Building Blueprints Vertical Learning

Chicago School Moves into Downtown High-Rise

Seeking to build on the success of its campus on the Northwest Side, Intrinsic Schools sought to expand its innovative learning model to more City of Chicago high-school students. After a multi-year search that analyzed potential sites across multiple neighborhoods from financial, geopolitical and feasibility perspectives, results pointed to an unusual and innovative solution: the new campus needed to be in Chicago's loop, the city's civic and financial center.

science classroom 


Preliminary space plans identified 79 W. Monroe, the former Bell Federal Savings Building, as the Intrinsic Downtown's new home. Known for its iconic bell sign with weather prediction, the high-rise was completed in 1906 during Chicago's early high-rise building boom. The new school occupies the 2nd to 6th floors of this 14-story building.

Leveraging Location for Equity

The most significant opportunity afforded by the Downtown Campus is access to almost every city neighborhood. Each line of the elevated train (the “L”) has a station within blocks, and express bus lines from all directions stop within steps of its front door. The school is open to all Chicago students, and in its first two years, it has enrolled has students from 74 of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Providing equitable access to high-quality educational options is possible by leveraging this robust transportation network.

The central location also allows Intrinsic Schools to form strong partnerships with adjacent downtown institutions. For example, the school offers students the chance to take college courses at the City Colleges of Chicago's Harold Washington campus, located only seven blocks away. Other high schools provide the same connection, but few can offer the ability to combine schedules. Downtown Chicago's many cultural and civic institutions are within blocks. A visit to the Art Institute or City Hall could occur within a class period rather than a full-day field trip.

Internships, mentorships and office tours can take place weekly. Asking a professional to spend their lunch hour describing their career path and profession went from a significant time commitment to an errand. The hurdles to creating unique exposure and diverse experiences for the students have been significantly lowered.

Intrinsic School 


School Design Goes Vertical

One of the most significant project challenges was turning five floors of office space into a cohesive school campus. The spaces inherited contained relics and scars of over a century of modifications and adaptions to suit former tenants. Figuring out how to tactically celebrate the building's history while hiding some of its imperfections and installing modern systems to support 21st-century learning took a thoughtful approach.

Code/existing conditions: An early challenge was how to manage the existing conditions from a code perspective. One of the unique stipulations of the building code is that changing from office use to school use triggers a requirement for the space to comply with a whole new set of construction requirements, simply unfeasible in a building like this. Wheeler Kearns developed a strategy to present the project to the Building Department's Committee on Standards and Tests to seek regulatory relaxation on some existing stair egress issues while offering additional life and safety provisions that would compensate for some of these deficiencies. Most notably, the proposal included turning a convenience stair serving three office floors into an egress stair that would run directly to grade.

Space Planning: While the project had a phased construction sequence to work with adjacent conditions and a planned tenant vacating one of the floors, we had to develop a strategy and space plan to organize the school’s space requirements. This would ensure that the spaces worked cohesively, fit within the allocated space and could be sequentially deployed to work with the required timeframes. The core concept is that the public, gathering and lobby spaces all land on the second floor, with a dedicated entry from the street bringing students up to a gracious lobby with a set of tiered seating for informal lectures and other professional engagement events. As students ascend by grade level, they move to a higher floor. For example, the freshman start on the 2nd and 3rd floors, while seniors have most of their classes on the 6th floor. All students' spaces and facilities, such as the multipurpose room for lunch and the fitness center, are on lower floors.

study area in hallway 


Student movement within the building needed to be able to be carefully choreographed as students move between classes. Hallways were negotiated with classrooms to maximize width, particularly on floors with the most students. All doors are recessed so as not to impact the hallway flow. Stairs are designated as an “up” stairwell and a “down” stairwell to create an intuitive flow of students both vertically and within a floor. Building systems such as security, door-hold opens/alarms, and security camera locations were all thoughtfully integrated to create a secure school perimeter for students that isolates the school from adjacent office tenants.


Intrinsic's unique blended learning model utilizes Pod learning, where a single classroom of 60 students is team-taught by three teachers and whose “students rotate between teacher led instruction, independent and small group work, and project-based learning,” according to Instrinsic Schools website. Wheeler Kearns collaborated with Intrinsic to define the space that could support Pod learning in their first campus. The unique design attributes of the Pod are that it is 2–3 times the size of a typical classroom with flooring, furniture, acoustic and lighting changes that help to differentiate zones within the room. The Downtown Campus provided the opportunity to refine this model further and adapt it to the constraints of a downtown setting.

Whereas the original campus included similar pod rooms for each grade, the Downtown Campus provides a gradient of room types ranging from standard-sized pods for lowerclassmen to smaller pods and seminars for upper-level students. While the Pod as a model is inherently flexible as a space, it needed to be supported by discrete rooms for more specialized education as students take more diverse and tailored class trajectories. This distribution matched the designed flow of students with the unique form of the building where the floorplates get smaller as the floors go up, which matches this increased specialization among upperclassmen.

Intrinsic school classroom 



Intrinsic’s Downtown Campus demonstrates that new building typologies such as high-rises can be reimagined for places of learning with thoughtful design. As new gig economy and post-pandemic working methods change our cities' nature, new opportunities can emerge for school locations—certainly in the commercial real estate sector, among others. School design that identifies more closely with the open office than the typical school aspires to give the next generation an early seat at the table.

Project Credits

  • Architect: Wheeler Kearns Architects
  • Structural Engineer: Thornton Tomasetti
  • MEP/FP Engineer: McGuire Engineers
  • Owner’s Rep: IPM Consulting, Ltd.
  • Kitchen Consultant: Edge Associates
  • General Contractor: Bulley & Andrews
  • Acoustical Consultant: Kierkegaard

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.