By Bridget McCrea
Creating a public restroom that looks like it’s made of wood and steel. Building new structures that blend perfectly with 30-year-old buildings. Casting large dinosaur eggs. Though these projects couldn’t seem more dissimilar, they all share one thing in common: precast concrete made them possible.
Best known for its strength, durability and efficiency, precast has also proven its worth as a flexible and aesthetically appealing building material that offers numerous “shape shifting” qualities on a wide range of construction projects. Most of these projects find precasters manipulating the color, texture and/or form to make concrete more attractive, help it blend in with surroundings or execute design ideas that would be difficult to achieve with any other material. Through the use of architectural precast, formliners, myriad aggregates and various exterior finishes, designers can replicate the finish and color of existing masonry or stone, incorporate intricate details and achieve other project goals without breaking the bank.
“We’re seeing a high demand for architectural precast elements on projects, particularly as designers and engineers compare other options for their building skins,” said Kevin Jewell, project manager at Olympian Precast in Redmond, Wash.
During those comparisons, he explained most specifiers find architectural precast to be extremely cost-competitive, flexible and adaptable.
“Here in the Northwest, we’re seeing strong demand for sandblasted and acid-etched finishes as well as veneering applications,” he said. “We’ve done more of these in the last year than we have in the last five years total. It’s certainly a growing market.”
Olympian Precast isn’t the only company that’s filling more architectural precast orders these days. In Florida, Leesburg Concrete Company is also getting involved in more projects that incorporate architectural materials and unique exterior finishes. Kirk Rouse, co-owner and vice president, said the company offers a selection of formliner and sandblast finishes, acid etching, integral colors, and multiple finishes and aggregates within single panels.
“We have used many types of different aggregates from all around the country to create different looks,” Rouse said.
For one project, Leesburg Concrete incorporated black granite as an aggregate. The product was polished for a smooth, almost glass-like finish.
Rouse said the aesthetic quality of the final product draws in designers who want to stretch their “unlimited imaginations” when creating beautiful, appealing structures.
“There really are no boundaries on what you can dream up,” he said. “In essence, we are building art here.”
Leesburg Concrete recently finished a project at Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville. Engineers specified 30-foot-tall, 45,000-pound panels that combined both structural and architectural precast. The panels not only hold up the building’s roof, but also incorporate three different colors and four different finishes on each panel. According to Rouse, each panel included a formliner finish, a smooth form finish, a deep and a light sandblast, ledges and water tables.
“The completed project is beautiful,” he added.
Rouse said his company has also used architectural precast on a few smaller projects, including precast concrete column covers for the Withlacoochee Bridge – part of the Florida Trail Project – as well as several baseball dugouts and public restroom facilities.
Being situated in Florida – where wind-loading requirements are extremely strict and the elements can take a toll on buildings over time – Rouse explained the engineers and designers he works with enjoy the combination of the strength of precast with the beauty of architectural materials.
“The sun is a force to be reckoned with here; it’s hard on everything,” he said. “With precast, we’re able to infuse color and texture into materials without the need for paint, minimize long-term maintenance issues and provide unmatched durability. It’s a real win-win for everyone.”
In Seattle, Boeing’s new Commercial Delivery Center features numerous architectural precast elements. Located at Boeing Field, the CDC is more than 90,000 square feet in size and includes a new three-story building and new delivery and departure areas with three covered jetways. The buildings also include additional space for customers and Boeing support groups as well as a new entryway. The design features an open, airy look with large windows.
For this project, one of Boeing’s primary concerns was how to make its new building blend well with existing structures, many of which are decades old.
Working with the project’s contractor, Olympian Precast devised a plan to use two different mix designs – one being a light-colored cement (yellow/tan) that would be medium-sandblasted to expose the mixture’s aggregate, and the other a grey cement that incorporated a black admixture.
According to Mike Yore, project manager and estimator, the latter was a very dark mix that went along the base of the building. Yore said the lighter-colored mix had to match up with existing Boeing buildings that are 30-to-40 years old.
“The new building basically butted right up against the older ones, so getting the right coloring was a challenge,” he said. “We went through several rounds of putting together samples and making subtle changes to get everything matched up correctly.”
In the end, the precaster was able to put together an effective mix design and sandblast approach.
Yore added that architectural precast panels and finishes proved especially valuable on this project, namely because Boeing was intent on having its new delivery center match with its surroundings.
“Once everything was in place, the contractor looked at the finished product from the freeway and said he couldn’t tell any difference among the buildings,” he said. “That was definitely a testament to how well the finish turned out.”
Are those real dinosaur eggs?
When Oldcastle Precast of Loveland, Colo., was asked to “look into the past” and create 27 different 6-foot-by-3-foot dinosaur eggs, team members put on their thinking caps and found an interesting way to incorporate architectural precast into the project. The eggs, which weigh 2,700 pounds each, were colored green and brown and then stained to give them a “prehistoric” appearance. The dinosaur theme was chosen to reflect the prehistoric finds that have been made in the area, including a 2010 find of the bones of a woolly mammoth.
Today, the decorative replicas stretch across Colorado Highway 82 between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Bill Williams, architectural project manager for Oldcastle Precast, said the project owner wanted the eggs to be textured to match the look of old, fossilized dinosaur eggs.
“We came up with a variety of colors and textures,” he said. “It was a fun way to incorporate architectural precast into a very different application and final product.”
Oldcastle Precast has also worked on dozens of more typical architectural precast projects over the years, including a hospital expansion project in Colorado Springs that required a bullnose radius manufactured from white cement with a retarder surface finish. Williams noted the legwork on that project took longer than usual, namely due to the need for custom tooling. Once those initial steps were taken, the rest of the job went smoothly.
“The finish was kind of ‘stony’ looking when it was completed, with the bullnose serving as an accent line on the building among all of the brick,” he said.
On another project, Oldcastle Precast constructed panels for a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs building in Montana. For that job, the company used precast panels with built-in reveals that blended with the brick structure. Williams said the tricky aspect of that project was manufacturing and shipping the panels in sequential order.
“We were making panels per location for that building, so we had to ship them in order and then have them mounted in the (right) places on the building,” he said.
Clamoring for precast
In assessing the growing demand for architectural precast and exterior finishes in today’s construction market, Williams said interest seems to be picking up as the economic climate improves.
“During the downturn, precast was sometimes removed for value engineering – particularly on the private side – but now we’re seeing it put back in,” he said. “Even on projects that could be poured on site, we’re seeing more and more customers asking for precast formliners and colored concrete in lieu of poured-in-place.”
As the precast concrete industry continues to evolve, advancements in technology will result in more architectural pieces being integrated into projects. Many of these products will likely be included in unexpected ways. No matter what the application, specifiers can count on precast solutions that are as pleasing to the eye and artistic as they are durable, resilient and easy to install.
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.
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