Design School Abodes for the Birds

High-design homes on the banks of the Chicago River.

By Zach Mortice 

University of Illinois at Chicago students’ birdhouse designs for the Chicago River. Photo courtesy Lendlease.

While working with a group of University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) industrial design students on their birdhouse design studio, Ted Wolff had a few pointers on how they should approach interior dimensions and ventilation. There should be enough room at its base for eggs, but not much extra. A slit that allows crosscurrent air circulation is good, but much bigger and cold winds might howl through the birdhouse in the winter.

“You want them to feel snug, if you will,” says Wolff, of Wolff Landscape Architecture. “That’s probably anthropomorphizing them a bit much.”

The birdhouses the UIC students came up with don’t seem to conform to arcadian notions of “snug,” offering up topo map terraces, ziggurats, gourd-shaped ovals, and stacks of cubes rotated as tessellated diamonds, each one seeming to say: Design is here!

The Southbank development on the Chicago River, designed by Perkins+Will and Hoerr Schaudt. Image courtesy Lendlease.

UIC students became involved in the project this past semester at the behest of developer and builder Lendlease, which is building a new high-rise community called Southbank that will include a riverside park. Located just south of the Loop along the Chicago River, the 2.5-acre park, designed by Hoerr Schaudt, will feature approximately half a dozen mounted birdhouses designed by third-year UIC industrial design students. The site’s first residential tower, designed by Perkins+Will and called The Cooper, was completed last fall, and the new park will be ready in July.

Linda Kozloski, the creative design director at Lendlease, says birdhouses were always part of Southbank’s master plan. Alongside the native grasses and marshy plants that will add more riverside park space to Chicago’s other great waterway, Kozloski wanted to see frogs, toads, fish, and birds “bring nature back in an urban setting” with an ecological resurgence for the channelized and formerly industrial river. The park will include a half-mile boardwalk, terraced step seating, and native or adaptive shrubs, perennials, and trees.

Southbank Park hopes to offer habitats for birds, frogs, toads, and fish. Image courtesy Lendlease.
Triad, DeeDee Leng’s birdhouse, is designed for tree swallows. Image courtesy DeeDee Leng.

The UIC students presented their designs to the client and the design team for a midterm evaluation and again at the end of the semester. Students researched the bird species that would be most likely to thrive along the Chicago River, and what would be needed to attract them. Wolff says the four most important factors to consider would be wooing species that are native to the area, are comfortable in urban environments, enjoy being near water, and can coexist with a lot of people. “That really narrows down the species list that’s going to be appropriate,” Wolff says. The initial short list of birds they hope to attract includes tree swallows, eastern bluebirds, and house wrens. Kozloski says she wants to collaborate with UIC students again, to design birdhouses for more communal birds such as purple martins.

UIC student DeeDee Leng designed and built a birdhouse for tree swallows. She calls her design Triad, named for its folded triangle geometry, and inspired by the canted support columns of the nearby high-rise apartment building. Tree swallows are exceptionally agile fliers that snatch insects out of the air, and their birdhouse is distinguished by not having a perch. To enter, the tree swallow tucks its wings in and shoots into its one-and-a-half-inch-wide hole, a bull’s-eye every time. A perch would likely be an invitation for a larger bird to camp out and steal the house. Leng says this project was distinguished by its lack of first-person research. “We’re very used to interviewing people we’re specifically designing for,” she says. “We’re not able to ask tree swallows how they feel about the birdhouse.”

Students presenting their designs. Photo courtesy Lendlease and T. J. O’Keefe.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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