By Sara Geer
Around the world, the perception of what design embodies changes from place to place. Some architects and engineers envision their work as a way to bring you closer to nature or simplicity, some focus on the balance between form and function, and others see design as a tool to tell a bigger story. For this year’s international tour, we take you to four different countries to share how designers and manufacturers are working together to change the world’s landscape one project at a time with one extraordinary building material – precast concrete.
Concrete Sculpture in the Woods
Project: Project Zand
Location: Keerbergen, Belgium
Contractors: Built and Bouwcollectief
“Everything is possible” is the phrase a Belgian architecture firm used for its approach to a unique, custom house project where precast concrete served as the main exterior material. While other Belgian architects may have strayed away from building a prefabricated home, Silvia Mertens of sculp[IT] saw it as a fun challenge.
“Belgium is not really in the habit yet of doing prefabrication,” Mertens said. “You normally decide what you want on site, but with this project we had to prepare a lot before construction. That’s what makes this project unique.”
From initial design to finishing touches, the project took three years to complete. The main idea for the precast concrete single-family home built in Keerbergen, Belgium, was to create a house fully integrated into the environment. Surrounded by forests on all sides, the wall panels were designed to imitate the vertical lines and texture of the trees. The use of precast concrete also enabled the house to have limited structural joints. In addition, precast offered complete control of the manufacturing environment and finished product appearance.
“In Belgium, it rains a lot and is cold,” Mertens said. “We weren’t able to control the elements, so using precast concrete was very important.”
The architect ran multiple tests on the mix design before proceeding with production. Self-consolidating concrete with a slight gray color was used to pour each product. The mix design allows less moisture to absorb in the concrete and less heat to escape from the home.
Each exterior precast wall panel was cast in its own custom wood form to capture a wood texture. The panels provide an exterior contemporary look that is ageless and create a comfortable interior. The largest wall panel produced for the project weighs about 10 tons. Mertens said it may also be the largest residential precast wall panel ever made in Belgium.
“The reason we know the walls are watertight is because it took double the time to dry the building,” she said. “Normally, the moisture can escape through the façade, but it couldn’t here. The interior walls are also airtight to eliminate internal condensation buildup.”
Despite the extensive time spent on design and testing, precast concrete helped speed construction on site. All parties are happy with the final results, including the owners, who said it was a necessity to use concrete to display their love for the material.
Location: Turku Islands, Finland
Precaster: Betoniluoma Ltd.
Architect: Sigge Architects
Contractor: S. Tikakoski
Finland’s architecture is strongly influenced by classic Scandinavian design principles. Buildings, homes and decorative structures often highlight three main characteristics – simple, functional and affordable. Minimalism takes center stage in this type of architecture, and what better way to express that design style than to use natural materials such as wood, granite and concrete. The latter was the choice of Sigge Architects and homeowners Kari Leino and Anne-Maarit Alho-Leino for a one-of-a-kind, minimalistic Finnish villa on the Turku Islands.
The three-story home overlooks the Baltic Sea and is surrounded by beautiful forest scenery, which is visible on all four sides of the home. According to Pekka Mäki, the main partner at Sigge Architects, the project’s design first specified cast-in-place concrete, but the cost was almost double the original budget. The switch to precast met the home’s construction timeline and kept the budget in line. Also, the precast elements worked well with the interior and exterior wood accents, keeping Kari Leino’s love for robust materials and toned-down colors alive.
Betoniluoma Ltd., in Teuva, Finland, manufactured about 100 custom precast concrete elements used in the project. Products included sandwich panels, partition walls, stairs, and hollowcore slabs and beams. The production timeline was about one month.
“It’s a unique architectural precast private house,” said Mikko Torvela, deputy managing director of sales at Betoniluoma Ltd. “It was clear that this project was a special one since the main design vision was to have all precast concrete surfaces visible around the building.”
The architectural mix design used to pour the precast products includes a small addition of black pigment. Several precast concrete surface models were made to achieve the envisioned shade of gray. The precaster then casted each piece in plywood molds with plastic caps to match the interior wall pattern. The granite aggregate imported in the mix design came from the precaster’s own quarry.
The production staff’s favorite precast element is the sandwich panel façade that sits on a precast concrete “television stand” foundation.
“It provides a good example of how to integrate everyday technology with a minimalistic style,” Torvela said.
Some precast structures, along with some of the steel pieces incorporated in the house design, were pre-assembled in the plant prior to installation to maintain the construction timeline. Mäki said this was the first project the architecture firm designed where precast concrete was used as a visible material. After witnessing the successful completion and feeling satisfied with the project results, the firm is now using visible precast elements in additional architectural projects.
