Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

HDR | Gensler in association with Clive Wilkinson Architects conceives an urbane, contemporary rehabilitation center in Chicago that meets a complex interior program. Photograph by Michael Moran

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Chicago’s Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a renowned rehabilitation center, makes complexity an asset rather than a liability at its new home in the downtown Streeterville neighborhood. The multifaceted design team of HDR | Gensler in association with Clive Wilkinson Architects collaborated to bring a clean, contemporary simplicity to a healthcare center with complex programmatic needs.

“Everything in the design is doing two or three things,”explains HDR Design Principal and Creative Director Tom Trenolone. To design this 27-story, 1.2-million-square-foot tower, HDR turned to Gensler for its high-rise expertise, adding Los Angeles–based Clive Wilkinson to address the patient experience. Previously known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and located one block north for more than 40 years, the organization has realized transformation. Pat Ryan, the founder and former executive chairman of Aon, and wife Shirley gave a multimillion-dollar donation to the institute, which was renamed the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab with the move to the new building.

Reflecting real-world challenges
“Our first inclination was to design something that was very universal,” recalls Gensler Design Director Anne Gibson. But Shirley Ryan AbilityLab CEO Dr. Joanne Smith told the architects, “The world is not like that.” So the designers were tasked with creating a superb, flexible interior that would facilitate the most innovative rehabilitative care while reflecting real-world challenges.

The small ground-floor lobby is adjacent to a covered drop off along the east side of the building. Visitors proceed up to the 10th floor via elevators into the north-facing Sky Lobby, which is dedicated to waiting areas, executive offices, a conference center, a nondenominational chapel, and two outdoor therapy gardens. Ceilings taper upwards from the central elevator core, and abundant white surfaces—on the floors, walls, and ceilings—help distribute ample daylight throughout. Curved surfaces predominate, from countertops and planter benches to the walls that enclose more private zones. The intent is to create frictionless spaces that are welcoming and easy to navigate.

Above, clinical floors center on the AbilityLabs, where patients, healthcare providers, and scientific researchers work to establish rehabilitative innovations. Specific therapies—for arms and hands, legs and walking, strength and endurance, thinking and speaking, and pediatric care—are clustered together by focus in the center of the northern half of the building, denoted on the exterior by pleats in the glass facade.

At the institute’s previous facility, researchers and patients were separated by floor. “We’ve been preaching [about] putting researchers and practitioners together for some time,” Trenolone says. “This is one of the first buildings to incorporate the translational model [of placing them in the same room].” The labs are such a novel concept that suitable furnishings were not available in the marketplace, leading Clive Wilkinson and his team to custom-design furniture. More than 20 pieces of custom furniture and medical equipment were designed with dTank and Tri-WG. The custom furniture includes storage pieces, workstations, phone booths, meeting pods, freestanding screens, and benches. Custom medical equipment consists of activity tables, mat tables, and training stairs.

Colorful, large-scale graphics are employed in the building’s most important spaces to inform the patient experience in multiple ways. “A significant number of people enter the facility on their backs, so the ceiling design became a major communicating feature,” notes Wilkinson. Los Angeles–based EGG Office joined the design team for the interior surfaces and identity.

Each AbilityLab displays individualized graphics that boldly represent the parts of the body that are addressed within, and colors are calibrated to the specific use. While the lab interiors for rehabilitating limbs have bright colors, those for brain and speech therapies are muted. Graphics also define metrics; in the lab for legs and walking, hash marks delineate yards, and paths are configured to provide small-scale lap tracks. “The graphic design provides a tool for therapists and scientists, but it’s also a goal for patients,” explains Gibson.

Comfortable rooms for long-terms stays
Patient rooms—with ample daylight and city views—wrap the east, south, and west sides of the building. Unlike in an acute-care hospital, patients of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab stay for weeks or months at a time, with an average of about a month. Private rooms maintain a neutral palette, with built-in light-colored warm oak millwork as the primary accent, encouraging patients to add their own personal effects. The rooms are connected by irregularly shaped corridors that vary in width from a standard eight feet up to 13 feet, creating spaces where patients can rehab outside the more carefully defined parameters of the labs.

