By Mason Nichols
As the age-old expression goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
For some, precast concrete’s beauty lies in its ability to be used for any application imaginable, from roadwork to stormwater systems and beyond (1). Others find beauty in the material’s sheer strength, marveling at precast’s durability even in the face of extreme weather (2). But what about appearance?
Precast concrete is often considered more utilitarian than attractive, but as the following projects illustrate, it is more than capable of achieving the design aesthetic necessary to bring class and style to any construction project.
The center of attention
Early in the 20th century, a group of architects in Cleveland, Ohio, designed the Burnham Mall, a vast public space located in the heart of the city surrounded by signature buildings. More than 100 years later, precast concrete has become part of the mall’s storied history.
Located on the periphery of the space, the Medical Mart is a four-story exhibit hall for medical devices connected to the city’s convention center. The structure, designed by LMN Architects of Seattle, Washington, features precast concrete cladding that ties into the look of the masonry and limestone buildings also situated on the mall. According to Rafael Viñoly-Menendez, LEED AP and principal for LMN, specifying precast allowed the flexibility necessary to achieve important project goals.
“We were looking for a material that would be modern in the sense that it could be constructed fairly rapidly and essentially with a curtain wall system as opposed to traditional load-bearing masonry,” he said. “We also wanted to do something that captured some of the detailing in the historic terracotta buildings.”
To meet these requirements and further highlight Cleveland as the mecca for medicinal research in the U.S., LMN created an abstracted DNA helix design for the precast concrete panels.
“Both the pattern of the panels at a small scale and then the bigger composition between the precast panels and the glass has the helix design,” Viñoly-Menendez said. “So it’s a series of light and dark rectangles.”
Due to the central location of the project, LMN worked to ensure the completed design offered a refined, high-end appeal. Thanks to precast concrete, Viñoly-Menendez feels the project was a success.
“The Medical Mart is a building in a really prominent location, and the last thing that you want is for it to be perceived as second-class or less than what’s around it,” he said. “What we liked best about being able to use precast is that it gave us a lot of freedom and flexibility while still offering a look at the right level of finish and quality.”
Napa Valley know how
In the wine country of northern California, class isn’t just a nice to have – it’s a necessity. So when Superior Concrete Products of Euless, Texas, was contracted to manufacture and install a combination sound wall and fence solution at the foothills of Napa Valley, precast concrete was the material of choice.
Due to the property’s proximity to both the highway and a local school, property owner Hall Financial Group sought a fence solution that would reduce noise and provide the aesthetic look visitors expect from the region.
Mark Depker, president of Hall Financial Group’s management division, had previously seen a precast concrete fence system near his home in Texas. As a result, he phoned Todd Sternfeld, CEO of Superior, to determine whether Sternfeld could provide an optimal fencing solution.
“They wanted to tie in the masonry roots, but of course the cost of doing that would have been very expensive and difficult with a continuous foundation,” Sternfeld said. “In our case, ease of installation plays a role because we can just come in there and drill holes.”
In addition to reducing costs, using precast also resulted in a much shorter construction schedule. According to Sternfeld, after receiving approval from the state, the fence was installed in one week.
Ultimately, the finished project provides the attractive appeal visitors look for while simultaneously offering the strength and durability necessary for a long and maintenance-free service life.
“In this kind of application – as well as many other applications – people are looking for something that aesthetically sets off the property; something that provides that curb appeal that’s going to make them feel warm, comfortable and invited,” Sternfeld said. “Yet it still has a durable, robust look to it. When people find out they’re looking at a concrete fence, they just freak out.”
Multi-million dollar precast
For Travis Hite, lead designer with Weber Design Group of Naples, Florida, crafting a luxurious home is all about adhering to a very specific design aesthetic.
“When people come to us, they’re looking for a certain style and a certain flare with the drawings,” he said. “This is something which we can handle by using precast features.”
While Weber designs a wide variety of house plans, the West Indies style has become a particularly popular option in 2014. One West Indies spec home, completed earlier this year in downtown Naples, prominently features a variety of precast concrete products.
According to Hite, the home includes white precast banding, precast caps and bases, and sills and headers around the windows and doors. “If we’re going to use a West Indies variation, we’re going to use more of a flat stock,” he said. “Using the precast allows us to enhance the look of the clean lines.”
Specifying precast is also important in ensuring an extended lifespan for the home. As Hite explained, other products may deteriorate quickly, creating issues for the homeowner.
“A lot of times there are materials like plastic that tend to fade over time or crack, split or peel apart,” he said. “The longevity of the home is something that we think about when using precast.”
This also resonates with homeowners, who, in addition to seeking style and looks, often associate beauty with permanence.
“For the price range of these houses – they are multi-million dollar homes – you want it to have a substantial feel,” Hite said. “You want it to feel sturdy and strong.”
Combining class with supreme durability, precast concrete remains up to the challenge.
Not just a pretty face
If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, precast concrete should easily catch the eye of architects and engineers throughout the industry. After all, who wouldn’t want to select a building material that’s as durable and versatile as it is attractive? Any project, any angle, any design – precast concrete does it all in style.
Mason Nichols is NPCA’s external communication and marketing manager.