Retail with Style
Projects: Simons Galeries d’Anjou; Simons Park Royal
Locations: Montréal, Québec; West Vancouver, British Columbia
Precasters: Béton Préfabriqué du Lac (BPDL); Armtec
Architect: LEMAYMICHAUD Architecture Design
Contractors: Construction Albert Jean Itée and Structures Universelles Inc.; Bird Construction
Every well-known retail store has an iconic symbol or phrase. For Macy’s, it’s a red star. Target has the red bull’s-eye and Walmart has the slogan, “Save money. Live better.” To take it one step further, a Canadian retail company is also integrating a signature architectural look.
Headquartered in Québec, Canada, fashion retail chain La Maison Simons knows all too well the importance of making bold statements. The company has been selling popular high-quality fashion since 1840. So when company officials decided to expand the business in 2012, they turned to architecture firm LEMAYMICHAUD Architecture Design, who has worked with Simons for the past 30 years, to design a custom look for two new locations.
One store that is drawing a lot of attention – especially at night – is located at the Galeries d’Anjou shopping mall in Montréal. The building’s exterior is comprised of 138 precast concrete insulated wall panels manufactured by Béton Préfabriqué du Lac (BPDL). Each panel features close to 600 inset recesses with some panels housing fiber optics outfitted with colored disks. The 2,355 colored disks change over the course of the day from Simons’ branded green to a sparkling light.
Casting proved to be a challenge for BPDL on panels located around the store’s entrances. The depth and diameter of the recesses differed on a single row on each panel. Custom molds had to be fabricated to maintain distance consistency and often the molds were limited to one cast. Each panel is lightly sandblasted.
According to Phillipe Blais, architect with LEMAYMICHAUD, the vision was to create two perceptions of the store, casual during the day and chic at night. Precast concrete was the only material flexible enough to create this dazzling look.
“The use of precast concrete panels eliminated the need to create the building’s envelope on site; everything was done in the precast contractor’s plant in perfect weather conditions and the installation was completed in less than two months,” Blais said.
Another store designed by LEMAYMICHAUD Architecture Design, located at Park Royal Shopping Center in West Vancouver, B.C., also incorporates precast concrete to illustrate Simon’s role in providing affordable, high-quality fashion and the location’s historical significance. The 100,000-square-foot building is built on land owned by the Squamish Nation, an Indian Act government run by the descendants of the Coast Salish tribal group living in British Columbia. The 115 precast concrete insulated wall panels supplied and installed by Armtec pay homage to the Squamish Nation by incorporating a chevron-patterned texture similar to Salish blanket weaving.
“The material’s plasticity allowed us to play with textures and patterns,” Blais said. “The panels are installed like Salish blankets stacked on top of each other, sometimes vertical and sometimes horizontal.”
Ebrahim Moradi, P.Eng., senior sales engineer at Armtec in Richmond, B.C., said due to the size of the panels – 32 feet high by 11 feet wide – most were prestressed. The biggest challenge was installation since the job site allowed limited access for large cranes and trucks.
Both stores not only add more interest and sparkle to the Simons brand, they also show how precast concrete offers versatility and beauty to any building project. Two other Simons stores have also opened in Gatineau, Qué. and Mississauga, Ont.
The Dome of the Future
Project: Geelong Library and Heritage Center
Location: Geelong, Australia
Precaster: Asurco Contracting
Architect: ARM Architecture
Contractor: Kane Constructions
Mystery often provokes intrigue and the urge for answers. Similar to a mystery novel, architecture can also draw on the human sense of curiosity by using unknown shapes and designs on a building to create the intrigue. This was the response Geelong city officials wanted to provoke in the community when contacting ARM Architecture to design a new library and heritage center that has become a captivating landmark for the city.
The mystery is found in the building’s dome cladding, which the public likens to something from “Star Wars” or a soccer ball and often refers to as the big brain. The pentagonal or hexagonal panels manufactured and supplied by Asurco Contracting of Adelaide, Australia, form a geodesic dome and provide a distinctive aesthetic. During construction, the public was left to wonder what the unique building would house.
Des Pawelski, managing director of Asurco, said the dome is constructed of 332 large glass fiber reinforced precast concrete panels. The architect selected GFRC because the weight is 1/10 of the weight of standard precast concrete, but still retains the same enduring qualities.
Asurco cast the panels in custom-made forms and manufactured each piece with a secondary steel subframe that was bolted to the façade for additional structural support. In addition, a muted brown finish was applied to match the surrounding city buildings. The panel joints include a waterproof coating. Overall, the dome is considered a big success. Asurco is satisfied with how production interpreted the architect’s 3-D drawings and provided a well-engineered and designed product that met the recommended code.
The new building opened in late 2015 and the mystery behind the architecture was revealed as the community stepped through the doors to encounter a new love for learning. Ultimately, the Geelong Library and Heritage Center shows how public libraries and precast concrete are both relevant and enduring.
Sara Geer is NPCA’s internal communication and web manager, and is managing editor of Precast Inc.