Designers and Producers Select Their Best Architectural Precast Projects
By Sue McCraven
Culling through competition for the “best” in any genre can be an arbitrary business. Judgment necessarily involves some degree of subjective opinion based on regional, political and personal biases. So rather than relying on the opinions of judges, peers or review panels, why not ask the artists themselves to select their very best work? In this article we find exceptional architectural precast projects in North America as selected by the producers and designers themselves. Requiring artisanship from its conception and skillful fabrication through to its final rendering, architectural precast structure is in a class by itself, truly an art form. The stunning projects on these pages are described by those who created and selected their outstanding accomplishments.
Flexible: EPA building is LEED Gold
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) buildings in Arlington, Va., contain more than 200,000 square feet of architectural precast comprised of 1,400 individual pieces. The facade combines traditional acid-etched precast and brick-faced precast using brick “soaps” (traditional bricks cut in half and cast into the face of the panel). “This precast option saved the project about $100,000,” says Nick Carosi IV, principal with Arban & Carosi of Woodbridge, Va., “and cut two months off the project schedule.” The building is LEED Gold Certified. The architect for the project was Pickard-Chilton/Davis, Carter, Scott.
An impressive interior photo reveals the expansive, naturally illuminated atrium of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office Headquarters in Arlington, Va. The atrium is part of a seven-building complex. According to Carosi, erecting the precast in the atrium proved to be a challenge. “Its central location necessitated careful coordination with the other trades due to the exacting specifications for this interior fit-out — including a working waterfall cascading through the precast panels,” he says. This project is a great example of the flexibility of architectural precast designs.
Graceful: Sound panels are visual delight
Probably the greatest advantage of architectural precast concrete is that it lends beauty to our surroundings while serving important structural functions. A perfect example of this asset is the visual and sound barrier panel construction in Rochester, N.Y., designed by Bergmann Associates, for the West Ridge Road Reconstruction Project. “The panels have an exposed aggregate finish with integral concrete cap,” explains Todd Clarke, president of Lakelands Concrete Products Inc. of Lima, N.Y. “Columns for the project are also precast concrete with a stained simulated stone finish or plain acid-wash finish.” Pouring the exposed aggregate finish on both sides of the barrier and the forming of the integral precast concrete cap panels proved challenging, but, as the photo demonstrates, precaster skill produced an artistic and functional structure that graces its environment.
Traditional: New England stateliness
The balustrades at Smith College, founded in 1871 in Northampton, Mass., are excellent examples of the traditional stateliness that can be achieved with architectural precast concrete. Even for institutions as old, dignified and respected as New England’s historic sister colleges, the flexibility that can be achieved in design makes precast the perfect choice for restoring, reproducing or adding to traditional architecture. Northern Design Precast’s vice president, Jesse Thompson, said, “This project is a perfect example of how producers can utilize different mold materials in order to re-create historic stone elements.”
Production of the balustrades in the Loudon, N.H., facility involved “the use of rubber molds for the balusters, Styrofoam molds for the railing caps and wooden molds to replicate the existing newel posts,” says Thompson. “All the architectural precast elements blend together seamlessly, creating the appearance that the original early 1900s construction is still standing strong, which is the ultimate goal of any restoration project.”
Timeless: Washington Christian’s distinctive design
“The architectural design of the Washington Christian Academy, located in Olney, Md., blended both modern and more traditional elements for a timeless look,” explains Ari Lichtman of Nelson Precast in Baltimore. The precast Gothic arches, which were both structural and architectural, in combination with the cast stone trim and custom medallions created a thoroughly unique and unmistakable design.
“The distinctive arches required custom engineering, and the medallions took weeks of painstaking moldwork by one of our top sculptors,” says Lichtman. “We are extremely proud of the finished work, which stands as a monument not only to the beauty and quality of Nelson Precast’s product but to the expertise of everyone involved. The masonry contractor, Henry J. Knott, dealt with enormous challenges of its own to complete the job, and the ingenuity of Forrester Construction and Grimm + Parker Architects earned them regional and national Design-Build Institute Awards.”
Futuristic: Convention center is a challenging installation
The interior walls surrounding the elevator shaft at the Washington State Convention Center were designed and fabricated as glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) panels; the design of the structure did not allow for the weight of traditional precast panels. A sandblasted finish was chosen to match the exterior precast panels. “One of the project challenges with these panels,” relates Judy Jewell, president of Olympian Precast in Redmond, Wash., “was that the panels needed to be installed on each floor with the exterior structure already in place. The panels were hoisted to each level by crane outside the building, then loaded and moved into place on dollies. Final placement was done vertically using chain hoists.”
The project was designed by LMN Architects, and Kiewit Construction was the general contractor. “Architectural precast concrete and GFRC are unique building materials,” says Jewell, “because there are so many possibilities offering architectural and functional solutions to today’s challenging projects due to the versatility of the product.”
