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By Kirk Stelsel
Since 1855, Butler University existed in relative obscurity as a small liberal arts school in Indianapolis. That all changed after its basketball team made recent back-to-back runs to the national championship game and put Butler on the national radar.
Despite the elevated profile, though, Butler remains rooted in its liberal arts background, and no liberal arts campus is complete without a home for the performing arts. The newly completed Howard L. Schrott Center for Arts is the pièce de résistance of Butler’s performing arts complex. And although it made ample use of many materials to achieve the right looks and acoustics, precast concrete took the leading role.
A 450-seat auditorium for music and theater lies at the heart of the multipurpose performance hall, which is used primarily as a teaching facility for the Jordan College of the Arts and its disciplines of arts administration, dance, music and theater. Local architectural firm Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf (BDMD) designed the building with both structural and architectural precast concrete in mind.
The firm soon discovered that there are as many differences as similarities in the specific needs of performing arts and their audiences. “This is especially true as it relates to the goal of being acoustically excellent. What works for music does not work for theater,” said Tim Ritchotte, R.A., architect/associate at BDMD. “But the problem is even more subtle than that. The acoustical needs of choral music are different than that of the full orchestra, just as lyric theater requires a different environment than spoken drama.”
The mass of the precast panels keeps the performance sounds in and the sounds of the world out. An inner cube of insulated, architecturally finished structural precast forms the taller stage house and audience chamber, and architectural precast wall panels form the exterior wall around the perimeter support spaces, including the lobby and back-of-house areas, explained Ritchotte. “There were around 64 different structural precast panels, with a majority having a 52½-ft panel height. This includes three horizontally spanning panels, which form the header of the 56-ft-wide proscenium opening,” he said. “There were also four precast structural columns, which were architecturally finished due to their prominence in the lobby.”
More than 70 architectural precast panel units, most over 45 ft high, had intricate bevels and pilasters that would have been more difficult to do with a high-end building material such as limestone. “Butler’s campus is populated mostly with limestone-clad buildings, but it became clear to us that the funding would not provide a budget for limestone cladding,” Ritchotte said. “Having used precast in designs elsewhere on campus, BDMD looked at precast for this building, working closely with the construction manager to understand the benefits in terms of system cost and constructability.”
For Shiel Sexton, the construction manager on the project, the benefits of precast were clear. Gregory L. Carr, general superintendent of Shiel Sexton, is no stranger to the use of precast concrete on projects and cited cost savings, a more rapid schedule for enclosing the building and aesthetics among the top benefits.
“Precast installs quickly, and after it’s installed you have a finished product,” said Carr. “The precast supported steel – in many cases we welded roof or floor beams to an embedded plate in the precast. Also, the architectural panels were insulated with internal foam, which was very cost effective. Our structural panels were fire rated, so we didn’t need to cover them with drywall to achieve a fire rating.”
Carr explained that the structural precast panels were also designed to be architectural panels above the roofline. “This was great, because we achieved two designs in one panel and was a real time saver,” he said.
Both Ritchotte and Carr were pleased with the finished product. The color, texture, scale and detail of the panels all help the building fit in with the surrounding architecture while also “redefining the front door of the campus,” according to Ritchotte, who fully expects the precast to continue to perform well.
For Carr, looks and performance made precast the perfect building material. “The decorative architectural precast was used on 90% of the building’s exterior,” he said. “It was accented with random-pattern ashlar limestone and metal panels at the canopies and looks beautiful!”
Ritchotte added that precast concrete was chosen for a number of reasons for the Schrott Center. “The vertical scale of a performance hall wall lends itself to a panelized system, and mass is a crucial physical property in the surrounding noise isolation assemblies of a performance hall,” he said. “In addition to the aforementioned noise isolation benefit, both the structural and architectural precast provided a beautifully and consistently finished exterior cladding. The precast is proudly on display, from both inside and out.”
Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s director of Communication.