Campus Building Sails Through Floodwaters


Drawing of Oakton Community College Science and Health Center courtesy of Legat Architects.

Drawing of Oakton Community College Science and Health Center courtesy of Legat Architects.

Here in downtown Chicago, the Great Flood of 2013 was mostly a curiosity.  The Chicago River was high enough that watching tour boats glide underneath was worrisome.   There was some talk of reversing the river’s reverse flow.  But mostly, it was just a rain event.

Not so in the northern suburbs, where the constant rain pushed the Des Plaines River out of its banks and into the living rooms, garages, and man caves of thousands.

The people over at Legat Architects in Waukegan sent over a press release about how the river-adjacent science building it was putting up at Oakton Community College in Skokie fared.  Short story: very well.  Long story: read below.

Drawing of Oakton Community College Science and Health Center courtesy of Legat Architects.

Drawing of Oakton Community College Science and Health Center courtesy of Legat Architects.

[Des Plaines, IL] – Back in April, members of the Legat Architects and Turner Construction teams watched the live site camera for the new Science and Health Careers Center that is under construction at Oakton Community College where, in a matter of hours, the Oakton campus became submerged.


The culprit was the nearby Des Plaines River. It crested at eleven feet—that’s six feet above flood level—then caused Lake Oakton at the heart of the campus to overflow. Three feet of water covered the parking lot next to the construction site.


The flooding caused the campus to be closed for over a week. It would have been longer if not for the round-the-clock efforts of Oakton’s personnel. Facilities professionals mobilized their staff. They pumped water from the existing basements, sandbagged entrances, and drained lots. Instructors revamped schedules and offered classes at alternate locations.


Flooding is nothing new to Oakton Community College, but that one was particularly bad: the “Great Flood of 2013” turned out to be the worst in the main campus’s 33-year history.


How did the new Science and Health Careers Center fare during this historic flood? Neither the construction process nor the building itself was daunted by the deluge.


Construction: The Flow Must Go On

Much of the Oakton campus, including the new facility, sits within the 100-year floodplain. “Oakton facilities personnel told us to expect six inches of water in the parking lots at least once a year,” said Brad Booker, senior project manager at Turner Construction, “but three feet just isn’t something you see very often.”


When the campus reopened, Brad Booker and his crew were ready. It took two days to clean the mud, branches, and other debris that had accumulated. None of the lifts or major equipment were damaged, but there was damage to some stored materials that required replacement.


The construction resumed after the clean-up and the building remains on track for substantial completion in early 2014.


Design: Above the Flood

How did the partly constructed building stand up to the “Great Flood of 2013?” It passed with flying colors: architects designed the facility with flooding in mind.


Early analysis of the microclimate and hydrology of the site guided the architectural language of the building: piers elevate the building so that when the campus floods, water will flow over the plaza and beneath the building.


Legat Architects’ Gabriel Wilcox, project designer, said, “We designed the building to be 7’-6” above grade, which is 3’-6” above the 100-year floodplain. This dramatic height difference created challenges for accessible occupant access into the building. The solution is a unique terrace of seats paralleling a steadily sloping walk. This element also created the opportunity for a sheltered outdoor classroom underneath the overhanging structure. It is interesting how a normally detrimental site feature led to a dichotomous celebration of the space.”


The facility’s structural truss system uses a larger-on-the-top, smaller-on-the-bottom composition to further minimize the building’s impact on the floodplain. Wilcox said, “We reduced the building’s footprint to allow water to flow around and under the facility.” Only about ten percent of the facility’s entire 94,000 square feet actually touches the ground!


The design even offsets the area that the building’s footprint takes up. Imagine placing a building on a flooded site. That extra water has to go somewhere. In the case of the Science & Health Center, a “compensatory storage” area beneath the building holds the water that the building would otherwise displace.


“A building’s connection with the site is of the utmost importance,” said Wilcox. “In this case, the architectural design responded to a site that was inundated with water.”


About the Facility

The Science and Health Careers Center, featured in The Wall Street Journal, creates a new campus entry at Oakton Community College. The center offers sophisticated learning settings and celebrates the campus’s natural highlights. Student study spaces and division offices have views of the lake, while corridors and classrooms display the surrounding forest. Study spaces encourage learning outside the classroom.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

Share This Post On