University Recreation: On the Water

Northwestern Sailing Center in Evanston, Ill.


If you stroll around the 240-acre campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., you're bound to see a lot of purple—the school color—proudly displayed. You'll also see beaches, shoreline and a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline, 12 miles to the south. And right on the beach at the edge of Lake Michigan sits the stunning new Sailing Center, home to the University's intercollegiate sailing team and student sailing classes.

The former Sailing Center—a wood building that was more than 40 years old—was in tremendous disrepair, so architectural firm Woodhouse Tinucci Architects was brought on board to design the new center, which opened in 2015. The new 6,000-square-foot building houses a visitor center, a sailing office, a learning center, locker rooms and a "garage" for boats and gear. The building is composed of staggered blocks linked by a light-filled glass box containing the entry area. The blocks were designed to be long and low to complement Lake Michigan's seemingly endless horizon and to ensure that future buildings would not be denied the scenic shoreline views.

The rugged concrete walls of the new building are embossed by the rough boards that made them, suggesting the rustic feel of weathered clapboards. The sailing program's proud, competitive spirit is heralded in the deep purple translucent plastic panels that fold upward or slide sideways to open directly to the beach launch area—revealing the skyline view during sailing season and then buttoning up for the winter, when the building is piled high with stored boats and gear. The Astroturf carpet that covers the launch area is perfect for drying wet sails.

When Northwestern University was hatching ideas for the new Center, it was their goal to achieve LEED Silver certification. The project was ultimately able to exceed that goal by achieving Gold status, and has been awarded USGBC LEED Gold Certification. LEED-certified buildings are resource efficient. They use less water and energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Sailing Center is recognized as a leader in energy and environmental design as the building is heated and cooled by geothermal underground wells, among other design elements.


Principals David Woodhouse and Andy Tinucci explained how "The mechanical system is geothermal and is shared with the adjacent Visitor Center, so it is even more efficient as heat is able to be extracted from the assembly spaces in the Visitor Center and delivered to the Sailing Center. The building is almost entirely naturally lit, and is built almost completely of natural materials that are locally sourced with high recycled content such as steel and concrete."

Woodhouse and Tinucci also addressed the challenges of working in such close proximity to the water and shoreline: "Despite existing in such a wide open landscape, the site was actually very constrained and ended up shaping the building dramatically. We certainly wanted to stay out of the 100-year floodplain, but we also had a service drive and existing site utilities and infrastructure to coordinate with." That said, they certainly weren't complaining. "The site is amazing, and the lake drove so much of the programming and design concepts for the building, from the material selection to the site orientation."


The Sailing Center is open from May to October. And while it is utilized by NU students, alumni, faculty and staff, the general public may also enjoy access to the facility. The center maintains a fleet of watercrafts, including two- and three-person sailboats, windsurfing boards with rigs, two types of catamarans, stand-up paddleboards, one- and two-person kayaks, and Hobie Getaways. Daily boat availability for general use changes due to classes and other activities.

There are summer memberships, youth camps and adult classes. Instructional offerings include kayak, paddleboard and windsurfing lessons. And, whether you're an experienced sailor looking to hone your skills, or a complete novice who's never set foot on a boat, the Center offers a variety of sailing classes.

The Woodhouse Tinucci website states that architecture is "bricks and mortar; it is poetry and metaphor." Standing on the shore of Lake Michigan and taking in the sights and sounds can be an awesome experience. And the Northwestern Sailing Center fits right in to the landscape. As Tinucci said, it's "totally appropriate and suited to its site and use, from concept to materiality."



Northwestern Sailing Center:
Woodhouse Tinucci Architects: