When precasters and architects team up early, the rewards can be significant for both parties.
By Bridget McCrea
When an architect is contracted to develop project drawings for a specific client, the materials research phase is never very far behind. After all, how can one come up with schematic drawings without having some idea of which materials will make for the best, most cost-effective overall project?
For that reason, the relationship between architect and precast concrete manufacturer can be crucial. With each party lending its own level of knowledge and expertise to the job, the two can work together to ensure that the right materials are specified to complete the building, wastewater plant, bridge or other structure.
At Gate Precast Co. in Sarasota, Fla., Vern Smith, sales and marketing manager, says the high-end architectural precast firm works closely with both architects and design-build firms. “They call on us early to help develop some of the details, such as specific panel sizes,” says Vern. “That way, when the job gets to the construction stage, the architect has a grasp on exactly what the precast concrete will look like on the building.”
That, says Vern, takes much of the guesswork out of project design and development. It also helps precasters get a “foot in the door” early on specific projects, often ensuring that – as long as their bid is on target – they’ll get the job once it comes to fruition.
The problem is that a relatively low percentage (Vern estimates 20 percent) of American architects have experience with incorporating architectural precast into their buildings. That can be a roadblock for the precaster looking to develop long-term relationships with the folks who specify materials on the projects they’re designing.
But perseverance can pay off for the precast manufacturer looking to form those bonds. “Because we work with the larger architectural firms on a routine basis, more of them are getting to the point where they want to use architectural precast,” says Vern, whose firm has found success in “pushing the envelope” by offering precast as a solution to specific design problems.
Take the architect who needs to incorporate sunshades or “eyebrows” into the face of a building. “They’re using precast instead of adding on attachments, and it works well,” says Vern. “Those are the architects who know how to incorporate precast and how to work with precasters to create successful projects.”
In a world where precasters and their industry groups are working to push the value of their products versus those made of competing materials, an architect can be a manufacturer’s best friend. Charged with creating the drawings for everything from buildings to bridges to plants – and everything in between – architects and designers hold many of the cards when it comes to material selection. Because of this, open communication and solid relationships with these professionals can often mean the difference between getting the job and not even being on the map.
In most cases, Vern says architects come to him while in the middle of developing their drawings. Others make contact when it’s time to update drawings, calling on the precaster to review the plans and provide feedback on whether the architect is “going in the right direction,” says Vern.
“There are some architects out there who would love to have us sitting next to them as they’re drawing it up, but we can’t always do that,” says Vern. “We do, however, try to allow enough time on our end to help them develop their drawings.”
At Structure Cast in Bakersfield, Calif., Brent Dezember, president, says his firm, which produces colored, textured architectural panels, puts “a lot of effort” into forming bonds with architects. That means creating presentations that are certified by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), reaching out to local architects on their own turf, and holding half-day seminars for the local AIA chapter at the Structure Cast plant.
Brent calls the efforts “well worth it” and says he’d like to do even more to cultivate early interaction with architects. “The architects are the starting point,” Brent says. “If they don’t design precast into the project, it’s very hard for us to get people to change that when they’re down the road, ready to start construction on a project.”
For the architectural community, Brent says proactive precasters like Structure Cast lend their expertise to the project – from concept to completion. “An architect who is designing a building has to focus on 100 different aspects of it at once,” says Brent. “We can come in, help with cost-saving ideas, suggest additional architectural features and help the architects attain the design that they’re really looking for.”
That is, if the precaster can get to the point where it is the trusted advisor who is called upon during the early stages of the project. Too often, precasters are left out of the early design phases, as Brent pointed out, making it that much harder to get in the door when it comes time to actually start the job. When developed without the precaster’s input, drawings don’t always translate well into real-world applications.
The ground floor
When precasters and architects work closely together, the rewards can be significant for both parties. Right now, for example, Brent’s firm is working with a Los Angeles architect who is designing a school building. For the past year, the precaster has been sending samples and colors to the architect, hoping to be top of mind when the job goes out for bid. “We’ll have a good opportunity there,” says Brent, “but we’ll still have to be the competitive bidder.”
The benefit stream runs both ways, according to Brent, who sees precasters playing a key role in a project’s overall success. Bombarded with new product offerings, the architects who approve plans need to know that the materials they’re choosing are indeed the best, most cost-effective options available. “If they put something on there that doesn’t work or that hurts the project, it’s a direct reflection on them,” says Brent.
At Seawright Custom Precast in Coachella, Calif., Rex Seawright, president, says he’d like to work more closely with architects who use his firm’s columns, fireplace surrounds and window trims. Working primarily with custom residential and commercial contractors, Rex says he gets involved “occasionally” with architects who call on him for help in the early stages of a project.
“We set up good lines of communication and rapport,” says Rex. “It’s great to be able to help them along and get them to where they need to be.” It’s also important for the project itself, he adds. “When an architect has the information, he can draw up something that’s feasible for the manufacturer to undertake, therefore eliminating a lot of revisions of shop drawings.”
Russell Smeall, principle with Pate Smeall Architects in Newport Beach, Calif., sees value for both the precaster and the architect when the two parties collaborate early in the project lifecycle.
“I expect to see more precasters and architects working together to create those efficiencies,” says Russell. “We’re all out there trying to find new niches, and by putting our heads together early in the process, we gain better access to new ideas and products that will ultimately create more successful projects.”
Ashley Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for Smith-Midland Corp. in Midland, Va., says his company works frequently with architects. “Architects like connections and accurate information,” says Ashley, who often sends out 1-by-2-foot samples that show the various colors, aggregates and finishes that an architect can select from.
Thanks to the efforts of NPCA’s Building Product Committee – and the inroads being made by the precasters themselves – expect to see even stronger bonds developing between the architectural and precast community in the future.
“We’re seeing more architects spending more time with us over the last few years,” says Brent. “It’s definitely a trend that’s going to grow as the benefits of precast outweigh the benefits of competing products.”
Ashley concurs and says those precasters looking to get in on the ground floor of specific projects should consider developing strong ties with the architects who are designing them. “Get out there and set up good communications with your local architects, get to know them and establish your company as a good information source for them,” says Ashley. “The more architects you go see, the more they will call on you.”