The Deep Dive: Steel-ing Home

A renovation of a late 1800s house in Uptown Chicago relies on a bright red I-beam.
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As any issue of Dwell proves, the choice of material or joinery method can transform a good project into a design for the ages. The Deep Dive is a forum where design and building pros can obsess over those details. Here we ask expert colleagues to share the inspiration behind house elements that delight clients—as well as the nitty-gritty information about how they were built. 

The September/October feature "Preservationists Don’t Put Too Fine a Point On It in Their Maximalist Postmodern Reno" celebrates the Chicago residence of architect Jonathan Solomon and city planner Meg Gustafson as a showcase of collectibles and the late 20th century. Which is not to say that the couple’s pandemic-era renovation solely focused on storage and color solutions for an impressive archive of material culture. 

Working with architect Keefer Dunn, the homeowners decided to take on many herculean reno tasks, including combining the kitchen and dining rooms to make a more communal cooking space. The catch was that the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room was load-bearing. "[It’s] typical for old Chicago houses to have load-bearing masonry on the sides and some kind of central post-and-beam assembly in the basement and a central, load-bearing spine in the middle of the building above it," says Dunn. 

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Dunn adds that an equally typical solution for removing such a wall would have been "to put in an LVL [laminated veneer lumber] beam and some columns and hide it all under drywall." Dunn credits Jonathan for proposing an alternative, namely swapping out the LVL with exposed steel elements "to express that an incision had been made in the historic fabric, and to express the weight of the new structure." 

Dunn, alongside engineer Marcus Woods, figured out the size and placement of steel elements to safely transfer their structural load—not to mention the weight of the wood-framed floors overhead—to the foundation. The duo had performed all these calculations with open-web steel joists in mind, as a truss system would have added a filigreed character to the modern intervention and recalled the Helmut Jahn–designed Thompson Center, which is beloved by the homeowners. Joists are the stuff of warehouse ceilings, however, and Dunn and Woods quickly learned that the Covid boom in e-commerce and its corresponding flurry of warehouse construction would deprive this project of even one joist.

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Already well into the project’s demolition phase, the renovation team brainstormed an alternative to the alternative, and they rallied around wide-flange steel—in other words, an I-beam. "It’s off-the-shelf, and we were able to find metal distributors that more or less had one laying around, could cut it to length, and send it our way," Dunn says of the decision.

While the I-beam consolidates all the effort of a load-bearing wall into a single stroke of steel, the beam rests on two steel posts that flank the opening between the kitchen and dining room and transfer load downward. The post in the rear of the room is mounted to a floor beam directly above an existing steel post in the basement, which is part of a group of steel and heavy timber members that comprise the traditional spine base.

At the front of the newly opened room, the second steel post required more intricate weaving into the foundation. This edge shares a wall with the living room, which includes an existing masonry fireplace whose structure reverse tapers to "a giant pile of bricks in the basement," as Dunn puts it. In addition to creating a second hearth that opens the fireplace to the kitchen/dining room, the architect and his collaborators determined to lock that second post to the basement pile. "Making sure the column doesn’t move around too much is about using the right fasteners, and making sure that the bearing place is adequately spreading out the load," Dunn says of attaching steel to brick with peace of mind.

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Inserting steel within the historic fabric demanded several accompanying actions: The basement spine required temporary supports, so that slight reconfigurations and securements could resolve creaking in the kitchen/dining room’s floor. Temporary shoring was also erected on the first floor, so the load-bearing wall could be demolished and the I-beam set into place. While the dining room’s original dentil moldings, ceiling coffers, and wainscoting largely remain in place, some wood paneling was salvaged for reuse upstairs. Here, Dunn praises the contracting company, Raw Building Concepts: "The construction tolerances involved in placing a steel beam and columns are much bigger than the construction tolerances of fine carpentry. But they knew from day one that the beam would be exposed, and that it was going to have to play nice with some wood detailing."

By switching from open-web steel joists to the I-beam, "we went from referencing the Helmut Jahn chapter of Chicago architectural history to the Mies van der Rohe chapter," Dunn observes. There is also a deeply local evocation at work: "It was always kind of a mystery of how the living room had been supported, and we did find a steel beam from the house’s original construction that spans over that living room to make for a grand space. So, in some ways, there is a spiritual connection between the historic and contemporary steel beams, too."

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