The rebranding as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab expresses the benefits of collaboration, which the organization has honed over decades of success. “The distinctive voice of the AbilityLab can have a profound effect on the world,” says Gibson. “It holds the possibility of changing the medical community.” That is a worthy—and lofty—goal for the building and the institution it houses.

who Architects and interior designers: HDR | Gensler in association with Clive Wilkinson Architects. HDR project team: Abigail Clary; Todd Eicken; Tom Trenolone; Jon Crane; William DeRoin; Michael McGinn; Karl Lust; Jeffrey Fahs; Jennifer Bradley; Lance Thies; Claire Swanson; Randy Niehaus; Krysia Lynch; Kevin Augustyn; Trevor Hollins. Gensler project team: Nila R. Leiserowitz; Grant Uhlir; Steve Weindel; Brian Vitale; Linda Mysliwiec; Aleksandar Sasha Zeljic; Scott Hurst; Chris Grosse; Carlos Martinez; Anne Gibson; Lena Kitson; Lindsey Feola; Rachel Sears; Daniel Krause. Clive Wilkinson Architects project team: Clive Wilkinson; Chester Nielsen; Amber Wernick; Humberto Arreola; Ben Kalenik; Jesse Madrid; Evan Bliss. Graphics: EGG Office. EGG Office project team: Christian Daniels; Kate Tews; Mary Kim Harmon; Andrea Lee. Contractor: Power Construction. Engineering: Thorton Tomasetti (structural); ED Design (MEP); V3 International (civil). Vertical transportation: Lerch, Bates & Associates. Parking garage: Desman Associates. Fire/life safety: Jensen Hughes. Owner’s Rep: Arcadia. Project Management: Rise Group.
what Wallcoverings: Versa; Koroseal; D.L.Couch. Paint: Benjamin Moore. Laminate: Formica; Wilsonart. Curtain wall system: Permasteel Group North America; Innovation Glass Corporation. Aluminum Paint: PPG Industries. Walls: USG; TileBacker by Georgia-Pacific; Sky Fold; ModernFold. Flooring: Stone Source; Daltile; Armstrong; Nora; Mannington; Sika. Carpet/carpet tile: Interface; J+J Invision. Ceilings: Tnemec; Armstrong. Interior lighting: 3G Lighting; Selux; Kurt Versen; Lumenpulse; Traxon; Focal Point; Nessen, Coronet Lighting; a-light, Eureka. Exterior lighting: BEGA; HessAmerica. Hardware: Best Access Systems; Folger Adam; Ives; McKinney; Norton; Pemko; Rockwood; Rixson; Sargent; Securitron. Doors: C.R. Laurence; Dorma; Horton Automatics. Veneers: Bacon Veneer; Wilsonart. Architectural glass/glazing: Shanghai Yaohua; Pilkington Glass Group. Window treatments: MeMechoShade. Workstations: Dtank; Steelcase. Seating: Steelcase; Coalesse; Davis Furniture; Allermuir; Coalesse; Vitra; Plank; Keilhauer; Healthcentric; Lowenstein; OFS; Nemschoff. Upholstery: Knoll; Maharam; Architex; Designtex; Momentum Group; Bernhardt Design; Wolf-Gordon; Brentano; Enviroleather. Tables: Bernhardt Design. Storage systems: Steelcase; Superior; Classic Woodworking; Bradley; Kewaunee Scientific Corporation. Roofing: American Hydrotech; LiveRoof; Midcon Products; Hanover Architectural Products; Carlisle Syntec. Elevators: ThyssenKrupp North America. Architectural/custom woodworking: Imperial Woodworking Co. Garden exterior tables: Kettal. Garden seating: Knoll Studio. Signage: Poblacki. Plumbing fixtures/fittings: Kohler; Delta; Symmons; Elkay; Sterling.