detailing was hard to understand in depth. I didn't really understand the reasons behind where things went and why. Having a complete understanding of details is why I appreciated going through the architecture exams and studying for them. They showed me why we design things in a certain way and the science behind them. The architecture exams built my confidence as a designer, which led me to be a more creative architect.

Iconic Architecture + Details

Chicago is known for its rich cultural history, vibrant culture, and beautiful architecture. Its famous landmarks include the Willis Tower and the must-see Cloud Gate, known for its unreal mirror-like shine reflecting the city's sea of skyscrapers.

I recently asked people on Instagram (@BYoungDesign) what their favorite piece of architecture is, and two buildings stuck out to me for a crucial reason. Today I want to talk to you about the Aqua Tower and the Marina City Towers.

When I posted a photo of the Marina City Towers and asked,

"If you're studying for the architecture exams, what is the issue with this building?".

Despite it being a famous piece of architecture, ONLY ONE person answered my question correctly. This would be an excellent opportunity to make an episode on the key issues of this building and why details are so critical when designing a building.

The Aqua Tower

Is this an example of BAD Architecture?

First, let's talk about The Aqua Tower. The Aqua Tower was developed and brought to the world in 2009, designed by a team led by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, with James Loewenberg of Loewenberg & Associates as the Architect of Record. The building is known for its curvy and sexy layout, which stands out from the rest with its eccentric concrete form.

One of the most iconic parts of this building is the flat plate concrete floor system that runs seamlessly from the interior to the exterior to create a beautiful balcony system.

Sadly, this detail that makes this building such a beauty is what makes it inefficient and such a hot topic when studying for the AREs.

let's talk about Thermal Bridging.

Thermal bridging happens when the exterior temperature passes through the building's shell and affects the interior. We do NOT want thermal bridges in our buildings, so we create thermal BREAKS to prevent this. Thermal breaks regulate the interior temperature by creating a proper break at the building's shell that acts as a barrier. One of the main ways to make this barrier is through insulation. This detail is essential when considering indoor comfort and sustainability.

Image: Building Science

Now, back to the Aqua Tower. Despite the seamless concrete design and the giant glass doors in their balconies, there is no break in the floor system. The balconies act as temperature "fins," which absorb heat or cold and transfer it straight into the interior.

So what could have been done?

They could've detailed it to get the same aesthetic while maintaining a comfortable interior by adding a layer of continuous insulation. Not considering thermal bridging made this infamous building a case study for what NOT to do. The sad truth is even if the Aqua Tower is such a beautiful and unique building, its balcony design gives it a bad rep.

It's all about the details...seriously!

When designing healthy buildings, the key is proper details. Now, let's talk about the majestic Marina City Towers. Another beautiful architectural masterpiece, designed in 1959, with numerous concrete balconies, similar to The Aqua Tower. Every room in the building has a round concrete balcony which gives it this interesting 'corn on the cob' structure.

Looking at this design, I assume it has the same issue as the Aqua Tower. There is a small step up to the balcony when looking at interior photos. Is this a way to discontinue the floor system to create a thermal break?

Help me determine whether the Marina City Towers have the same thermal bridging issues as The Aqua Tower! I still have so many unanswered questions. I'd love to hear any facts or insights about these famous towers if you!

Understanding details and their concepts is so important when it comes to designing. As an architect, designing buildings is one thing, but designing comfortable buildings that are beautiful and feel really good to live in is what we should be all about.

If you enjoyed learning more about architectural details, then stay tuned! I'll be covering more concepts like this soon. If architectural details interest you as much as they do me, let me know! I want to know what details you want to learn more about.


Check out the below resources to dive deeper

Heating Cooling and Lighting (you need this one for your architecture exams!)



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