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Cleveland Federal Building First High-rise Under Glass

The western wall of the Celebrezze from Washington plaza.

Work is finishing up on a $120 million dollar construction project in Cleveland that you may not have even noticed.   The 32 story Anthony J. Celebrezze federal building on East 9 th and Lakeside became the first high-rise in the country to be put under glass.

Ideastream’s Mark Urycki reports . .


Workers on the roof of the Celebrezze building are finishing the final touches of a major renovation of the federal building. 

The U.S. General Services Administration first realized the Celebrezze tower needed some work back in 1998.  That’s when three of the steel outside window frames suddenly left the building.

“Flying off in a terrible windstorm. This wasn’t a breezy day” says Project manager Chris Mourgelas.  

It was a wake-up call that the 1967 glass and steel building had serious corrosion problems with water being sealed in around the windows rather than sealed out.

The 32 story tower was part of the urban renewal project known as Erieview.   The project’s manager was I.M. Pei.  But he deferred to young architect Pieter van Dijk to design the Celebrezze building. 

Van Dijk had been working in New York under Eero Saarinen and would later make a name for himself designing Blossom Music Center and other buildings in northeast Ohio.  

His design for the federal building featured a grid of horizontal windows set off with striking stainless steel frames.  Van Dijk wanted it to echo the horizontal windows of Cleveland factories.

“Cleveland is a steel town.”

Van Dijk says energy was so cheap at the time that insulated windows were not in his budget.

”Single-pane glass.  Everything was single-pane glass.”

Renovating the Celebrezze building has a $120 million dollar budget.  The General Service Administration’s chief regional architect Robert Theel said they needed to fix the façade and save energy and do it all without disrupting the 5,000 employees inside.

The answer was to put the building under glass, that is, add a second skin, an outer wall of glass.  

“This is the first project to do a double wall over cladding system –the Celebrezze building.  So it’s very unique and it’s another way of approaching the problem the GSA is having nationwide with buildings of this age and this type.“

Project Architect Charles Young of the Chicago company Interactive Design says this is the first high-rise in the world to be retrofitted with a second glass wall but smaller structures have done in Europe since the 1970’s.

“And the reason it’s been used in Europe is because of the very high cost of energy.  It hasn’t transferred over to this country because we’ve generally had very cheap energy costs over the past number of decades.

Seven stories up we crawled out on a two foot ledge in between the two glass walls with the GSA’s Chris Mourgelas. One can walk around the west and south sides of the building within the two walls. The other two sides are sealed every 28 feet, the length of the window frames.

So how do they keep condensation occurring between the two walls?

“The new outer wall,” says Mourgelas, “is the high-performing curtain wall.  This is the moisture barrier.  Very humid outside should remain relatively dry in the cavity.”

The sun will heat the air buffer between the two walls up to 120 degrees, mitigating the cold Canadians winds that hit the building on the shore of Lake Erie.

To stay cool in the summer, the southern and western walls have been imbedded with a pattern of ceramic dots, called frits, that provide shade.  They also have what look like book shelves of frosted glass between the walls. Those are light shelves that reflect summer sun away from the offices.

Logic would have it that the greenhouse effect would be a problem in summer but the engineering studies found it was too expensive to create a venting system for summer. Young said that would be a necessity for buildings in the South where air conditioning is a major expense.

The double wall is expected to reduce energy costs by 17%, saving $700 thousand dollars a year. 

That would take more than a century to pay off the renovation costs but Chris Mourgelas says the ability to do the work without displacing the workers more than makes up for it.

“Nobody owns a home thinking that when they replace the roof it will pay for itself.  It’s just not a consideration. We replace the roof so we can continue to occupy the house and not have to buy a new one.  Same thing here with this building.” 

Constructing a new building, the GSA estimates, would run $400 million or 3 and ½  times the renovation budget.  The GSA owns some 1600 buildings and a fourth of them are considered to have historic value.  Restoration of historic buildings is part of the GSA’s mission and it considers the Celebrezze building an historic Modernist structure.   

There’s another goal in the Cleveland restoration.  Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing the federal government has added blast protection to its buildings.

Charlie Young assures us the now two walls of glass will help.

“I’m not going to tell you how it works.   We don’t discuss how some of the components work.”

In effect, the outer glass wall dissipates much of the blast force by transferring it to horizontal beams on the wall. The inner windows, once plate glass, are now much safer laminated glass.

Original architect van Dijk was concerned that the views from the large horizontal windows would be disrupted by the new glass sheath and the bright stainless steel grid pattern he designed would be hidden.  But he’s satisfied with how it turned it out.

“They’ve done a wonderful job adding that skin that’s nicely detailed, also at the corners, and everything.  And from a distance – even a short distance- you can see what was there before. “ 

It’s too soon to say how the double wall will perform but the guys behind it predict we will see more government buildings and private sector buildings going under glass.