Creative: Deteriorated tower accurately re-created
“This precast restoration project is an 18-foot tower high atop the Naples Central School District building,” according to Joseph A. Schmadel, president, Sun Precast Co. Inc. in Beaver Springs, Pa. “It was originally erected in the 1930s.” Due to years of deterioration in the harsh New York elements, the original structure was in a state of disrepair. The scope of the project included the complete replacement of the existing precast tower structure as well as the 4-foot-tall urns. “The new precast was fabricated to replicate the original exposed-aggregate finish, while maintaining the historical integrity of the intricate architectural details,” says Schmadel. To complete the restoration process, aggregates were carefully sourced and selected in the mix design development process so as to properly match the original architecture.
“The replacement architectural precast is an identical replication of the original tower,” explains Schmadel, “but to improve long-term durability of the structure, the new precast was engineered to be thinner than the original pieces, which reduced the weight load bearing on the building.”
The tower remains today a focal point in the town of Naples, N.Y. Hunt Engineers, Architects and Land Surveyors P.C. of Horseheads, N.Y., was the architect for the project.
This dramatic glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) statue was fabricated by Aristone Designs Inc. of Tempe, Ariz., for the North Tempe Multigenerational Center (NTMGC). This public art project “Play Like a River” was created by Tempe artist Tom Strich. The photo shows one of three GFRC statues that were cast by Aristone Designs for the center. The artistic intent of the two precast statues is a representation of the “source” of a metaphorical river that flows through the Center.
“I’ve been using cast GFRC for art purposes for about 10 years now,” says Strich. “I find precast concrete to be a very versatile and economical medium for producing outdoor sculpture here in Arizona, where the extreme heat and unrelenting sun limits the palette of durable materials from which to choose.”
Precast concrete, especially GFRC, allows an artist to generate a wide range of sculptural forms with great detail, appealing surface qualities and colors, explains Strich. “I was able to utilize GFRC to create a full-size figurative sculpture for the public art component of the NTMGC in a way that was integrated with both the architecture and landscape design. The use of precast GFRC made it possible to create quality work of this scale within the budget of a municipal public art project.”
Magnificent: Distinctive facade
Located in the high-profile Fairview South Office Park in Falls Church, Va., this elegant eight-story office building features architectural precast panels produced by Smith-Midland Corp. of Midland, Va. “The smooth panel surface was achieved with an acid-wash and a medium sandblast finish,” says Ashley Smith, president and COO. A green reflective glass curtainwall
and granite wainscoting contribute to the structure’s dramatic appearance. Noritake Associates were the project architects.
Stunning: Symphony of texture, color and design
According to Michael Drabenstott, spokesperson with the AltusGroup of precasters, “The 32-story Symphony House, a breathtaking $125 million, 163-unit condominium in Philadelphia, features next-generation CarbonCast architectural cladding panels that deliver a traditional aesthetic sensibility and a remarkable 33 percent weight reduction over typical precast members.”
To accommodate the architect’s color selection, precast panels fabricated by AltusGroup member High Concrete Group LLC, Denver, Pa., display a redpigmented, sandblasted finish “meant to evoke the feeling of brick,” says Drabenstott, “but without the expense or limited color range of brick or other systems. In addition, the 6-inch-thick cladding panel enabled deep reveals, recessed planes and deep window recesses that helped cast the shade and shadow that enliven the facade.”
Dignified: Buddhist temple art created with GFRC
In this exciting and complex venture, Thuyen Nguyen-Phuc, the artist and architect of the Chua Duc Vien Buddhist Temple in San Jose, Calif., brought his sculptures to Architectural Facades Unlimited for mold fabrication and casting. “These pieces were cast in GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete) and used throughout the temple,” explains Alice Bracken, president.
To have had these beautiful pieces sculpted in stone or cast in bronze would have been cost prohibitive. Along with the ability to make intricate molds and then cast these works of art in sandstone GFRC, the Buddhist Temple was able to have the refined detail the artwork required, and the finish and color of choice without comprising exquisite beauty and excellent craftsmanship.
Architectural Facades Unlimited designs, creates, restores and replicates architectural cast stone details in any shape, imprint, size, texture and color as specified. This is the wonderful advantage of precast. Those who think precast stone does not have the dignity, integrity or authenticity of natural stone must be mindful that Architectural Facades continues the Fine Art of Architectural Precast, an architectural art form that has been used in construction since the Ancient Roman Era 10th century B.C.
Sophisticated: Manufactured cladding duplicatesgranite
“On the South Lake Office Building project located next to the Washington-Dulles International Airport in Fairfax, Va.,” says Rae F. Noritake, AIA and principal of Noritake Associates Inc. in Alexandria, Va., “we were asked by the client to match the exterior granite cladding on three other office buildings in the development that were built in the 1980s. Granite cladding was not an affordable alternative, so we were able to get almost the exact match of polished and thermal finished Balmoral Red Granite by using architectural precast.” Granite cladding is used on the first floor only, and the transition to the architectural precast above is seamless. “The transition from one material to the other is undistinguishable,” explains Noritake.
“Architectural precast concrete is the preferred exterior cladding system used by our firm for many reasons, including its quality and durability along with its economy,” says Noritake. “The primary reason that we prefer it is its inherent flexibility and character. Architectural precast provides an unlimited choice of colors, finishes and shapes. It is very easy to create sophisticated profiles such as extrusions or reveals that lend depth and character to a facade.”
Refined: Private residence reflects Old World charm
“As artisans, we always take pride in the work that we do, regardless of the design aesthetic,” says Sam Betrous, president of Ravacast Inc. in Campbell, Calif. “Having said that, however, I feel that this distinguished private residence defines our studio’s objective better than any; to rethink the way we look at cast stone, while providing our clients with items that utilize both classical and modernistic approaches. Crisp, sharp lines infused with a touch of the Old World.”
Modern: Energetic design for college campus
“We used over 100 different shapes and 175 panel types for the architectural precast used in the NORCO Community College Science and Technology Center in Orange County,” reports Brent Dezember, president of StructureCast in Bakersfield, Calif. “Each of the precast panels are made with one color and etched finish, but the design includes three-sided columns and rounded panels for circular stairways.” Strong, clean lines of architectural precast energize the campus and create a bright and youthful statement.
Customized: Tropical tower forprivate residence
This stunning tower at a private residence in Tampa, Fla., is the work of Stonecrafters Architectural Precast Stone of Clearwater, Fla. The tower is comprised of a variety of precast geometries that are synthesized in a tasteful design that succeeds in creating an architectural statement that exhibits a light, romantic and appropriately tropical expression.
According to Bill Morris, general manager at Stonecrafters, “The custom-made architectural precast elements in this structure include corbels, frieze bands, compound radius moldings, Doric columns, balustrades, newel posts, and crown and scallop moldings.” All the precast components harmonize beautifully, says Morris, “due to careful attention to details, extensive field measurements, professional shop drawings and a highly skilled installation by our own staff.”
Expressive: Re-creating historical architecture with perfection
Renaissance Square on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis was built in 1906 and a 1960s renovation replaced the lower level facade materials,
adopting a different look than the architecture on upper stories. “Decades later, a second renovation was completed using cast stone products manufactured by American Artstone to refresh the building architecture,
bringing it back to the original grand architecture of the ’20s and ’30s,” explains Greg Saterdalen, CSI and manager of sales, marketing and business development for American Artstone Co. in New Ulm, Minn.
“Artstone was chosen for this renovation because they were able to match the original colors and re-create the terra cotta details in other materials used today,” says David L. Anderson, project manager for Miller, Hanson, Westerbeck, Berger, the architect for this project.
During preliminary meetings, the architects questioned Artstone’s ability to use cast stone effectively in this intricate design. “Were we wrong,” admits Anderson. “Artstone was able to work with the vocabulary of the building, perfectly simulating the motif, details and enhancements.”
“For the Vancouver and the Whistler Mountain areas, we are manufacturing 250 bases for the 2010 Olympic Games,” reports Steve Pukanich, P.Eng., and sales manager for A.E. Concrete, Con-Force Division of Armtec Ltd., in
British Columbia. “One of the initiatives of the Vancouver Olympic Committee was to incorporate a hometown flavor to the signage, and we achieved this with ‘pine beetle’ lumber harvested here in British Columbia.”
Production challenges for A.E. Concrete arose out of the very unique geometry of the bases. “Stripping the precast molds with this unusual base profile was not a routine undertaking,” says Pukanich, “but we were able to successfully deliver the pieces on a tight, design/build schedule.”
According to Doug Carter, Armtec vice president of the British Columbia region, “Architectural precast offers the well-known advantages of quality, speed of construction, durability and economy,” says Carter. “What is less well known is that it also offers designers unparalleled design flexibility.”
Character: North Carolina Cancer Hospital
Precast concrete panels on the exterior of the new North Carolina Cancer Hospital help create a unique character for the facility located on the large University of North Carolina (UNC) Hospitals campus. “Use of precast made from the sand of local beaches of North Carolina helped to create a distinctive and affordable architectural character for the new publicly funded Cancer Hospital,” says Allyn Stellmacher, design partner at ZGF
Designers and fabricators of architectural precast concrete forms and structures were able to replicate the appearance of expensive natural stone in a wide variety of colors and expressions that work beautifully with other building elements. Particularly appealing and timeless is the satisfying contrast of the richly textured precast finishes with the glistening of glass fenestrations. Clearly, these precast artists can reproduce the craftsmanship of ages past.
Architectural precast is a material chameleon that can morph into the look of polished granite or display the delicate intricacy of sculpted marble. Its design variations and aesthetic capabilities are unlimited, and its structural strength and low-maintenance durability are proven assets.
Boasting consistent manufactured quality and rapid erection in any weather, architectural precast has established its economic competitiveness with alternative building materials. Douglas Carter, president of Davis Carter Scott Ltd. of McLean, Va., captures the resourcefulness of this material with practical humor: “Whenever we have the opportunity, we advocate the use of precast concrete. Shape, color, texture, speed of erection, durability — and think how many leaking joints you can eliminate. Nothing beats it!”
Sue McCraven, NPCA Senior technical consultant, is a civil engineer, technical writer and editor, and environmental scientist who has contributed numerous articles and studies to prominent scientific journals.